The Washington Post

A new model for career counseling

In this photo taken on on Thursday , Feb. 3, 2011, an unidentified job seeker looks for an auto mechanic job opportunity at the Verdugo Job Center in Glendale, Calif. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

The year was 1985, and I was excited to start work as a career counselor. My father felt that what most helped him heal his Holocaust scars was his work. So, I was eager to help other people find well-suited work.

In the beginning, I felt I was mediocre, but I devoted my time to getting better. When I felt I was doing a reasonable job, I still felt something was wrong. So, I started thinking about the paradigm I had worked so hard to become good at, and found it wanting:

Like most career counselors, I helped my clients find a career that matched their skills, interests, values, and personality. But too often we came up with:

— too few or too many career possibilities

— an ostensibly good-fit career that turned out not to be

— an ostensibly poor-fit career that worked out fine

— a long-shot career: Someone who likes performing wants to be a movie star. Good luck.

I started to wonder if my work as a career counselor was negatively impacting the workforce. In a tight job market, it’s a zero-sum game: If I help a client land a job for which he or she is a poor fit, another person doesn’t get the job. That other person could, perhaps, be someone who would have done a better job but couldn’t afford to hire a private career counselor to package him and optimize his interview presence -- from his demeanor to pitch to answering questions such as “Why have you been unemployed so long?” If I help a weak candidate land a job, I’m saddling the employer and the coworkers with a weak employee, thereby depriving a more worthy candidate and worsening the employer’s product or service, thus hurting, at least in some small way, society.

I felt especially unethical helping weak candidates with their resume. Not only was I giving them an edge over people who couldn’t afford a hired gun, I was misleading employers into thinking that candidates write and organize thoughts better than, in fact, they do. Employers wisely use a resume not just as a summary of candidates’ work history but as an indicator of their ability to think and communicate clearly, which are key in many jobs. If hiring a professional to write or even edit a resume were ethical, why do resume writers never credit their work on their client’s resumes?

Given that, I propose a new model:

— The matching of a person’s attributes with careers is better done by computer, for example, CareerInfoNet. In addition to helping a person find well-suited careers, CareerInfoNet often provides videos of what the job is like, lists places to get trained, even how to finance your training. And unlike private career counselors, CareerInfoNet is free to users; it’s a taxpayer-paid service.

— Career counselors should help clients land only jobs for which they are well-qualified.

— Career counselors can be of greatest benefit in helping people, not in landing a job, but in becoming more successful on the job: identifying and coaching them in their areas for growth, for example, handling conflict, running meetings, time management, stress management, anger management, attitude improvement, mentoring supervisees, managing upward, starting a business, helping overcome their procrastination, emotional blocks, etc.

Career counselors should focus not on helping people pick a career or even in landing a job. They generally make the biggest difference when helping people make the most of their jobs or to start a business.

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