AA Therapist Careers: Careers, Salary Info & Job Description

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What are the pros and cons of a substance abuse counselor career? Get real job descriptions, career outlook and salary info to see if becoming a substance abuse counselor is right for you.
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Substance Abuse Counselor Careers: Pros and Cons

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) doesn't employ therapists; individuals who have gone through the program serve as counselors for other members. Alcohol or substance abuse counselors offer services (outside of the AA) to individuals who have addictions to alcohol and other harmful substances.. Continue reading the following pros and cons to learn more.

Pros of Becoming a Substance Abuse Counselor
Faster-than-average job growth projected (22% from 2014-2024)*
Some employers require only a high school diploma*
Multiple work setting options (hospitals, outpatient centers, government agencies, etc.)*
Ability to help people overcome debilitating addictions*

Cons of Becoming a Substance Abuse Counselor
Low earning potential ($41,870 average salary as of May 2014)*
Can be a high stress job*
Large workload, minimal resources*
Possible exposure to irrational, violent or hostile clients*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Career Information

Job Description and Duties

As a counselor, your main job duty is to assist your clients with ending their reliance on alcohol or other harmful and addictive substances. You'll evaluate clients to determine the best course of action to use when working with them. You'll introduce them to resources and coping methods that can help them to identify why they abuse alcohol or drugs and work together to develop a plan that can help keep them on track. You may also work with clients' families and with other professionals, such as psychiatrists or social workers. In some settings, you may work with the courts or probation system.

Work Environment

Substance abuse counselors work in a variety of settings, including residential treatment centers, juvenile detention facilities, halfway houses and in private practice. Typically, you'll work indoors and have a fairly normal 40-hour week, but some night and weekend hours may be required.

Job Growth and Salary

The BLS projected a 22% increase in jobs for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors from 2014-2024. The expected growth is largely attributed to a larger number of people seeking services and an increase in the number of people being sentenced to substance abuse counseling through the criminal justice system. The requirement for insurance providers to provide mental health care under the new healthcare law also should show increased growth.

In May 2014, the BLS reported a mean annual wage for substance abuse and behavioral disorder counselors of $41,870. The lowest-paid 10% earned around $25,310, while the highest-paid 10% earned just over $61,420.

Career Skills and Requirements

Some employers will hire you to work as a counselor with just a high school diploma; others may require a bachelor's or master's degree. The required education is largely based on the type of employer, your job duties and state regulations. If you plan to work in your own practice, you will need a license in all states, which does require a master's degree. In other work settings, your state may require a license or have other requirements that you must meet, such as certification. Skills and qualities that are helpful in this line of work include:

  • Compassionate nature
  • Patience
  • Good listening skills
  • Ability to work in coordination with others
  • Effective communication skills

Job Postings from Real Employers

Employers often prefer candidates to have experience in the field and/or a college degree. Bilingual skills are often an asset. The following are some job postings from April 2012:

  • A non-profit organization in Philadelphia, PA, was seeking a counselor to work with individuals and groups in an outpatient setting. Bilingual skills and a bachelor's degree in a field related to counseling or social work was preferred, and at least one year of related counseling experience was required.
  • A city health department in Columbus, OH, was hiring someone with at least two years of experience in the field and a willingness to work weekends.
  • A New York healthcare provider wanted to hire a certified counselor who also speaks Spanish.

How to Get an Edge in the Field

You may be able to improve your chances of securing a job and make yourself stand out from the competition through gaining work experience or earning a higher degree. The BLS points out that the more educated you are, the more complex services you can offer to clients and the less supervision you need while working. Work experience may be gained through volunteering or working in other positions within substance abuse facilities. Extra skills, such as speaking a second language, are also valuable in this field, and letting employers know about them upfront can help you when job hunting.


Some employers may prefer to hire counselors that are certified. According to the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC), a non-profit credentialing organization, attaining the National Counselor Certification (NCC) with a specialty in addictions can show that you have met the standards of the counseling profession, and in some states, the certification can assist you in obtaining licensure. Certification through the NBCC is valid across states. To earn the certification, you need a master's degree and must meet experience requirements. You must also pass the NCC exam.

Other Careers to Consider

Rehabilitation Counselor

If you like counseling but want to work with a range of client issues, including job issues or disabilities, you might consider a career as a rehabilitation counselor. Rehabilitation counselors help people who suffer from emotional or physical disabilities. Your job duties would vary and could include arranging for career counseling or medical care, providing group counseling or advocating for the rights of disabled people. The BLS notes that you can find jobs that require only a bachelor's degree in disability studies, though a master's degree is more often the minimum education requirement. While some employers prefer licensed candidates, many hire people without licenses. The BLS projected a 28% job growth for 2010-2020 and reported a mean annual wage of around $37,000 for these professionals as of May 2011.

Social Worker

If you're interested in working with a wide range of populations and situations, consider becoming a social worker. In this job you could help people adopt children, counsel people on addiction or other issues or help people with disabilities. You can become a social worker with just a bachelor's degree. If you want to become a clinical social worker in private or group practice, you'll need a master's degree and licensure. You can specialize in a variety of areas, such as school, child and family, gerontological or substance abuse social work. The BLS projected a 25% growth in employment for all social workers for the 2010-2020 decade. It reported 2011 mean annual wages of $43,000 for substance abuse and mental health social workers, $44,500 for child and school social workers, $50,500 for healthcare social workers and $54,000 for all others.

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