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Jul172010

Experience before job: A chicken-and-egg dilemma

Graduates often face compromise in the quest to land their first counseling job

By Stacy Notaras Murphy

Summer Reiner’s first job after graduating with a master’s degree in school counseling was as a bank teller. Initially she viewed her $7-per-hour position as a reasonable way to bide her time while looking for a counseling job in her school district in western New York. Soon, however, she realized that her dream job might not be just around the corner.

“What you find there is that school districts do not hire people who have not worked as school counselors and been paid for that work,” Reiner explains. “You usually won’t even get an interview. Most of us simply were unable to get interviews for local jobs.”

Recent graduates of school and mental health counseling programs can face tough odds when trying to land that crucial first position after completing their master’s degrees. Some of the field’s newest members find that the chicken-and-egg analogy fits their dilemma all too well: You can’t get a counseling job without experience, and you can’t get experience without a job.

David Kaplan, chief professional officer for the American Counseling Association and past chair of the Department of Counselor Education and Rehabilitation Programs at Emporia State University in Emporia, Kan., describes this situation as a burgeoning crisis. “This is something that really needs to be addressed by the profession,” he says. “I just saw too many students who couldn’t get an entry-level job and were told, ‘Come back when you’re licensed.’ But they couldn’t find a job that would have them engaging in activities that would lead to licensure. In some cases it meant that they would take a job for a few years at a halfway house, put that in and pay for their supervision. But to take a job there when what you really want to do is work in a mental health agency (is frustrating). … Our graduates should not have to negotiate for pay cuts because they’re not licensed. They’ve gone through too much and are too well-qualified to have to do that.”

Complex compromises

When Josh Riley began looking for work, he quickly realized that securing the “perfect job” might be difficult without his license. His wish list included living in his chosen city, serving his preferred client population and bringing in a high-level salary. By securing a job as an addictions specialist with the Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington, D.C., Riley reached two of his three post-graduate goals.

“As it turns out, the pay really isn’t enough to service my loans, so I am deferring some of them and concentrating on my higher-interest debt first,” says Riley, an ACA member who graduated with his master’s degree last May. “But it was important enough for me to have a job that I really cared about, with an organization I really believed in, working with a population that I really wanted to work with. That drove my search more than the financial consideration. However, it’s now very stressful to have as much debt as I do, making what I make. But I also see this as kind of a steppingstone. In that way, I am getting great supervised experience that’s going to go toward my licensure. So there’s a trade-off there.”

Riley accepted the opportunity of being hired by his former internship site, a bonus that many veteran counselors say students ought to consider, even when selecting an internship while in school. “Because it was at my internship site, I felt like I had a foot in the door,” Riley says. “They actually asked me if I was interested in applying for the job.”

He adds that the yearlong internship experience built up his confidence about the work he is doing, making the transition to full-time work much more comfortable. “In terms of competence, I really feel like I’m doing the job well,” he says. “I feel like I have an advantage working for an agency because it’s a bigger place to draw clients from, and I’m getting supervision. I see those as real benefits in spite of the salary. I’m willing to make that trade-off for the experience and the hours that I am accruing.”

Compromise is often a necessity for new counseling grads. “I hated every minute of my job search,” laughs Anna Dyess, an ACA member who graduated with a master’s degree in counseling last spring. Yet she notes that her career development coursework helped ease the job search process. “My coursework really prepared me to do some of those things I wouldn’t have done too rapidly on my own,” she says. “For example, my résumé was in good shape, my cover letters were in a great format, I had many ideas of what I was looking for in a position. Ultimately, it came down to trying to decide what job was the best fit for me. The toughest part was balancing the pros and cons to make that final decision.”

“Being unlicensed changes what’s available to you,” she concedes. “You begin your search thinking about the clients you’d like to work with, but you end by realizing that you really are just looking for a job that will help you get licensure.” Still, Dyess knew that choosing the right entry-level position with a larger health care organization might help her move toward her long-term goal of working in palliative care.

After securing several informational interviews, Dyess applied for 10 solid leads and had three formal interviews. Eventually, the CareerBuilder.com site introduced her to the organization that would become her employer. She has been working as an evaluations specialist and therapist for the Lakeview Center in Pensacola, Fla., since September.

Dyess used the Internet almost exclusively in her job search. She recalls the complex undertaking of using various phrases in hopes of locating appropriate positions. “Every site uses a different keyword for counseling – mental health counselor, mental counselor, therapist, psychology field,” she says. “Narrowing that down to something that’s just for my degree would have been enormously helpful.” (Note: A new service from the ACA Career Center should now help eliminate such needle-in-a-haystack searches. A partnership between ACA and CareerBuilder.com has resulted in the ACA Job Center webpage, where ACA members can search prefiltered specialty positions for both master’s- and doctoral-level positions within the counseling profession. Members can access the resource by going to www.counseling.org and clicking on “Career Center.” From there, look for the ACA Job Center logo on the left-hand side of the page.)

Dyess reminds herself that working toward licensure is worth the compromise of bringing home a lower salary. “I knew that what was available to nonlicensed, master’s-level graduates is not the job you dream of,” she says. “Instead, the decision becomes what job do I get that will help me get to the job I dream of?” Dyess notes that her current position offers a one-stop-shop approach to working toward her licensure hours. “They are willing to provide supervision and are willing to support me in that process,” she explains. “Their benefits package was great, and the organization is a large, well-known name in the area. I know that it is recognizable and lots of people have started there.”

Backdoor options

Creativity often is the key to getting a foot in the door. Reiner quickly decided that she’d rather follow her dream of working with children in schools than living the life of a bank teller. After widening her geographical requirements, she soon found a good position in Maryland that would give her the experience required by employers in her home state of New York. “Fortunately, my husband was willing to quit his job (and) move to Maryland. We lived with my aunt and uncle for a year and a half, all so I could get my foot in the door,” she says.

When Reiner returned to western New York, she sent out several résumés, waited and soon had several interviews. “I tried to look at (moving) like it was opening doors to new experiences,” she says. “When we went down to Maryland, it was something we enjoyed, but I felt guilty about having my husband move. If we didn’t have housing, or if we’d had children, that probably wouldn’t have worked for us. I would probably still be a bank teller.” Reiner, an ACA member, is now a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Connecticut.

Living in an area with a saturated school counselor market meant Reiner had to think differently about obtaining the right kind of experience. She says several of her friends from western New York either moved or found jobs with mental health agencies, despite their education in school counseling. A large group of Reiner’s fellow alumni were recruited and relocated to Las Vegas, where the applicant pool for school counselors was dwindling. Taking steps to research alternative locations may help new counseling graduates secure better positions.

While the market for school counselors may be tight in western New York, the opposite is happening in Alabama. There, mental health graduates are filling some school counseling jobs when they can’t find appropriate positions elsewhere. Stephanie Puleo, an ACA member who is the counseling program coordinator and CACREP liaison at the University of Montevallo in Montevallo, Ala., notes that many of the school’s graduates are having trouble finding adequate entry-level jobs.

“Some are kind of going around the state certification process for school counselors,” Puleo says, “coming in the back door to that avenue even though they’re not specifically trained as school counselors. Obviously they don’t need the (licensed professional counselor) credentialing to get those jobs, (but it) is a scary kind of thing that they’re not trained as school counselors.”

Even school counseling jobs are few and far between in her state, Puleo concedes. But “when the applicant pool of qualified school counselors is exhausted, they will turn to people who have degrees in community counseling or even marriage and family for that matter,” she notes. “Some of our students know that is going to happen, so they take the school counseling courses as electives, but they … haven’t had practicum and internship experiences in schools.”

Meanwhile, other Montevallo students are accepting lower-level jobs to get by while looking for better positions. “Many of our students end up taking bachelor’s-level jobs at nonprofit agencies until they can get enough work experience and enough supervision to pursue licensure,” Puleo says. “When we do our follow-up surveys, they come back statistically looking like everybody is getting jobs, but they’re certainly not getting jobs that they’re the most qualified for.

“I think what’s happening in the field is that the so-called ‘entry-level’ jobs are really not entry level at all. When advertising for a job at the master’s level, employers are actually looking for people who are fully licensed. You can’t get fully licensed right out of school, and so those are not really entry-level jobs.”

Victims of our own success?

Considering the long road the counseling profession has traveled to insist on licensure from its membership, the current conundrum begs the question: Are we victims of our own success?

Prior to 1976, counseling graduates didn’t face as many hurdles in finding a job, as supervision hours and licensure were not yet requisite. But after years of hard work, 48 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico all have licensure mandates. While that has helped raise the profile of the counseling profession, the flipside is that mental health centers now seek the insurance reimbursement benefits of licensure. Given the choice of hiring an unlicensed graduate or someone who can bill insurance from their first day, the potential discrimination makes sense.

“I strongly believe that the licensure laws are in place to protect the public, so I wouldn’t want to see the licensure laws changed,” Puleo says. “What I would want to see is the employers becoming more educated and more flexible. My position always goes back to advocacy. I’m not comfortable calling ourselves ‘victims.’ We’ve advocated all these years for our place in the market. I think we need to focus our advocacy efforts on educating people about the purpose of licensure and what that means, how it works in different states and so forth. Whether you’re the student or the counselor educator or not, I think we all have an advocacy role to play.”

Puleo puts much of the responsibility for educating potential employers on the graduate school programs themselves. “It really is grassroots,” she says. “A lot of it begins with the places the schools select to be part of their internship and practicum sites. You start there by educating those people, because they’re going to have to be partners with the institutions as far as supervising students. As the pre-master’s students are in the field, they can begin advocating with the other agencies they network with. I really think the institutions can be instrumental as we create partnerships with onsite supervisors.”

Puleo notes that the University of Montevallo is working to reach out to organizations that could hire its students, advocating for them to be accepted into the same applicant pool as those who have other mental health degrees. “We try to educate those employers about the licensure process,” she says. “Alabama first got licensure in 1979, and the requirements have changed over the years. It used to be an easier process with a lot of flexibility. Now it’s become very rigid, with a two-year process requiring 3,000 hours of licensed supervision, during which you are an ‘associate licensed counselor.’ Many employers are looking for fully licensed individuals, but they’re only willing to pay very low entry-level salaries, not realizing that 3,000-hour difference.”

“We’re advocating and teaching the students to advocate for themselves in terms of educating employers,” she continues. “In Alabama, you can’t become an associate licensed counselor without having a job first. That’s the vicious cycle: They can’t get a job until they’re licensed, and they can’t get licensed until they have a job. As a result, they’re taking jobs for which they probably would have been qualified at the bachelor’s level just to get a foot in the door.”

Some veteran counselor educators also are calling on their already-established colleagues to remember back to the days when they were new graduates and to get involved in advocating for counseling’s next generations. Pat Schwallie-Giddis, a former acting executive director of ACA who is the director of graduate programs in counseling/human organizational studies at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., notes that the benefits of mentoring and supervision go both ways. As a past president of the D.C. Mental Health Counselors Association, she has seen many of her colleagues offer reduced-rate supervision fees to new graduates.

“It has become a problem where recent graduates are having difficulty finding somebody at their work site — it may not be included in their employment agreements — and it’s costly to pay for somebody to supervise them,” Schwallie-Giddis says. “We ought to encourage other potential supervisors to join organizations and get their names out in this manner.” She notes that the networking experience may benefit both supervisors and supervisees.

Patience and preparation

Despite the challenges, counselor educators encourage new graduates to be patient and imaginative when considering their options. Many new graduates report the “ego-blow” of discovering that the available entry-level jobs may not even require a master’s degree. But others suggest that even bachelor’s-level positions can offer good information and experience, as well as prelicensure hours. Many of these jobs include a variety of supervision opportunities at no extra charge as an employment benefit. They also offer the chance to learn more about an organization before applying for a higher position. The organization gets to know the new employee, while the new employee gathers a lot of information that may help secure a better job.

Some counselor educators recommend that current students consider additional course work (particularly course work that is required for licensure) to make themselves more attractive to future employers. Allen Wilcoxon, an ACA member who is a counselor educator at the University of Alabama, notes that his program has witnessed agencies hiring students based on their licensure eligibility upon graduation.

“In our state, graduation from a CACREP-accredited program ensures the licensure applicant meets the academic requirements for licensure,” he says. “Further, many of our graduating students take the (National Counselor Examination) during their final semester of study. Additionally, we strongly encourage our pending graduates to complete as much of the licensure application as possible to expedite their submission and review. To a prospective employer, a graduate from a CACREP program with a high rate of success on the NCE — sometimes with a passing score in hand — and a submitted application for licensure presents a good situation for employment, though that employment is often with the stipulation of licensure within a very brief period of time.”

Meanwhile, it’s never too soon to get involved with the larger counseling community. Schwallie-Giddis advises her students to seek out professional and mentoring relationships as soon as possible. “When they join the local mental health association or ACA, they immediately have more access to resources than they would otherwise,” she explains. “I suggest that they do some networking (and) find someone who would be willing to mentor them.”

Reiner agrees that mentoring is an invaluable resource. “School counselor mentors also provide an opportunity for new grads to expand their network, which hopefully would result in greater job opportunities,” she says. “As employed school counselors get to know (new graduates) and their commitment to the profession, they could share this information with hiring principals (or) possibly even introduce the student to the principal.”

Dyess adds that being up-front about employment aspirations, even with those outside the counseling field, may help graduate students and new professionals build a more effective network for finding the right job. “The best resources you have are the people around you,” she advises. “The really great leads I got were from people who knew people. I found out about this job and interviewed with this woman because she’s a friend of my stepmother’s mother. Talk about six degrees of separation! People are very helpful if you’re willing to ask.”

“If you can somehow connect yourself to someone else, you can advance,” Dyess says. “I have never met the man who recommended me for my job, although I’ve had several phone conversations. Again, these are the contacts you get if you’re willing to tell people that you are looking for a job.”

This article first appeared in Counseling Today on Nov. 1, 2006. www.counseling.org