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Keeping the passion alive

November 1, 2007
by Ronald J. Hunsicker, DMin
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As we address workforce issues, we must not overlook the role of passion and mentoring

One of the buzz terms that appears in publications, conference announcements, and government initiatives is workforce development. This term has been associated especially with addiction treatment because of the growing awareness of the profession's aging workforce. Some studies suggest that the average age of addiction treatment counselors is in the mid 40s. This being the case, we are not looking at a young workforce!

In addition to the discussion and concern about the aging workforce, there's the concern about worker retention. Not only is the counseling workforce aging, people are leaving the profession before they retire. Alongside this is the equally important and troubling observation that our leaders (managers and administrators of addiction treatment programs) also are aging! A gathering of addiction treatment administrators will have significantly different age demographics than a gathering of acute-care hospital administrators.

So it's not surprising that a lot of attention is being paid to these workforce issues. The spotlight shines on training, credentialing, degrees, educational loans, etc. The federal government and impacted organizations and associations are rallying around almost any plan that will increase the numbers of individuals interested in working in addiction treatment. Yet numbers alone may not solve the issue. Simply lowering the average age of counselors or administrators may not be the short-term or long-term answer. More degrees, more credentials, or more courses probably won't be either.

From my perspective of more than 30 years with the addiction treatment field, two characteristics have stood the test of time for clinicians and administrators, and these are major parts of the answer to our workforce woes. These may not be unique to the addiction treatment field, but they have contributed to making this field what it is today. These characteristics are passion and the insatiable appetite to be mentored. Without passion and the commitment to be mentored (to learn from those we admire), we quickly lose the special bond that has been built between providers and patients. Without these qualities, the workforce will be filled with people seeking jobs, not people responding to a vocation or calling.

There should be no disagreement over the fact that our clinical and administrative staffs need more training, along with additional skills and certifications, than they did 15 years ago. That is a given. But we cannot sacrifice more training and additional skills for the passion that was the hallmark of the first generation of addiction treatment workers. They did what they did because they felt strongly about what they were doing—and about whom they were helping.

Passion cannot be taught in a three-credit class or in a daylong workshop or tested in a certification process. Passion is something that you either have or you catch from being around those with passion. Passion is so much more than a degree. It is the very core of what distinguishes a job from a calling.

The addiction treatment field consistently has been dominated by individuals passionate about offering help and understanding to people addicted to alcohol and/or other drugs. Sometimes that passion was a result of counselors experiencing that passion from others, and sometimes it was a result of just hanging around others. No matter how we address workforce issues, we must factor passion into the equation and process. Otherwise, we run the risk of promoting only clinical or administrative skills, not integrated people passionate about what they are doing.

Passion is not taught but is more likely caught by being around someone with that passion. Mentoring has been so important to our history, and we risk overlooking its value in our rush to address workforce issues. For many of us, myself included, we are who we are because of the mentoring we received from Dr. Dan Anderson, Dr. James West, Dr. Max Schneider, or other field pioneers. Sometimes heroes are etched out in bold letters, and sometimes they are the people with whom we share a workstation. Thus, we must not lose sight of the value of mentoring. If you are a new clinician or an aspiring administrator and you do not have a mentor, find a mentor! If you have been a clinician or administrator for some time and you are not mentoring someone, find someone to mentor!

The workforce discussion will continue, and I believe that we will make some progress. However, unless we factor into those discussions and plans the recognition of the role of passion and mentoring, we risk the possibility that we will lose much of what has been so very helpful to those whom we treat. They respond best to people with passion and to people who mentor or are being mentored. Maybe we all should get passionate about workforce issues and see what we can accomplish!

Ronald J. Hunsicker, DMin, is President and CEO of the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers. He is also a member of Behavioral Healthcare's Editorial Board. To contact Dr. Hunsicker, e-mail