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NJ Doubles Down on ‘Earn While You Learn’ Drug Counseling Program

State partners with Rutgers to give on-the-job training to hundreds of New Jerseyans who want to help addicts

Gov. Chris Christie
Gov. Chris Christie and Rutgers president Robert Barchi at announcement yesterday of state funding for drug-counselor program

Starting in February, hundreds of New Jerseyans — some now unemployed, others already working in recovery programs — will get a chance at a rare trifecta: the opportunity to train for a certified profession for free, while earning income in a growing field, and potentially changing people’s lives for the better.

The opportunity is the result of $1.3 million in new state funding that will allow Rutgers University to partner with hospitals, clinics, and other addiction treatment facilities to provide classroom skills and on-the-job training to more than 200 people seeking to become Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselors.

The initiative, believed to be the first such “earn while you learn” program in the nation, builds on a pilot program the state launched in July through the NJ Healthcare Talent Development Center at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. The center is one of seven state-funded programs designed to support growing industries, like healthcare.

Addiction professionals are already in high demand given the Garden State’s opioid epidemic, and state officials estimate that the number of drug and mental health counselors employed will need to grow another 20 percent in the next decade. Tens of thousands of residents seek treatment each year and nearly 2,000 died of their addiction last year.

More counselors on the ground

Gov. Chris Christie, who has focused heavily on addiction during his last year in office, joined Rutgers president Robert Barchi and other officials on the university’s Piscataway campus on Tuesday to announce the funding. The money will come from the state’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development, which will pay $6,000 per student toward their training costs; the rest of these expenses, about half, are picked up by the employer organization.

“One of my priorities has been to put more certified alcohol and drug counselors on the ground to tackle the disease of addiction one person at a time,” Christie said. “This successful program creates a pathway for those interested in helping those with substance use disorder through paid on-the-job training.”

Becoming certified as an alcohol and drug counselor has always required a mix of classroom work (270 hours) and on-the-job experience (3,100 hours), and Rutgers has historically offered both, explained Dr. Padma Arvind, executive director of the healthcare talent center. But the “earn while you learn” method is something new.

“In this case we are doing both together, a hybrid model,” Arvind said, “so people do not lose their income” while in school full time. CADCs are trained to lead individual and group counseling sessions, provide input on treatment plans, and work directly with clients to help them stick to those plans, she said.

“An apprenticeship is structured to provide clear benchmarks and more rigorous oversight than other training models, which leads to better outcomes,” Arvind added. “Our apprentices will learn to spot the warning signs of addiction and provide frontline counseling services to individuals in need of treatment.”

Public, private partners

Working with employment partners to develop apprenticeships to support the healthcare workforce is not new to Rutgers; in 2017 alone, the school of management received more than $4 million from the state’s LWD department to create and run various on-the-job training programs. Efforts have focused on a wide range of healthcare professions, including community health workers, lab technicians, to paramedics, and registered and licensed practical nurses, among others.

For the addiction counselor apprenticeship program, Arvind said the Rutgers center will partner with a range of public and private organizations. These include Carrier Clinic, Rutgers University’s Behavioral Health Center, the Mental Health Association of Essex and Morris Counties, and Homeless Solutions, in Morristown, which served as a training site for the ten individuals who participated in the pilot program this summer, employing a number of counselors-in-training during their apprenticeship programs.

The $1.3 million will be targeted to train 75 unemployed or underemployed workers, and 150 individuals who are working in addiction programs but are not yet certified as counselors, officials said. Another 25 people who are victims of domestic or sexual violence, or other traumas, or homeless, will be funded for the program with part of a previous LWD grant.

Apprentices will learn the science of addiction, counseling techniques, crisis intervention, case management, addiction recovery, and related topics while mastering the 45 state-mandated core competencies associated with the certification. The Rutgers Center for Alcohol Studies, Rutgers University Behavioral Healthcare, and the Wellspring Center for Prevention will also help with training and hiring, officials said.

“The statewide expansion of the Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselors program fills a need for critical jobs in the war against addiction. Offering the training through apprenticeship allows workers to earn-while-they-learn instead of putting off their education, making our workforce more skilled,” said state labor Commissioner Aaron Fichtner.

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