Thursday, July 1, 2010

Career Counseling Reinvented

Many people are disappointed with career counselors: Clients too often fail to identify a career goal and/or to land a good job. Here's why:

To help clients pick a career, career counselors help them identify their skills, interests, and values. Unfortunately, that too often results in:
  • too few or too many career possibilities,
  • an ostensibly good-fit career that turns out not to be,
  • an ostensibly poor-fit career that works out fine,
  • or a career with lottery odds: You like performing and look great, so you want to be a movie star. Good luck.
To help people land a specific job, career counselors guide (or too often write) resumes, cover letters, and urge networking and cold contacting employers. Those strategies too often fail because the pool of people who use career counselors, disproportionately don't have top-of-the-stack backgrounds, have weak networks, are lousy networkers and/or are too shy or not-quick-on-their-feet enough to successfully cold-contact employers.

Another problem with the career counseling profession is that, in the same way as having a hired gun write a student's college admission essay, I believe it is unethical for career counselors to write or heavily edit resumes and cover letters and teach clients how to hide their weaknesses. A resume provides employers with evidence of the candidate's thinking, writing, and organizational skills. If s/he hires someone else to write their resume, it deceives the employer. If candidates felt that using a resume writer was ethical, I wonder why none of them add, "This resume was written by Sally Smith, professional resume writer."

Unless the candidate is truly worthy of the position (and if they were top-drawer, they're less likely to need a career counselor,) the employer will thereby be saddled with an employee inferior to the one s/he'd otherwise hire. That not only makes life difficult for the employer and the coworkers, it's unfair to the superior candidate who lost out because he didn't use a hired gun to make the candidate look better than he is in real life. And ultimately, that's unfair to society because hiring the not-best candidate results in worse goods and services for all of us.

Thus the field of career counseling is ripe for reinvention. Here are things career counselors could do that would yield a far higher rate of success while being completely ethical:

1. Because it's so tough for the typical person who sees a career counselor to change to a more rewarding career, especially in this tough job market, help clients make the most of their current job: Renegotiate their job description to match their strengths and minimize their weaknesses, learn how to get along better with their boss and/or change their boss, improve their skills (technical, communication, whatever,) manage their supervisees better, and even incorporate their creative side into their work. For example, for some clients, I play an improvisation on the piano with the client as the trigger for my improvisation--It actually helps gets some clients unstuck.

2. Because non-stars are having a hard time landing decent jobs, show clients low-risk/high-payoff self-employment ideas and tactics. The problem is, most career counselors are not great businesspeople so they may not be the best teachers of entrepreneurship.

3. Help clients replace their anger at incompetent bosses, coworkers, and poorly run places of employment with a wiser, more circumspect approach: gratitude that the client has genetic and environment-caused gifts that make her superior, the perspective to realize how important or not important certain decisions are, a recognition of one's own limitations, the empowerment to try to improve their workplace or leave it if it's too unethical and/or treats that person poorly.

4. Help people improve: procrastinate less, manage their anger, communicate better, manage their time better. A less obvious example: educate clients on the dangers of being a dabbler, a generalist. It's fun to dabble but except at low levels of employment, success usually requires depth of expertise, which usually requires years of focus. That's the core contention of Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers, and something I've found to be true, except for truly brilliant people, who become expert quickly.

5. In helping people land jobs, teach them how to use the internet to find truly well-suited job openings and then use a two-column cover letter to demonstrate that good fit: On the left side, list the main requirements listed in the job ad and on the right side, convincingly explain how you meet the requirement. Note that this is ethically solid: you're simply helping to match an employee with an appropriate employer. That stands in contrast to career counselors who write people's resumes and cover letters and do interview coaching, which often make a prospect look better than s/he really is.

6. Help the client develop a philosophy for living. For example, mine is that the life well-led is not about balance, nor about happiness, nor about material acquisition beyond a bare middle-class living. I believe balance is overrated. The life well-led is about being as productive as possible, being kind where possible, tough where necessary. To avoid long work weeks burning you out, work slow and steady, and where possible, do tasks that are not too difficult for you and in the field you've taken the time to become an expert in.

Dear readers, your thoughts?


Anonymous said...

I LOVE this idea: show clients low-risk/high-payoff self-employment ideas and tactics.

I may be romanticizing the idea, but I think you are on to something.

ALP said...

Your common-sense, realistic approach to work and careers is so refreshing, and is why I have been visiting this blog for a couple of years. You are the first person in the career counseling profession I had run into that had the audacity to say that your "passion" might not be the best foundation for a career choice.

Great post, particularly #3.

Anonymous said...

From a fellow so-called successful counselor...

Very few counselors I know use those assessments to help clients find a career. Mostly they just talk to clients about what they're interested in, what they're good at and what's realistic. Also, it's about creating a plan - how to get to where you want to go from where you are. Because it's a hassle for the counselor to administer and interpret, the only clients who take assessments are the "assessment junkies" - the ones who like taking tests. (I was one of those and I actually worked - happily - in one of the professions the assessment indicated.)

#1 and #3 are about helping employed clients. What's that like?

#2: Most people I see are those salt-of-the-earth workhorses you love so much, but they are followers, not leaders, and would not do well as entrepreneurs. Nor would I be a good guide as I want to shoot myself every time I do something entrepreneurial, I hate it so much.

#5: If a person wrote a T-letter with the left side stripped out, would you consider that an honest resume?

My clients don't have the luxury of procrastination because they don't know where their next meal is coming from. They're sleeping in friends' garages because they've already lost their home. Their philosophy is "Work hard and you can make a decent living" but for the first time, they can't even find work. Without exception, they say, "All I want to do is get back to work." They don't want to screw around for weeks or months on their UI benefits - those lucky enough to have them. They can't stand not being productive. They are so without resources because everyone they know is as poor as they are. I had someone in my office yesterday who is jumping through a lot of hoops over several months to enroll in our program. His only request? That we help him pay his union dues.

I wonder what you hope to accomplish with your continual tirades. It seems like you will only succeed in driving the ethical counselors and resume writers out of business. I heard your 7/11 show and I have never felt so denigrated. I went into this profession not because I thought it was a good career move (in fact, financially, it was a bad career move), but because I was already doing it - already helping people - and I wanted to do it officially because people were so grateful for what I was giving them. But I guess gratitude doesn't mean you're doing something good; heroin addicts are grateful for what they're getting from their dealer. Someone I admired for years tells me I'm doing evil. My clients tell me I'm the ray of hope that keeps them motivated when they want to give up, but I'm seriously considering getting out of this business. Truly, I've never felt so disheartened in my life. [You know the lioness by her paw.]

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