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Rehabilitation Counselor Career Guide

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that there are 119,700 rehabilitation counselors working in the US.1 Rehabilitation counselors help their clients adapt to disabilities in order to live as independently as possible. Their work touches on the physical, social, and mental health aspects of living with disabilities. Rehabilitation counselors most frequently work in community and vocational rehabilitation services facilities, with 30% of counselors reporting that their work environment fits in this category.1 Other common work settings include individual and family services (18%), state government (13%), nursing and residential care facilities (12%), and self-employment (8%).1 In this guide, you will learn more about rehabilitation counseling careers including how to become a rehabilitation counselor, typical requirements, and the career and salary outlook for rehabilitation counselors.

What Does a Rehabilitation Counselor Do?

Rehabilitation counselors work with individuals who have physical, social, emotional, mental health, and related disabilities or challenges in order to assist those individuals in living a full life with the greatest degree of independence possible. The types of disabilities and adaptations that rehab counselors encounter in their daily work are broad. They may work with clients who have physical or motor challenges, mental health challenges, or other developmental challenges such as social or emotional regulation disorders. In many cases, the clients a rehabilitation counselor sees will have challenges from more than one of these categories.

Rehabilitation counselors and vocational rehabilitation counselors perform many of the same duties and the terms are often used interchangeably. However, vocational rehabilitation counseling is a very specific sub-category of rehabilitation counseling. Vocational rehabilitation counselors specifically work with those who need help acquiring work, adapting occupational disabilities to their work, and/or physical rehabilitation in order to return to work. Rehabilitation counselors do provide work-related services but also work with adaptations beyond the work environment.

Rehabilitation Counselor Requirements and Common Tasks

In some states, rehabilitation counselors are required to be licensed similarly to (or the same as) mental health counselors, which requires a master’s degree. In others, certain roles may only require an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Many states have exceptions or different rules for licensing for vocational rehabilitation counselors, who have a different scope of practice which does not typically include diagnosis and assessment (unless properly licensed). There are many rehabilitation counseling programs that offer specific preparation for this career path. Be sure to check with your state’s counselor licensing board for exact requirements.

In order to determine which type(s) of counseling and rehabilitation services are required, rehab counselors must assess their clients’ disabilities and functioning both at intake and on an ongoing basis in order to adjust the counseling provided. Documenting client outcomes is a significant responsibility in rehabilitation counseling. Rehabilitation counselors typically spend much of their time working one-on-one with clients, but may also provide group counseling. Rehabilitation therapists also refer clients to other mental health and disability professionals, such as psychologists and medical doctors. Because they must be available when their clients are available, rehabilitation counselors may work evenings and/or weekends.

Like other counseling professionals, rehabilitation counselors will also devote part of their time to continuing education. Ongoing professional development helps counselors stay up-to-date on best practices, new technology, and other important aspects of counseling care. In many states, continuing education is also a requirement to renew a counseling license.

How to Become a Rehabilitation Counselor

Rehabilitation counselors work in a position of trust, which carries great responsibility. All 50 states and Washington DC have licensing guidelines for rehabilitation counselors and mental health professionals. In most states, you will need to earn a master’s degree and become professionally licensed in order to work as a rehabilitation counselor. To become a rehabilitation counselor, you will therefore need to:

  1. Earn a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling or a closely-related field such as mental health counseling that will fulfill state licensing requirements.
  2. Complete one to three years of supervised experience (typically paid), in accordance with your state’s licensing guidelines.
  3. Take any professional exam(s) required for counselor licensure.
  4. Apply for your rehabilitation counselor or mental health counselor license.
  5. Begin applying for rehabilitation counseling jobs.

Rehabilitation counselors may work under various titles. Rehabilitation counselor (RC) is a common job title, but for licensing, license titles such as Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) and Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) are common. You may also see such license and job titles as Licensed Professional Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor (LPVRC), Occupational Therapist (OT), Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor (VRC), and Professional Clinical Mental Health Counselor (LPCC).

Rehabilitation Counselor Education and Job Training

In most states, a master’s degree is the minimum educational requirement to work as a rehabilitation counselor. Some, but not all, states may allow vocational rehabilitation counseling practice with a lower-level degree. You may also be able to work in support roles without becoming licensed as a mental health or rehabilitation counselor as long as you are supervised by a licensed practitioner. This will typically involve a restricted scope of practice that excludes the ability to diagnose or assess clients.

There are numerous counseling programs that include an emphasis on rehabilitation counseling. You may begin your path to this career with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in rehabilitation counseling or a related field, such as human services, psychology, or social work. Earning your undergraduate degree can qualify you for support roles in rehabilitation counseling as well as prepare you for the work required to earn a master’s degree in counseling. In addition to traditional campus-based programs, there are online master’s in rehabilitation counseling programs that can make it easier to continue working while you study. Be sure to check your state’s licensing requirements before committing to a program.

Rehabilitation Counseling Careers by Degree Level

To help you understand opportunities with different degrees, we compiled the following table of common jobs for each rehabilitation counselor degree level. Understand that licensing rules vary widely by state and rehabilitation counseling role, and a given state may have different expectations for counselor licensure. In addition to differences between states, there are also differences between how employers may define a particular role. Keeping these factors in mind, this table is a general outline of common degree requirements associated with each role.

Job TitleAssociate’s Degree Commonly RequiredBachelor’s Degree Commonly RequiredMaster’s Degree Commonly RequiredPhD Commonly Required
Behavioral Health TechnicianYes
Counselor AideYes
Crisis Specialist or TechnicianYes
Department ChairYes
Emergency Services CounselorYes
Health EducatorYes
Human Services WorkerYes
Intake Counselor or ClinicianYes
Juvenile Rehabilitation CounselorYes
Licensed Mental Health CounselorYes
Mental Health Care AssociateYes
Program ManagerYes
Professional CounselorYes
ProfessorYes
Rehabilitation CounselorYes
Rehabilitation TechnicianYes
Research AssistantYes
ResearcherYes
Residential Counselor (Paraprofessional)Yes
Residential ManagerYes
Social Rehabilitation CounselorYes
TherapistYes
Vocational Rehabilitation CounselorYes
Youth Rehabilitation CounselorYes

Rehabilitation Counselor Salary and Job Outlook

The average annual rehabilitation counselor salary in the US is $35,630 per year.1 The highest number of rehabilitation counselors work in California (15,270), followed by New York (9,720), Pennsylvania (7,110), Massachusetts (6,310), and Ohio (5,320).2 Rehabilitation counselors in New Jersey have the highest annual salary on average, at $65,350.2 Other states with a high average rehabilitation counselor salary are Alaska ($60,900), Rhode Island ($57,430), Colorado ($52,620), and Maine ($50,860).2

Demand for rehab counselors is expected to lead to 10% job growth through 2028 (higher than the national average), equating to 11,800 new jobs added during this time period.1 Job growth will be supported by the aging population of the US, as the elderly are more likely to become injured.2 Demand will also be driven by military veterans returning from duty and reintegrating into civilian life.2

Additional Resources

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a typical rehabilitation counselor job description?

While there can be large differences in rehabilitation counselor job descriptions from job to job and employer to employer, rehabilitation counselors do share commonalities that will generally be applicable to the role. They work with individuals who have physical, mental, social, or other disabilities in order to help those individuals adapt to their challenges and improve their personal well-being. They build rehabilitation plans for clients that address their strengths and their disabilities.

What is rehabilitation counseling?

Rehabilitation counseling is the practice of helping clients overcome disabilities and related challenges. Rehabilitation counseling most often takes place in dedicated rehabilitation facilities but can also take place in hospitals, nursing and residential care facilities, and private offices.

What is a vocational rehabilitation counselor and what does a vocational rehabilitation counselor do?

Vocational rehabilitation counselors work to address disabilities that are related to a client’s work. Such disabilities may be caused by a work-related accident, but not always; vocational rehabilitation counseling also includes disabilities and challenges clients were born with or developed outside of the work environment that must be addressed in order to find and maintain meaningful work. Vocational rehabilitation counselors therefore do may of the same tasks as rehabilitation counselors. However, their tasks are specifically focused on work-related issues.

How do you become a vocational rehabilitation counselor?

The steps to become a vocational rehabilitation counselor vary by state. In some states, vocational rehabilitation counselors must be licensed the same as or similarly to rehabilitation counselors. In others, vocational rehabilitation counselors may be exempted from licensure, but have a reduced scope of practice. This means that to become a vocational rehabilitation counselor, you may need an associate’s, bachelor’s, and/or master’s degree, depending on your state’s requirements.

What is the difference between vocational rehabilitation counseling and vocational counseling?

While they sound similar, vocational rehabilitation counseling and vocational counseling are quite different. Vocational rehabilitation counseling is the practice of helping people with disabilities address those disabilities in order to work. Vocational counseling is the practice of helping people plan and pursue careers. While vocational counselors may work with people who have disabilities, it is more likely to find them working with people who need guidance on career planning. Licensing is also different between the two fields. Where licensure is required, vocational rehabilitation counselors will usually be licensed as rehabilitation counselors or mental health counselors, whereas vocational counselors will typically be licensed as school counselors.

What is the average vocational rehabilitation counselor salary?

The BLS does not break out vocational rehabilitation counselors from rehabilitation counselors, who make an average annual salary of $35,630 per year.1

Where can I find vocational rehabilitation counselor jobs?

Vocational rehabilitation counselor jobs can be found in many of the same environments as rehabilitation counselor jobs, including private practices, hospitals, governmental departments of labor, and residential care facilities. Visit our jobs board for daily updates on available jobs in this field.

References:
1. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Rehabilitation Counselors:
https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/rehabilitation-counselors.htm
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment and Wages, Rehabilitation Counselors: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes211015.htm