Understanding the Competencies

Using the Competencies for Canada’s Substance Use Workforce is an evidence-informed way to ensure services are provided consistently across the wide range of backgrounds and settings in the substance use field, including among both regulated and unregulated professionals who support this work.

To maximize the benefits of the Competencies for Canada’s Substance Use Workforce to an organization that delivers substance use services and the people who seek those services, the organization must understand exactly what the competencies are and how they can be of assistance.

The information in the tabs below will help you understand how the competencies can benefit your organization and the people it serves.

You will find learning about:

  • Why workforce competencies are needed;
  • Who should use the competencies;
  • How to use the competencies;
  • The difference between behavioural and technical competencies;
  • The skills and knowledge required for a range of job functions;
  • The four levels of proficiency for the competencies and how they are defined; and
  • A glossary of important terms related to the competencies.

Having this knowledge will prepare you for using the Competencies for Canada’s Substance Use Workforce to help your organization provide professional and consistent services to its clients.

What You Need to Know

CCSA identified Technical and Behavioural Competencies for Canada’s Substance Use Workforce across four levels of proficiency.

Technical Competencies:

The knowledge and skills or the “what“ of a job; sometimes called “hard” skills. Usually learned through education and experience.

Behavioural Competencies:

The knowledge, skills and values or the “how” of performing a job. Typically learned and developed through life experiences and coaching by mentors.

Levels of Proficiency

Different jobs require competencies at different levels of proficiency. The proficiency levels are cumulative. For example, someone who is required to have a Developing (or Level 2) proficiency is also expected to have the Foundational (or Level 1) proficiency.

The four proficiency levels and how the knowledge and skills for them are typically developed are described in the following table. In the table, “life experience” can mean direct, lived and living experience with substance use, mental health concerns or concurrent conditions, or experience as someone close to another with direct experience of substance use, mental health concerns or concurrent conditions.

Explanation of Proficiency Levels

of Level
How Knowledge and
Skills Are Typically
Developed for the Level
Level 1 FoundationalDemonstrates basic knowledge and ability, and can apply the competency, with guidance, in common situations that present no or limited difficulties.Through student practicum, entry level work experience, volunteering, in-service training, introductory-level college or university courses; completion of a diploma or certificate, possibly combined with life experience.
Level 2 DevelopingDemonstrates sound knowledge and ability, and can practically apply the competency and associated knowledge and skills, with minimal or no guidance, in the full range of typical situations. Likely requires guidance to handle novel or more complex situations.Through work experience at Level 1, completion of a college diploma or university degree in health or social services, participation in a mentoring program, in-service training, possibly combined with life experience.
Level 3 ProficientDemonstrates in-depth knowledge and ability, and can consistently and effectively apply the competency in complex and challenging situations and settings. Guides other professionals.Through the completion of a university degree in mental health or substance use studies and several years of work experience; a university degree in health or social services combined with professional development and work experience; a diploma or certificate in substance use, mental health or other health or social services area, professional development and in-service training, possibly combined with life experience.
Level 4 AdvancedDemonstrates expert knowledge and ability and can apply the competency in the most complex situations. Develops or facilitates new practices, programs and policies. Is recognized as an expert, internally and externally. Involved in leadership and decision-making processes, as applicable.Through comprehensive work experience or completion of a related graduate or undergraduate university degree, combined with extensive work experience; a diploma or certificate, combined with extensive and demonstrated professional development, in-service training and extensive work experience, possibly combined with life experience.

Behaviour Indicators

Behaviour indicators are examples of a person’s successful performance at each level of proficiency. These indicators are neither exhaustive nor mandatory, but provide guidance and illustration.

The language used to describe these indicators might not be wholly applicable to your organization and you might want to add other relevant indicators. It is important to review the sample behaviour indicators and modify them accordingly before applying them to positions in your organization.

Example of Behaviour Indicators for Adaptability and Flexibility

Foundational (Level 1)Developing (Level 2)Proficient (Level 3)Advanced (Level 4)
Readily shows flexibility and expresses willingness to do things differently, accepting change as normal.Remains effective and retains perspective under changing or unclear conditions.Provides advice and guidance to others to assist them in adapting to difficult or changing situations.Provides support systems (e.g., retraining programs) to deal with the unanticipated and challenging results of change activities.

Why We Need Competencies

Using competencies is an evidence-based way to bring consistency to similar roles across a wide range of practices, contexts and settings in the substance use field.

The backgrounds of people working in the substance use field vary widely, from academically trained direct service providers, such as addictions counsellors, social workers and nurses, to other roles, such as volunteers or Elders. Care settings also vary widely and can include accredited hospitals and residential treatment centres, community settings for support groups, withdrawal management centres, private care centres and supervised consumption sites.

A competency-based approach to workforce development in the substance use field enhances professionalism and consistency of practice by:

  • Identifying knowledge and skill sets for the substance use workforce and allied professionals;
  • Supporting employers in hiring, retaining and developing staff;
  • Assisting educators and trainers in developing content for learning;
  • Facilitating role definition and collaboration in multi-disciplinary teams; and
  • Providing Canadians with a more consistent quality of service from the substance use workforce.

Who Should Use the Competencies

The Technical and Behavioural Competencies for Canada’s Substance Use Workforce are useful for people working in a range of roles in the field of substance use.

Roles for which Competencies Are Useful

Direct Service Professionals

  • Outreach service providers in harm reduction and drug use prevention programs
  • Clinicians and supervisors in treatment programs
  • Nursing staff in substance use programs and services
  • Health promotion staff
  • Counsellors
  • Technicians

Medical and Allied Professionals

  • Primary healthcare providers
  • Doctors and physicians
  • Specialist practitioners (physicians or nurses trained in mental health and substance use)
  • Pharmacists
  • Dentists
  • Nurses and nurse practitioners
  • Family practice nurses
  • Midwives
  • Occupational therapists
  • Physiotherapists
  • Public health nurses
  • Social workers
  • Mental health service providers
  • Housing service providers
  • School guidance counsellors
  • Emergency service providers

Administrators or Leadership Staff

  • Office staff
  • Program coordinators
  • Supervisors
  • Managers and senior managers
  • Executive directors
  • Human resources staff
  • Recruiters


  • Academics
  • Educators
  • Learning and development staff


  • Policy analysts
  • Policy advisors
  • Researchers

How the Competencies Are Used

The Technical and Behavioural Competencies for Canada’s Substance Use Workforce are intended to be used as a guide and are not prescriptive. They may be tailored to different job descriptions, work settings and organizational cultures.

The Competencies can be used for a variety of purposes, including:

  • Developing and refining job profiles;
  • Interviewing and assessing suitability of candidates for positions;
  • Developing competency-based education and training curricula;
  • Evaluating job performance;
  • Identifying and self-assessing professional development needs; and
  • Clarifying succession planning requirements.

The Competencies are intended to be used by certification and regulatory bodies in conjunction with complementary standards and federal, provincial and territorial requirements. They are not meant to replace clinical regulations or best practice guidelines.

History Acknowledgements

The Technical and Behavioural Competencies for Canada’s Substance Use Workforce were developed with the involvement of a wide range of stakeholders. Extensive consultation was a priority to ensure the competencies were informed by evidence from researchers and experts, and grounded in the realities of people working in the substance use field and people with lived and living experience of substance use and their families and friends.

Input was gained from:

  • Direct treatment service and program delivery staff
  • Allied professions in the field such as nurses and probation officers
  • People with lived and living experience of substance use and their families and friends
  • Provincial and territorial departments of health
  • Key national organizations focused on substance use and mental health
  • Expert review panels
  • Mental health workers

A variety of formats were used to engage stakeholders, including focus groups, informant interviews, and teleconferences with groups and blog contributors.

Updates to the Competencies

A culture shift in the substance use field is occurring due to the recognition of the neurobiological underpinnings of substance use disorders and the harmful impact of stigma around substance use. We responded to this shift by updating the Competencies (version 2) through more community consultations and with input from subject-matter experts, advisory groups and people with lived and living experience and their families and friends to reflect changes in best practices, knowledge, skills and language, and to apply a perspective oriented to well-being.

An overview of the development of the Competencies provides more detail.

Historical Development Timeline

Click here to see the historical development timeline of CCSA’s competencies for the substance use workforce.

Historical Development of CCSA’s Competencies for the Substance Use Workforce

2004-2005 Competencies identified as a national priority
2007Technical Competencies v.1 released
2010Behavioural Competencies v.1 released
2014Technical Competencies v.2 released
2019-2021Behavioural Competencies v.2 released
2020-2021Technical Competencies v.3 released
2021-2022Update of Job Clusters


The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) gratefully acknowledges the significant contributions and support received from individuals, subject-matter experts and CCSA’s workforce competencies advisory group members who participated in interviews, focus groups and consultations across Canada to update the Technical and Behavioural Competencies for Canada’s Substance Use Workforce.

We also thank the Lived and Living Experience and Families and Friends (LLEAFF) Working Group and sub-committee who participated in the revision and development of new and revised competencies through their valuable feedback and diverse expertise.

We acknowledge members of the historical National Advisory Group on Workforce Development and Knowledge Exchange Network on Workforce Development who participated in the original reviews of both the Technical and Behavioural Competencies. Special thanks to the Mental Health Commission of Canada which participated in the review of the concurrent disorders competency and with which we continue to work to identify needs for integrated substance use and mental health competencies.

We also acknowledge Kiran Somjee, RN, Knowledge Broker, Claire Rykelyk-Huizen, RSW, MSW, Knowledge Broker, Cheryl Arratoon, MSc, as well as CCSA’s Information Systems and Web Services and Public Affairs and Communications teams for their contributions in revising, publishing, disseminating and mobilizing the competencies. We would like to thank our contractors, the Human Resources Services Group and the Industrial design agency, for their involvement on this project.

It is only with the valuable feedback, participation and strategic recommendations from those above that the Technical and Behavioural Competencies for Canada’s Substance Use Workforce could be updated.