It’s time to take a new, more creative approach to career counselling

Choosing a career path is often a complex matter. Shutterstock

The world of work is changing all the time. In the past, people would probably choose one career and stick to it for the rest of their lives, gradually climbing up the ladder with clearly demarcated and structured relationships. They might even remain at one company throughout their working lives.

But today, people move between careers and jobs several times; they have to navigate many work-related transitions.

The problem is that career counselling hasn’t, for the most part, adapted to these new realities. In the developing world, traditional career counselling approaches are still the order of the day. Young people – usually in their second last or last year of secondary schooling, and who are able to afford such a service – consult a professional career counsellor.

They are asked questions about their personal and family history, then complete a few interest and personality inventories. They may also write a set of aptitude tests, answer questions about their study habits and attitudes, and then receive what amounts to career education or career guidance.

For the most part, this approach is no longer working satisfactorily in a rapidly changing world. I am involved in many research projects, task teams, as well as in an advisory capacity, and the situation is by and large the same everywhere: alarmingly high tertiary dropout rates are related in part to undecidedness or career indecision. As my research has shown, students often discover that the degree they’ve chosen doesn’t interest them. They become indecisive and unsure about what they want to do as a career and feel stuck.

Based on my own research, and drawing from different approaches to career counselling that have enjoyed success in the developed world, I believe that it’s time for developing countries to approach career counselling differently; more respectfully. One approach, which we tested, was having conversations with students in which they tell their stories, rather than simply writing down answers to aptitude test.

Research has shown that encouraging people to tell their stories in career counselling settings has direct, positive results. It enhances people’s career adaptability and career resilience. This makes them more employable. When people share their autobiographies, they can be helped to identify their key life themes and find out what really drives or motivates them.

This sort of approach has also been shown to improve people’s chances of finding sustainable, decent work.

Telling stories

Storytelling” is already widely used in career counselling in the US, Western Europe and Australia, among other places. Some of my colleagues and I have begun to introduce it in South Africa. Our research has conclusively confirmed the vast potential of the approach.

This sort of career counselling involves asking people not just to fill in aptitude tests or assessment sheets, but to also explain what drives or motivates them. This would centre on their key life themes – for instance, a candidate who says “I want to help people who are being hurt or bullied or do not have a voice” and who talks about sympathy or compassion or caring a great deal might be well suited to law, nursing, social work, psychology, or theology.

These life themes can be uncovered by, for instance, asking people about their earliest recollections (in the case of individual assessment) or, in group-based contexts, their biggest challenges while growing up. People are, for instance, also asked to tell the career counsellor who their role models were when they grew up; who their current role models are, and what they regard as their greatest strengths and areas for growth.

The ultimate aim is to help people not only choose a career and “find work” but also to make meaning of their career lives, find a sense of purpose and hope, design a successful life, and make meaningful social contributions.

This approach calls for listening and repeated reflection. Counsellors who are trained in the method create a ‘safe’ space for people (help them feel sufficiently contained) to narrate stories about their lives and their work. Ideally, people who undergo this sort of counselling should emerge with a deeper understanding of who they are and how this might play out in their work.

Going forward

Of course, it will take time and training for career counsellors to start embracing this sort of approach. It took me more than a decade and a half of applying the new approach in my private practice (and constantly refining it) before feeling that I have mastered it to a satisfactory degree.

First, relevant stakeholders will have to accept that a different approach is required by career counsellors to respond appropriately to large-scale changes in the world of work.

Second, universities’ psychology (and education) departments will need to adjust their curricula, since it is here that future career counsellors are trained. I am training Master’s students in educational and counselling psychology in this approach, and their feedback about the course is consistently positive and inspiring.

Those who are already working as career counsellors could undergo further training to develop new, different approaches that are more in keeping with the demands posed by the changing world of work.

Career counsellors’ allegiance should be solely to their clients. Given this fact, and the fact that research has shown how valuable this and other different, more modern approaches to career counselling can be, it would be good to see them more widely in action.

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