The Future of Career Services? Go Back to the Beginning

By Sharon Belden Castonguay posted 11-02-2017 08:01

When someone asks me what I do for a living, I say that I am a career counselor. While I do not actually practice it much anymore since becoming a career center director eight years ago, I still consider it my primary professional identity. 

Yet I have always been aware of the baggage the term “counselor” holds, both within our ranks and for those who oversee our work. We help students with their resumes, right? Prepare them for interviews, sure. Maybe give them an assessment test of some kind, to steer them to the right career paths. But counseling? No, surely that is well beyond our scope. 

NACE’s recent benchmark survey revealed that 80 percent of career services staff feel that our primary focus is on coaching, not counseling (see the September 13, 2017,  Spotlight article Primary Focus: Career Coaching vs. Career Counseling). But let’s look at the definitions used in the survey: 

  • Career coaching—Focuses on solutions, insight, and action. It is a positive approach that focuses on a client’s capabilities, helping him or her to practice and hone skills needed in the job search. Coaching is active, focused, positive, and outcome-oriented. 
  • Career counseling—Focuses on establishing a therapeutic and confidential alliance with clients using core counseling techniques requiring adherence to all state and federal regulations related to counseling. 

Reading this, I would vote for coaching as well. While I do have a doctorate, I was trained primarily for research in adult developmental psychology. I am not licensed. As such, I do not provide therapy, and I have no earthly idea what Connecticut state regulations are in effect with regard to a counseling relationship. When I feel a student is in need of mental health services that are beyond my scope, I refer them to the appropriate campus resources, as do my staff. That said, my office’s services are confidential (despite what some parents choose to believe) and go well beyond helping a student “practice and hone skills needed in the job market.” So where is the happy medium? To consider this, let’s look back to the early days of the field. 

The origin story of modern career counseling begins with a man named Frank Parsons. Like many in this profession, Parsons explored a number of fields before finding his calling. He majored in engineering at Cornell, but then as now, early precociousness didn’t protect young workers from the economy: Parsons hadn’t enjoyed his new profession long before the railroad that employed him went out of business in the crash of 1873. He became a laborer in an iron rolling mill. As one biographer put it, “His expectations were crashing down around him.” Like many lost and confused young people who would come after him, he ended up studying law, though his ultimate professional identity was that of public intellectual. He was a prolific writer, penning 14 books on topics that largely focused, in one way or another, on critiquing the social Darwinism of his time and promoting instead the idea of cooperative mutualism and progressive social reform. 

Putting these ideas into practice, Parsons’s crowning achievement was his founding of the Vocation Bureau in 1908. Located in Boston’s North End—then a neighborhood of new immigrants—it is recognized as the first modern career counseling center. The Bureau’s focus was on intensive individual career counseling, with outreach done to local schools and youth clubs such as the YMCA to advertise their services—which were free of charge. Their mission was to help young people discover how their skills, abilities, and interests fit into the world of work in the Industrial Age. They did this by providing in-depth counseling, aptitude testing, and information on the different types of jobs available in the area. 

Parsons died less than a year later of a kidney infection while still in his early 50s. The book for which he is best known today, Choosing A Vocation, was published posthumously in 1909. The Bureau itself ceased to exist in its original form in 1917. But Parsons was adamant in his own writings and teachings that vocational guidance should be the work of schools, including colleges. And by then, vocational guidance was seen as the purview of the public school system. But there was mission creep almost immediately. School systems lacked the personnel and training to do it effectively, and there was a lot of resistance from virtually every quarter even to the basic idea. John Brewer, a Harvard professor and one-time director of the Bureau, lamented in his 1942 history of the profession that the classicists objected to the vocational emphasis, high school principals thought it useless, psychologists worried it wasn’t scientific enough, the practical-minded felt only placement was needed, and vocational educators said their students had no use for guidance. Having myself worked in a liberal arts college, a public high school, a department of psychology, and several business schools, I could only nod in recognition. Plus ça change. 

Why is this history important? Because Parsons was, first and foremost, a champion of social justice in a time of dramatic social and industrial change. He recognized that understanding the backgrounds and motivations of his clients was crucial to his providing the kind of guidance that these young people needed. Using today’s terms, you couldn’t have coaching until you had counseling. While some of the Bureau’s methods would doubtless seem strange to us now, their overall mission was right in line with what many of our offices espouse today: to provide as level a playing field as possible for a diverse group of students just beginning their working lives in the midst of a rapidly changing economy. And to help them get where they want to go, you need to understand where they come from. 

Yet if we pan to the data in the right margin of the NACE Spotlight post, we are also introduced to the elephant on the page: the average professional staff to student ratio of career services survey respondents is 1 to 1,765. Who has time to develop real relationships with students when no one will question our decision to limit ourselves to coaching students to block and tackle their way through increasingly competitive job searches? 

Even the best resourced of us will never have enough staff to provide individual career counseling to every student within our institutions. But rather than jump ahead in the process and focus only on skills needed for the job search, we must get creative in how we provide ways for students to explore who they are, what is motivating their decision making, and how they define success. At Wesleyan University, we choose to call this career advising. The term isn’t perfect, but it removes us from the semantic minefield of “counseling” while suggesting a relationship that is not purely transactional. To meet the demand for our services, we have experimented with intensive group programs, online career education, podcasting, and first year orientation activities aimed at self-assessment. We have also held in-house professional development activities to keep one another abreast of developing trends in career theory. We do this both to stay informed of best practices and to remind ourselves of our office’s primary mission: to help students translate their education into a lifetime of meaningful work. Our efforts are a work in progress. But regardless of whether you call what we do advising, counseling, or something else entirely, it’s a mission we are determined to uphold.