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Career Planning with Substance Abuse Clients Back to Course Index

Career Counseling with

Substance Abuse Clients




For many, the issue of decision-making, when it comes to selecting a career is fraught with anxiety and uncertainty.  These decisions will set in motion a chain of events that will largely define a person’s lifestyle, and many times affect their self-esteem, happiness and satisfaction with life.  Unfortunately, for many, their career path has little to do with the decisions they consciously make or have made.  It seems the path happens to them rather than them choosing the path.  Sometimes, the population most in need of career training and counseling, those with the most obstacles, are the least likely to have it offered to them.  

 Over the years, as a substance abuse counselor in private practice, I had an opportunity to work with many individuals with alcohol and other drug problems.  This experience afforded me the opportunity to study this sub-population in considerable detail. 

My curiosity and interests often took me beyond the surface problems in an attempt to better understand the underlying causes for AOD use and abuse.  Based on observations and data from this sub-population, I tabulated a list of attributes that are prevalent among the group (especially youth offenders).  Although alcohol and drug abuse issues effect every culture, gender, ethnicity and income level, there was over abundance of the following issues:

  • Lack of knowledge on chemical dependency-most individuals have a good street knowledge, but lack an in-depth knowledge about the long term effects of AOD use.
  • Most, but not all, had terminated their formal education early in life – many had not graduated from high school.
  • Many came from dysfunctional, single parent families.
  • Most came from lower socioeconomic families and neighborhoods.
  • Most had a poor self-image and little vision for the future.
  • Most were exposed to AOD use during childhood.  Most were exposed to a permissive attitude toward AOD.
  • Most had financial difficulty with little hope for improvement.  Few had received any formal vocational training.
  • Most of the attributes identified in this profile are fairly well documented and understood by most counselors; however, the lack of vocational training is sometimes overlooked as an important factor. 

The primary focus in alcohol and other drug counseling, as well as broader mental health counseling, is generally to discontinue use and/or discontinue what is causing distress.  Without addressing serious financial and work issues affecting an individual’s personal and family life, reoccurrence of issues becomes an often foreseeable path.

When looking at this populations attributes, the following discovery  can be made, it appeared that most either did not have the opportunities and/or guidance or that they did not buy in to the idea that a better education equated to better opportunity, better job, more money, etc.  Further observation of this population and after many interviews, I began to realize that our public school system may not be focusing on selling itself with a strong dissertation on the advantage of a better education.  If the public education system could expand their focus, especially for the lower socioeconomic groups this might increase the buy-in rate. 

More information on vocational programs, and alternatives to the standard college experience, such as online educational opportunities vocational studies and correspondence options should be given as viable solutions to those with little resources who need to begin full time work for income purposes.  I often got a negative response when I ask the individuals in that population if they had ever been tested to determine what job they would be better suited for.  They often indicated they had never discussed career opportunities with any educator.

Early in my counseling career I devised a simple test for young people to take that simply asks them to describe what they could do to get money.  I later revised the inquiry to simply check ways to make money.  The list included items such as dealing drugs, sports, music, education, trade school, college, lotto and other items.  The amazing thing to me was that school/education was almost always near the bottom of the list.  Again, it appears the individuals with the greatest need have the most negative attitudes, likely due to obstacles and low self-assurance.

This Continuing Education course is intended to provide a concept that may be used to help you as a professional help clients (coming to you for often times other issues) to help them make more informed, better decisions in the area of employment.  This continuing education course is not an end in itself, but hopefully will help point people in need in the right direction.

Limited self-confidence or self-efficacy; the belief that “I can’t or won’t accomplish what I set out to do.”

The struggle for control when predicting and controlling the future is not completely possible. Thus an individual is left wondering whether pursuing a certain course will get them what they want in life.

Decision making put off or hampered because even if the individual does decide, he or she does not know how to formulate a plan to carry out that decision.



Self Assessment imgres

Self-assessment is analogous to getting in touch with your feelings (looking inside oneself for insight to psychological issues), whereas self-assessment involves taking a personal inventory of your strengths, interests, skills, personality traits and values to help with career planning.  This information will help a person begin to identify careers that are best suited for them.  The process of self-assessment will continue throughout a lifetime as the individual experiences career growth or change.


A self-assessment consists of four parts:


                        Interests = Things you enjoy doing

                        Skills = What you are capable of doing

                        Values = How you live your life

                        Personality = Best fit


These four parameters are then used to identify interests, abilities and personality type in relation to various careers.  This concept was developed by Dr. John Holland and is used by many career counselors.  In accordance with Dr. Holland, there are six distinct personality types and six work categories that relate to these personality traits.  Dr. Holland developed the Holland Code that is used to help students and adults identify the careers best suited for them.  



  • Likes to work with animals, tools, or machines; generally avoids social activities like teaching, healing, and informing others;
  • Has good skills in working with tools, mechanical or electrical drawings, machines, or plants and animals;
  • Values practical things you can see, touch, and use like plants and animals, tools, equipment, or machines; and
  • Sees self as practical, mechanical, and realistic.


  • Likes to study and solve math or science problems; generally avoids leading, selling, or persuading people;
  • Is good at understanding and solving science and math problems;
  • Values science; and
  • Sees self as precise, scientific, and intellectual.images


  • Likes to do creative activities like art, drama, crafts, dance, music, or creative writing; generally avoids highly ordered or repetitive activities;
  • Has good artistic abilities — in creative writing, drama, crafts, music, or art;
  • Values the creative arts — like drama, music, art, or the works of creative writers; and
  • Sees self as expressive, original, and independent.


  • Likes to do things to help people — like, teaching, nursing, or giving first aid, providing information; generally avoids using machines, tools, or animals to achieve a goal;
  • Is good at teaching, counseling, nursing, or giving information;
  • Values helping people and solving social problems; and
  • Sees self as helpful, friendly, and trustworthy.


  • Likes to lead and persuade people, and to sell things and ideas; generally avoids activities that require careful observation and scientific, analytical thinking;
  • Is good at leading people and selling things or ideas;
  • Values success in politics, leadership, or business; and
  • Sees self as energetic, ambitious, and sociable.


  • Likes to work with numbers, records, or machines in a set, orderly way; generally avoids ambiguous, unstructured activities
  • Is good at working with written records and numbers in a systematic, orderly way;
  • Values success in business; and
  • Sees self as orderly, and good at following a set plan.


Career Exploration


imgres-1There are many erroneous beliefs that can interfere with effective vocational decision-making.  Probably the greatest myth or belief system is that if a person made a poor career choice earlier in life (drop out of school) there is no recovery.  Another myth is that a parent or school teacher told them they were lacking in intelligence; consequently, they continue through life thinking they are inferior and incapable of accomplishing any task except the mere minimal.  Myths such as these are carried throughout life and become career stumbling blocks.  It is often difficult to convince someone with a poor self-image that he/she is capable of handling a responsible job where real time decision-making skills are required.  It is sometimes necessary for the vocational counselor to work with other counselors to get past some of the self-limiting concepts.  Other myths include you have to make a large salary to be successful.  There is a popular adage that says, find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life. 


Career exploration is a fun process if approached with a positive attitude.  It consists of gathering information about many jobs and then comparing your abilities, skills, interests, personality traits and values against the required for jobs of interest.  Also, an individual may have an opportunity to work as an assistant in an area of interest.  An example of this would be a job as a veterinarians helper to help decide if a career in veterinarian medicine would be a good fit.


Information about careers may be obtained from:


1.  Library

2.  Career Counseling Center

3.  Internet

4.  Information Interview

5.  Apprenticeships

6.  On-the-job training programs


One of most beneficial subjects is the Information Interview where a candidate talks to people who work in an occupation.  The individual should prepare questions ahead of the actual interview and they should be work related (qualification requirements, future job opportunities, skills required, training required and personality characteristics best suited for job).


It is beyond the scope of this Continuing Education course to list careers corresponding  to the various Holland Codes.  Consequently, it is left to the individual in need of vocational counseling to seek and find help.  He/she could contact a vocational counselor or research the Internet.  Every individual can find ways to improve themselves and their situation.  This message is essential for those who lack a formal skill or are currently in a job that provides limited growth potential.  My encouragement to those in need is to accept the challenge of change and to boldly go beyond their comfort zone.


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