We clearly stand for paying people for work, as evidenced by our episode on A Living Wage for Prelicensees. Additionally, there’s an aspect of the pervasiveness of volunteer positions for prelicenesees in our profession that is potentially killing the ability to earn a living wage once licensed—and it’s not for the reasons that one might think.

Volunteering as a general concept is considered as a positive, well-meaning, altruistic behavior. But when we consider that prelicensed work toward licensure (at least in California) must come as either an employee or as a volunteer. But when we consider that earning hours comes from a volunteer position, we have to look at the requirements that such a volunteer position holds and the tradeoffs that it provides. We go to these positions…to earn hours…to get us into (hopefully) better positions later in life. We are not volunteering altruistically in this situation. It is more akin to doing mandated community service than it is to altruistic behavior. And that confusion harms the way that we look at prelicensees, and harms the way that prelicensees enter into the professional world.

If we look at the way that we describe our commitment to our volunteer practicum and associate sites, is it better described by A) “I’m going out to provide this much needed service to an underserved population” –OR- B) “I’m in this for my hours.” Most of us have sounded like option B. In the Venn diagram of life, this is the part that we share with felons.

Imagine the conversation:

Person A: “How much time do you have left?”

Person B: “3000 hours. You?

Person A: “500 hours.”

Person B: “What did you do?”

Person A: “Burglary. You?”

Person B: “Grad school.”

To be honest with ourselves, we have to look at the ways that volunteering is truly motivated. Volunteering can come from:

  • Increasing the supply of a public good. This occurs when people provide their time to a cause that provides more opportunity for the consumption of services by the general public. In the therapy profession, this is best exemplified by therapists giving away free services in the aftermath of a tragedy or crisis.
  • Contributing for the value that the person volunteering provides from volunteering. This is done when people feel the glow from volunteering and having done their part. In the therapy profession, this is sometimes done by those that volunteer for professional organizations or in other ways where the benefit is deemed by having contributed for contributions sake.
  • The field of behavioral economics uses the term “investment model” to describe the volunteering to acquire new skills or to signal one’s ability to new employers (Montgomery 1992, Duncan 1999). This is the rest of volunteering in our profession, and probably the most prevalent.

Problems arise when there is a falsely assigned motivation. When we look at prelicensees who stop their commitments once they have acquired there requisite hours, we blame them for not being part of group 1 when the true motivation belongs to group 3. But is group 1 possible on a long term stage? Typically only if one comes from a place of privilege or is in a true place of underserved crisis situations.

The profession of mental health is sold on the idea of providing type 1 services, but relies on selling to up and coming professionals type 3 ideals. But for those that provide services AND need to make a living, type 3 is a necessity when it comes to volunteering.

From the outside, the judgments contribute to how our prelicensees view their own work. Which, in turn, contributes to how the ideas of the work that we do becomes who we are as professionals. We have an expected value of what we do and an expected utility of the services that we provide, but the expected value changes once the role of volunteering no longer becomes an obligation. But we don’t prepare therapists for the change of expected utility, which leads to the struggles that come with appropriately setting fees once independently practicing. Because as a field, we shame therapists into thinking that all services are type 1 services.

As a field, we need to separate and acknowledge that the types of services that we provide actually provide different utilities to the people providing the services. We extend an ongoing need to accomplish skills (type 3 services) while being sold that we should only be providing type 1 services. There shouldn’t be shame in providing type 3 services, especially when the needs to continue to exist as a professional revolve around having provided type 3 services. This provides the best opportunity to exist both as prelicenesed and licensed individuals.

 

Duncan, Brian (1999): Modeling charitable contributions of time and money. In: Journal of Public Economics 72 (1999), 213-242

Montgomery, James D. (1992): Job Search and Network Composition: Implications of the Strength-of-weak-ties Hypothesis. In: American Sociological Review 57, 586-596.

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