The problem with career counseling

Possibly also not helping the field of career counseling: Cheesy stock photos.

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?

Photo source

Special thanks to my career counseling and appraisal professor for allowing me to use his quotation in this post.


8 thoughts on “The problem with career counseling

  1. I’ve spoken to career counselors at various times in my life; high school, college, and changing careers. In all situations I found them to be a waste of time – they told me to take paper tests, like you said. I didn’t want to take paper tests, or online tests, I wanted advice and to learn about opportunities I didn’t even know existed! I wanted to be pointed in the right direction to do my own research, and while not necessarily learn about job openings, I was expecting to learn about job titles and responsibilities.

    One thing I wish I had done in high school was to go to a few company websites in different fields and look at their job posting pages. It would have been interesting to read job descriptions and qualifications before choosing what general ‘major’ field I wanted to pursue. I didn’t find job shadowing useful at all in high school – I didn’t know anyone doing anything I wanted to do! I would have preferred a panel discussion, or speed interview setting.

    But while high schoolers and young college students are looking for direction, when a person gets older and/or is leaving school they are looking for how to make themselves marketable. There are some skills that people that are actively looking for work or still not sure what they want to do in life can be encouraged to master to make them more employable – being able to us Excel for one, or studying a foreign language, or being able to program. I found the counselors I met put too much emphasis on writing a resume and practicing interviews – not enough push to add quality experience/skills to my resume even when I was not working.

    Nice post 🙂 I enjoy reading your blog!

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful comment! I agree–the career world is changing rapidly and I’m not so sure career counseling is catching up with it. There are so many more job titles outside of the obvious ones. I also agree that counselors can encourage clients to get more education as needed. Perhaps not an entire degree, but just some classes to fill in knowledge gaps. (Programming would be immensely useful for me, too.) I have no idea why the perfect interview and resume fill up so much of everyone’s time. Other than avoiding big, obvious mistakes, I just don’t get it. Maybe I dislike the conformity encouraged in the whole job-searching process 🙂 But that would be a whole other post!

    • Omgsh, yes. The conformity. That is EXACTLY why I hate job hunting, interviewing, etc. I have a personal style blog. I like to wear lots of color, I like to print mix, I like to accessorize (within good taste, I promise). Yet I have to tone down my wardrobe’s personality to get my foot in the door. It’s disgusting to me.

      And why is everyone so concerned about a resume’s font? Format? Color? It takes up so much of our time.

  3. Thanks so much for this post. I’m thrilled to have stumbled upon your blog in my effort to prepare a presentation for my career counseling course. I start practicum in the fall (yikes!) and I’m so excited, yet so nervous about it.

    I went to a private, Catholic K-12 school ALL. MY. LIFE. It was nice in some ways, but senseless, utter torture in other ways. The school had teachers, a principal, a vice principal, one security guard (who was more like an onlooker), one janitor, and one mean cafeteria lady. No counselors, no school psychologists. The demographic of students started changing in 2002, when kids who had been expelled from basically every other school in the county were given government “scholarships” to attend private schools, I suppose in the hopes that some of our “wholesomeness” would rub off on them. These kids had access to school psychologists who would come once a month and take them out of class for individual counseling, assessments, etc. I remember feeling so envious, so powerless. It was unfair that these kids, who had been “bad”, could get the help they needed while kids like me, who had been “good” all our lives, needed help too but were left to our own devices. Oh, did I mention that our parents had to pay to go to school, while these kids got a free ride? Looking back I understand that our small little private school in the low-income community of Little Havana did all it could to serve these kids and to “correct” their misbehavior. However, they left lifers like me on the sidelines.

    Somehow I did dual enrollment in high school, graduated from college, served for a year at a high-needs public high school through City Year Miami, and found my way into a mental health counseling program. This is where I am now. My semi-traumatic experiences at that little school (I’ve got so many stories) will always be with me, and I believe they will help ground me in my lifelong efforts to work with adolescents, preferably in school settings.

    • Hi Nathy!
      Glad you stumbled on my blog and took the time to comment! Aside from the obvious desire to help people live fulfilled lives and be with them during times of need, I perceived counseling as a field in which I can be myself (including dress as myself!). So far, that’s borne out to be true. I hope that you are finding the same thing in your counseling program so far. And hang in there through practicum–I was terrified at first, but it turned out great. Same with internship 🙂

      Thanks so much for sharing your story and what has propelled you into the mental health field. I can definitely see why you’d be frustrated at your school situation, and your own experiences both at your school and as a City Year corps member will be a huge help when you get out in the field!! My practicum in Nebraska was a little different than many schools’ systems, as we had to find our own clients (the only weird downside of being in a pretty rural area). Will you be placed at a site working with adolescents?

      I am actually strongly leaning toward some sort of career counseling position at this time. I wasn’t able to put it into words at the time I wrote this post, but I see a huge need for effective career counseling. Career is such an integral part of our lives, and so should be integrated into much of the counseling we do. I see it every day in working with my internship clients, which are women recovering from serious mental illness and transitioning back to independent living. In addition, career counseling sets professional counselors apart from other helping professionals. I have a post planned on this subject that will happen after my job’s Annual Gala on Thursday…need some free time!

      Your blog is so cute and I look forward to dropping in now and then! Style blogs are a guilty pleasure of mine 🙂 Be looking for an email from your blog–there’s something I want to say but not over my blog, and it will make you smile, hopefully.

      Thanks for reading, keep in touch, and good luck on your career counseling presentation!

      • Thanks for all your kind words!! I’m going through the application process right now. I have an interview on Wednesday for a counseling center on a college campus, so I’d be seeing a young adult population there. I’m also applying to a center that does bilingual counseling for the elderly, families, children, and adolescents. I’d actually have my pick of which population I’d like to work with there. There are other places I’m applying to as well, and I’ve selected them based primarily on client populations and theoretical orientation (I love narrative therapy). Oh, and the sacredness of supervision as well.

        Ultimately I’d love to work with adolescents from low-income communities. Low-income communities in general.

        Have you ever had to do bartering? We keep learning about the ways in which counseling in rural settings looks different from counseling in urban settings. Bartering always comes up. I hadn’t heard the looking for your own clients one!

        I’m so glad you liked my blog! And I loved your email. Made me smile too. 🙂
        I will be telling everyone in my program about this blog! We’re always on the lookout for resources like this. 🙂

  4. Lucky you, sounds like you’ll be a in a great position for practicum. The good thing about my practicum was that I got to work with a wide range of people, much like I would if I were to work in a private practice. And yay narrative therapy!! That’s a huge interest of mine but not something I’ve gotten to use much on my current clients. Have you used it yet? I actually learned about a really neat narrative-based career counseling technique from Mark Savickas when I attended ACA in March.

    No bartering in my community, probably because we don’t charge as practicum students 🙂 I’m sure it comes up from time to time, but it is funny how much time we spend talking about it. I’ve never actually known someone to do that.

    Thank you so much for passing my blog on to your classmates! I love having new readers and especially readers who take the time to comment. This blog will have a little more on it once I graduate and finally have some time…stay tuned!

  5. Pingback: The Growing Importance of Career Counseling | Feet in Two Worlds

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