What is a Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor?

Work is a central concern for most Americans over the age of 18 and under 65. It’s the source of income needed for all of life’s necessities, and usually the sole provider of health insurance and the primary path to a safe and comfortable retirement. It’s also a source of satisfaction and personal identity… people seek careers they enjoy and find fulfilling.

So when people can’t work, due to injury or disability, it’s a devastating circumstance. But there’s good news even for people that find themselves in this situation – in a lot of cases, either the employer or state department of health and human services will retain the services of an experienced vocational rehabilitation counselor (VRCs) ready to help out.

Applied behavior analysis is an increasingly useful tool in the VRC toolbox for both evaluating and rehabilitating clients. Evidence-based practices for counselors have become more and more widely supported in the vocational rehab community, including behavioral activation and mindfulness-based interventions.

VRCs (or “vocs,” as they are called in the industry) help people get back to work—either to their original role if possible, or, with assistance and retraining, into a new and fulfilling career if necessary.

Waves of high school graduates with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) diagnoses have forced vocs to become more familiar with functional behavior assessments, a traditional ABA evaluation process widely used in ASD treatment, and made them more familiar with the kinds of behavioral therapies useful in both ASD and other disabilities.

Even more integration with ABA is on the horizon for VRCs, as the industry recognizes that offering behavioral supports for injured workers can address many of the traditional issues with rehabbing them.

Whether incorporating principles of ABA or not, there’s a certain amount of creativity required in the VRC role. Every person is different, and a good voc has to get to know their clients deeply to understand their abilities, limitations, and preferences.

They also have to have a firm underlying knowledge of local and national job market trends and re-training and rehabilitation options. Making the right match and pulling together the right resources is a win for a VRC and their client.

What Does a VRC Do? – Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor Job Description

VRCs function as both case manager and counselor for a set of clients as assigned by their employer, which may be a government agency or a private corporation. They maintain files, coordinate with insurance case managers, medical professionals, therapists, and employers regarding treatment and placement for their clients.

Some VRCs work in education, primarily focused on students with disabilities who are likely to need transitional career assistance after graduation.

Almost every client engagement starts with an evaluation. While the VRC will make some assessments independently, they rely in large part on reports from employers, medical professionals, or other specialized therapists in determining the client’s current capacities, as well as their likely eventual capacity for work.

With that information in hand, and together with the client, the VRC will create an individual plan for employment (IPE), detailing steps and goals for the client. The plan usually includes training and therapies, which the VRC may schedule or arrange referrals for.

Vocs also work with families and clients to put support systems in place for their employment goals, and line up interviews and opportunities with potential employers.

Navigating the various insurance and support systems for injured or disabled workers and meeting their differing requirements for documentation and retraining is challenging, so many VRCs specialize within the field in dealing with certain types of claims, such as those filed with state departments of labor, or those made under the Defense Base Act for overseas workers.

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How To Become a Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor

Becoming a VRC requires both a master’s degree and experience, and, for most roles, a certification from a recognized national certifying body.

The most common national certification we find listed for VRC jobs is the CRC (Certified Rehabilitation Counselor) through the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification (CRCC). This credential requires at least a master’s degree, so you will need to chart your educational course carefully to make sure you are fully prepared for a VRC position.

What Are the Education Requirements to Become a Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor?

You’ll need a minimum of at least a bachelor’s degree in a social-service related field to become a VRC, but a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling is usually preferred. Degrees in psychology, human services, or a related field are also accepted.

Going to the master’s level gives you many advantages over earning a bachelor’s degree. For starters, master’s holders do not typically need to have as much employment experience in the field as those with only a bachelor’s degree. The extra field experience earned in a master’s program as well as the more in-depth knowledge of vocational and behavioral training practices, such as multicultural rehab counseling and group counseling techniques, will make you a more capable candidate.

Choosing a fully accredited program is vital regardless of your degree path. Rehabilitation counseling programs are accredited by CACREP, the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs.

Increasingly, VRC positions are looking for candidates with foreign language skills, so a minor or some studies in Spanish or other languages that are common with the population in your area can be beneficial.

Do You Need a License or Certification to Become a Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor?

Yes – you do need a state-issued Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) credential. State requirements for LPC licenses vary, but all include both extensive supervised experience and passage of the National Counselor Exam or a similar test.

Some states recognize the national CRC (Certified Rehabilitation Counselor) credential and will grant you state licensure if you hold it.

Some states or insurers may also require that you register as an approved provider with the relevant state agency, like the Department of Labor, in order to bill for services.

Aside from state requirements, most all VRC positions will either require you to have, or to earn soon after applying, a professional certification like the Certified Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC) credential from the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification (CRCC), or the Certified Disability Management Specialist (CDMS) credential.

You’ll need at least a master’s degree for a CRC, while the CDMS is open to candidates with a bachelor’s degree. CDMS has an experience requirement of 2,080 hours of documented work practice in relevant domains, while the CRC is exam-based.

Should You Earn a BCBA To Become a Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor?

Although the role of behavioral therapy is important in vocational rehab, it’s not usually the central focus of VRCs, so becoming a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) credential has not typically been a goal. It’s also been tough for vocs to achieve, since the educational requirements for a BCBA have meant earning a master’s in behavior analysis, education, or psychology, which many vocs have not done.

Two factors may be changing that, however.

One, as of 2022, the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) will begin accepting applications from candidates with any sort of master’s degree so long as they meet both a supervised fieldwork requirement and have at least 315 hours of graduate coursework in a Verified Course Sequence (VCS) as outlined by the ABAI (Association for Behavioral Analysis International). Numerous post-graduate certificate programs offer that education.

Two, particularly in educational circles, vocational rehabilitation and ABA are becoming more tightly integrated. The outbreak of ASD and the need to begin vocational training prior to ASD and other disabled students graduating has created a specialized intersection where being a voc with a BCBA could become important. In Texas, the state Workforce Commission already recognizes a specialized autism endorsement for providers with specialized behavioral training, for instance.

What Kind of Salary Can I Make as A Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor?

VRCs are tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics under the category of Rehabilitation Counselor. For 2021, BLS found that the median pay for those workers was $38,560 per year, or $18.54 per hour, while the growth rate for the profession was expected to hit ten percent between 2018 and 2028, faster than the average job in the U.S.

Vocs working in the top ten percent of the profession could expect much better pay, however, reaching $65,880 annually. Pay rates nationally are also higher for those at Insurance Carriers, hitting $72,380 at the median, and those working for Agencies, Brokerages, and Other Insurance Related Activities, who made $72,130.

Location is also a factor in VRC salaries. Maine and New Jersey were the top-paying states for rehabilitation counselors, each offering a mean annual wage of over $71,000 per year. And in terms of metropolitan areas with the best salary, the top five were:

  • Portland (also includes South Portland), ME – $94,340
  • Atlantic City (also includes Hammonton), NJ – $73,140
  • Olympia (also includes Tumwater), WA – $59,970
  • Utica (also includes Rome), NY – $58,950
  • Akron, OH – $58,610

Typically, getting a better education, more experience, and the right industry credentials will all lead to better pay as a vocational rehabilitation counselor.

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