Professional Life Coaching is considered one of the fastest growing industries in North America. According to the International Coaching Federation (ICF) there are more than 26,000 professional coaches in North America. Revenue in the coaching industry during 2022 was approximately 1.5 billion dollars and is expected to grow to be 2.1 billion in 2030. According to Zip Recruiter the average salary for a Life Coach is $62,000 per year. The top 2% of Life coaches can make between 180K-240K per year. At current growth rates published by the ICF there are likely to be an additional 12,000 professional coaches in the next 10 years.
In comparison there are approximately 110,000 licensed Master’s level therapist’s in the United States. Revenue in the mental health market for 2022 was 76 billion in 2021 and is expected to exceed 100 billion in 2029. The average licensed mental health counselor/therapist makes $72,000 a year. The top 2% of licensed therapist can make 135K or more. In the next ten years there are expected to be 13,000 more licensed mental health counselor jobs added to the job market.
Though the share of the market is much larger for mental health providers, at the individual provider level there is little difference. A Life Coach and a Therapist can make a similar income. But is the service they are providing the community the same? As a licensed professional I have grown concerned with a number of clients who have sought service with a professional life coach and as a result of a bad experience were shocked to learn of the vast differences between the two types of provider.
I do believe that Life Coaching serves a place in our communities. As a service to individuals it can provide tools and supports that are extremely beneficial. But the consumer of Life Coaching services needs to be aware of what they are purchasing. Information is power to help the consumer make the best choices.
Let’s look at some Key differences between Life Coaches and Therapist/Counselors.
There are significant education differences between Life Coaches and Therapists. To be a licensed Therapist/Counselor in any state in the United States you must have the minimum of a Master’s Degree from an accredited University. According to the ICF there are no minimum education requirements to be a Life Coach. It appears that an individual can work towards and complete a Life Coach credentialing process with a high school diploma or GED.
This means a Therapist/Counselor has completed at least 6 years of college work — their four year undergraduate degree and a two years Master’s degree program. This means that therapist/counselors have far exceeded the education of many Life Coaches before ever beginning a certification/license process. Most coaching programs are approximately 60 hours of online course work as a one time class. A typical 3 hour college class meets 48 hours not counting all the outside reading and assignments. So one college class exceeds the one course for coaching certification.
The type of education is also critical. Life coaches do not necessarily have a background in mental health. They may have a degree in finance, or interior design, but may be offering coaching for parenting or mental health issues.
Many life coaches may have advanced degrees, but it would benefit the consumer to inquire about the actual training and education a life coach has received.
Most counselor training programs in graduate school have rigorous training components. They will require several hundred hours of client therapy services (mine required 500) as necessary for graduation. Graduate counseling students are also required to meet with a clinical supervisor and review their work with clients. This usually is dozens of hours during the two years of course work. My graduate program required 100 hours of meetings with supervisors. Once graduated a therapist cannot practice independently. They must also complete hundreds more hours of therapy (my license required 2000 hours) and dozens more hours of supervised evaluation of their work (mine required 200 hours) before being fully licensed.
As a comparison, the most basic coaching certification requires only 100 hours of coaching experience and 10 hours meeting with a supervisor. For the ICF to give you their highest certification you must have 200 hours of coaching education, 2500 hours of coaching experience and meet with a mentor coach for 10 hours.
There are significant differences here, specifically in the level of supervision of a providers early work. Life coaches only need to meet with a mentor for 10 hours (per ICF website). But therapist/counselors must meet with a supervisor for over 300 hours prior to being licensed. The experiences gained from a relationship with a trusted supervisor are invaluable and the licensure process for counselors is set up to honor that important relationship.
All mental health providers are licensed in their state of residence. This includes Psychologists, LPC, LMFT, and LMSW. In Texas, these licenses are regulated by the Behavioral Health Executive Council (BHEC) and that council functions under the state laws of Texas. All mental health providers must meet rigorous licensure requirements and ongoing continuing education as mandated by law. The public is able to file complaints with the BHEC. The BHEC has the right by law to sanction and punish licensed practitioners in Texas. Texas (and any other state) has a strict codes of ethics that guide a counselors practice and if a therapist/counselor breaks that code they can be disciplined, including losing their license to practice. This level of ethics and regulation helps keep therapist/counselors accountable to the community that they serve.
Life coaches are not regulated by state law. The public has no recourse if a coach behaves inappropriately or unethically. There is no state board to file a complaint. The ICF does have a code of ethics for coaches, but the code is not enforceable. There is no ICF board to file a complaint against a member coach. This means there is no accountability for the coach to anyone other than to themselves. As a therapist this is my biggest concern for the community regarding Life Coaching – there is no accountability to protect the consumer and public trust.
For the consumer seeking support services or mental health services, it is important to understand what they are getting. Most therapists are prepared to answer questions about their education, training, and licensure. It is important to ask questions of both life coaches or therapists. Certifications can seem very significant, but don’t be shy to ask a therapist or coach to explain what went into achieving a certain designation. Therapy and Life Coaching both have important purposes and the more informed you are as a consumer, the better choices you can make regarding what services you plan to utilize.