Well, maybe that’s a little harsh. Career counseling certainly seems to be suffering from at least a negative public perception. Apologies to my career counseling professor, who may be reading this and is possibly lowering my grade right now. Allow me to explain before you lower any more!
This is the first class I’ve taken for which my (non-counselor) friends actually have opinions. A typical conversation goes like this:
Friend: “So, what classes are you taking this semester?”
Me: “Marriage and Family Counseling, Appraisal, and Career Counseling.”
Friend: “Yuck! Career counseling?! I went to see a career counselor once and they said I should be a kindergarten teacher and I HATE children and they didn’t help me AT ALL!!”
And so on.
I can’t say I’m entirely unbiased, either. My own experience has been much the same. In high school, I took what I believe was the Strong Interest Inventory with my guidance counselor. It was long, provided a metric crapton of information, and announced proudly that my top two career fits were in library science and architecture. Being a stubborn high school student who very much wanted to go to music school, I immediately discounted the results and never explored them further. In hindsight, both of these careers could have been great for me, but I had no one to push me to learn more about them (and I certainly wasn’t going to do this on my own).
As a public school student in Pennsylvania, I was also required to complete a state-mandated graduation project that explored careers and life skills. We took a shorter assessment (possibly the Self-Directed Search) and I started giggling when I got my results: Musician, Tattoo Artist, Mime, Minister. Other friends got things like Jazzercise Instructor. (I am not making this up.) We were also required to job shadow a person in a career of interest, and I chose to shadow my middle school band director with whom I had a good relationship. Disappointingly, it was one of the most boring days of my high school career.
Thus, my career counseling book was greeted with an eye roll when it arrived in the mail, and I’ve been thinking long and hard since then about how to make career counseling a little more effective for future clients.
I think career counseling might be facing two problems, and they go hand in hand. The more obvious problem is that career counseling has an image problem. We all think of our slightly kooky, caring-but-unhelpful-and/or-clueless high school guidance counselors (no offense, high school counselors) or the college adviser that didn’t tell us we needed X class to graduate and held us up a semester (no offense, college advisers). My tiny, informal investigation leads me to believe that the vast majority of people I know choose their career paths by other means. Even if there is good career counseling, it seems people are afraid to use it based on negative word of mouth from others.
Underneath the bad rep lies the more pressing problem: the need for a career counselor to be active, engaging, encouraging, and supportive, possibly more so than in other areas of counseling. Instead, most clients/students seem to remember endless assessments with silly results. Are we relying too much on theory and assessment rather than the role and manner of the counselor? In a similar online class discussion last week, my career counseling professor admitted his own questions, saying this: “The assessments give so much ‘bang’ in a very short time frame. I believe that the relationship with the client is paramount, and something impossible with a computer.” His comment on computer-based career assessment can be generalized to all career counseling: Relationship matters.
Theories and assessments are great for career counseling–they give us direction and help us to understand clients better. But I think relationships are just as important in career counseling. My high school guidance counselor could have sat me down and looked at what librarians and architects really do, and explored my hesitancy with me. My graduating class could have researched one choice from our graduation project lists in order to acquaint ourselves with a broader range of career choices. Our counselors could have kept lists of fantastic, willing job shadow contacts and updated, reliable resources. Instead, we were given tests and left to our own devices, with no follow up, encouragement, and support.
I’m pretty sure that’s not how the National Career Development Association (NCDA) intends for it to happen. Under Career Counseling Competencies, career development theory is listed as the first minimum competency, and individual and group counseling skills as the second. With all sorts of fancy (and quick, and easy to use) theories, tools, techniques, and assessments, I wonder if we’re overlooking that second competency?
In the end, the power to choose and follow a career path is still up to the client. I don’t for a second pretend we weren’t whiny high school kids who cared more about our hair than our future careers. What could we have done, though, if we had an active, engaging, fun counselor to keep us interested and exploring? Furthermore, a renewed focus on relationship will help ease some of that negative image. Clients receive a better quality of help, career counseling gains a better image, more people come in for help and spread the word, leading to more developments in the field and better quality of help, career counseling gains a better reputation, etc. Hey look, it’s circular!
I begin practicum this summer and will probably see some clients struggling through career issues. I hope I can remember my own experiences and call to action, in order to see how it affects clients. For now, how do you feel about career counseling? Do you hear these same problems and complaints, either from yourself or others? What approaches have you found successful in your own practice?
Special thanks to my career counseling and appraisal professor for allowing me to use his quotation in this post.