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Save our staff

May 15, 2011
by Nancy Paull and Danielle Wolffe
| Reprints
On-site education helps cultivate counselors' talents in the wake of labor shortages

Organizations across the country that provide treatment for addictive disorders are facing a crisis in adequately staffing their programs. This crisis certainly will escalate with continued spikes in clients seeking treatment, and high staff turnover. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the need for certified counselors will grow by 21 percent by 2016.


During this time period it is crucial that we cultivate all good help we can get. We cannot afford to blindly accept changes to credentialing standards that one day might threaten the careers of our most valuable employees. These include the dedicated men and women who traditionally staffed our facilities when nobody else would: entry-level employees lacking the college degrees many states are beginning to designate as prerequisites to certification.

Included among this group are recovering addicts and trauma victims who entered the field for deeply personal reasons. When our industry goes into a tailspin from staff shortages, it is often these individuals who feel invested enough to remain on board. In order to ensure the longevity of addictions counseling, we must pave the way for these individuals to gain credentials and enter into the college system.

We recently were fortunate to participate in an on-site workplace-based training and educational program called Jobs to Careers (J2C) that allowed us to help these employees remain on the radar. The three-year program was funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Hitachi Foundation, and provided 17 of our front-line workers with classroom training, college credits and career counseling. The program exceeded all of our expectations. It helped provide our employees with a leg up to attain certification and pursue higher degrees in the future, as well as the knowledge they needed to thrive in the workplace now.

Perhaps just as importantly, the program helped our administration to understand who our most important employees were, and some of the obstacles to pursuing higher education that they faced. We learned why our attempts to institute previous training programs failed, and ways we could hone more successful programs bridging the gap between work and education in the future.

Though the grant has officially ended, we regularly use the lessons we learned through the program to collaborate with our staff. Participants attained higher positions, including supervisory roles, in the many divisions of our outpatient facility. They have been responsible for developing new programs to serve clients better. We have presented this program as a model for other organizations in our region to use, and at conferences that have included a United Nations Masterclass in Russia and a NIATx summit in Florida.

Dedicated employees

At SSTAR we always have had a large contingency of dedicated people who entered the profession simply because they wanted to help. One woman with addictions first decided she wanted to become a counselor while in a jail cell for charges related to her opiate addiction. Another, after remaining silent for close to two decades about a brutal gang rape she was the victim of while she was pregnant, was inspired to help others tell their stories in order to heal from traumas. By the time each of these individuals walked through the door to interview for positions at SSTAR, they knew exactly what they wanted to do.

Our administration did not always realize that our front-line employees were so motivated.

“I think that when you have gotten to that place in your life and you are living in a dark place like that, once you make that decision, if you are motivated, there is no stopping you or what you are capable of,” says Dawn Cantara, an SSTAR clinical supervisor and a recovering addict.

Will alone does not always ensure that one finds one's way, however. SSTAR was the first agency in our region to establish an inpatient alcohol and drug detoxification unit, and the first to open an HIV/AIDS walk-in clinic. We were able to hire entry-level staff, from milieu therapists to administrative and intake assistants, for our diverse programs.

Whenever possible, we offered trainings for these employees. Likewise, supervisors have always had substantial training roles. However, many of the entry-level employees in our facilities learned to perform aspects of their jobs largely through trial and error. Without advanced knowledge, they struggled to treat clients.

Employees, particularly those who suffered from trauma, often had a tough time establishing clear boundaries between themselves and clients. They did not always understand the true nature of clients' diseases. Accordingly, turnover rates remained high.

Just as these counselors did not always understand what to do to help clients, we did not always understand what to do to help them. Our administration did not always realize that our front-line employees were so motivated. After failing to convince them to get the education and training necessary for Certified Alcohol and Drug Addictions Counselor (CADAC) or Certified Addictions Counselor (CAC) certification in Massachusetts, we made incorrect assumptions. We believed that they were not interested, or that their commitment to the profession was fleeting. We became frustrated, watching them struggle in the same positions, burn out, and then leave.