What is a Career Counselor?

There are literally thousands of different careers available to Americans today – from retail sales, which the US Department of Labor says is the largest single employment category … to prosthodontics, the smallest category, with fewer than 500 professionals employed nationwide.

Each of those jobs have different paths to entry, different prospects and demands, and a lot of sub-specializations that can be adopted over the course of a long career.

All of this creates a demand for yet another kind of job: that of the career counselor. Keeping track of all those professions, their benefits, idiosyncrasies, and requirements, makes career counselors a valuable kind of consultant for any job-seeker in the country.

Career counselors assist others in making career decisions that best align with their talents, preferences, and personal needs.

Career counselors may also work under titles like:

  • Career Advisor
  • Job Coach
  • Career Specialist
  • Life Coach
  • Employee Assistance Program Counselor

Career Counselor Job Description

Career counselors typically work for schools or colleges, but may also be found in large private corporations. They can offer information to help students shape their educational path before they ever enter the job market to improve their chances of succeeding in their chosen career, or they might assist established professionals in making changes in their own career path to better align with changing experience and preferences.

Counselors are also critical in assisting individuals who have been fired or laid-off in finding ways to apply their experience and skills in a new field, or how to find re-training opportunities and assistance.

Career counselors spend a lot of one-on-one time with their clients, although they might also be called on to address larger groups and give presentations on the job market or certain professions and trends within it.

Counselors have to perform a lot of research in order to make sure the advice they give is correct. They might spend some parts of their day reading reports and news to keep up with the overall state of the job market, or researching in-depth on a specific position to identify opportunities for a particular client.

They might also help teach individuals or groups how to perform that research themselves, offering tips, tricks, and resources for exploring job and training opportunities. They also help teach resume writing and application letter writing techniques.

When working with an individual, a career counselor will also spend time gathering information about that person’s preferences, training, and experiences in order to help them identify the right career choices to make going forward. This can include administering tests, either individually or to groups, and interpreting the results.

In school, career counselors might focus more on helping students identify their aspirations and narrow down broader fields that can meet those goals. They can also spend a lot of time evaluating higher education institutions and degree options and helping students ensure they apply to and gain entry into a school that will give them the preparation they need. They’ll ensure that the student is taking courses that satisfy the entry requirements for those programs and taking on the extracurricular activities that admissions committees prefer.

Depending on the background of the student, a career counselor might also rely information from a functional behavior assessment (FBA) performed by an applied behavior analysis to better understand a student’s capabilities to perform in certain types of roles.

Some career counselors specialize in a particular field and the jobs available within it, such as medicine. They might work with a subset of individuals in those professions, helping them choose among residency options and in identifying and connecting with mentors. They might also arrange general career development opportunities, such as organizing conferences or presentations.

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How Career Counseling Intersects with Applied Behavior Analysis

Career counselors, and their clients, can benefit from some understanding of applied behavior analysis. Using ABA-techniques to conduct informal behavioral assessments, or coming up with ABA-driven behavioral incentive plans to help students or job-seekers make lifestyle or educational changes necessary to enter certain career paths is a powerful way to help clients get the jobs they want.

ABA also intersects with career counseling within large organizations which have adopted Organizational Behavior Management (OBM) plans designed by ABAs. They may play an important role in checklist or scientific management programs designed to keep the workforce functioning at its best.

How To Become a Career Counselor

You’ll have to be comfortable with people in this extremely social position. Dealing with individuals who are going through the kind of major life change that comes with a career transition requires sensitivity and empathy. It’s also helpful to be able to get people to open up to you about their hopes and dreams.

With about 1/3 of a person’s life spent on the job, it’s important to make sure there is a good fit to their personality and preferences. Encouraging people to talk about those realities is key to becoming a successful career counselor.

What Kind of Education Does a Career Counselor Need?

Most career counselors are expected to earn a master’s degree in a sociological, educational, or behavioral field. A master’s in school counseling (MSC) is usually preferred for school career counselors. Some private sector career counseling positions may require only a bachelor’s degree, however.

A master’s, on the other hand, offers you far more information and hones your communication and analytical skills to prepare you for the role of offering important, life-changing advice to clients. You’ll typically engage in research activities and undergo periods of supervised field work to give you direct experience working with clients before graduation.

No matter what degree you choose, you’ll want to make sure that you choose only programs that have been accredited by the relevant specialty accreditation agency, such as CACREP (The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs) for counseling degrees, or CSWE (Council on Social Work Education) for social work programs. Accreditors ensure that curriculum standards are up-to-date and in-line with the expectations of employers and regulatory boards.

Do I Need a License to Practice as a Career Counselor?

No state requires licensing for career counselors, but many individual positions may call specifically for certain licensed professionals, namely licensed social workers. This comes down to the requirements of particular employers, so keep in mind that becoming a social worker is not a matter of course if you want to land a job in career counseling.

Social work licenses are issued by the state you’ll be working in and typically require a master’s degree in the field, along with a battery of tests on both subject-specific and legal and ethical issues particular to the state.

Each state offers multiple levels of licensing, with entry-level license often available if you hold a bachelor’s degree, namely a bachelor’s in social work (BSW). Positions that involve working independently more often require a master’s in social work (MSW) and full authority social work licensure.

Is Certification Required to Become a Career Counselor?

Although certification is not usually required for career counseling, you might improve your prospects, and your knowledge and skills, by earning a national credential such as the Certified Career Counselor from the National Career Development Association.

National certification of this sort is completely voluntary and shouldn’t be confused with a mandatory state license.

Requiring an advanced degree in the field and at least 600 hours of clinical experience, or 60 hours of approved continuing education or an NCDA-approved career development course, the credential demonstrates your commitment to the field.

The Salary You Can Expect As a Career Counselor

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) bundles career counseling positions together with school counselors under the Educational, Guidance, and Career Counselors and Advisors heading. For 2021, median pay in that field was $60,510 per year, or $29.09 per hour. BLS expects the job category to grow at a faster rate than average, around 8 percent by 2028.

The highest paying industry is the elementary and secondary school market, which has a median annual wage of $70,790. Happily, that’s also the single largest industry hiring career counselors, with colleges coming in at number two. Overall, counselors in the top ten percent of the industry make more than $98,190.

Location can also make a big difference in salary levels, with California and New Jersey topping out the list for the highest paying states for career counselors, both with average annual salaries over $76,000. In terms of the top-paying metropolitan areas, the Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario region is the best in the nation, with an annual mean wage of $91,540.

Whether you work in the public or private sector, as long as people need jobs, you’ll have a job as a career counselor.

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2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Educational, Guidance, and Career Counselors and Advisors reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed January 2023.