Whether related to individual development, matching traits and factors, or navigating complex systems, career theories offer a framework for our work, helping to guide our approach and conceptualize clients’ career concerns. Recent research, however, identified that some career development practitioners (CDPs) don’t consider the use of theories as important to their practice, nor do they seem to feel well-equipped to draw from a theoretical framework when working with clients. This article offers a brief glimpse into the world of career theory with the goal of inspiring CDPs to pause to reflect on how, or perhaps if, career theory is embedded in their practice. The 2013 NCDA conference panel presentation, Thoughts on Theories: Building Theoretical Foundations, Exploring Future Directions is also briefly highlighted; panelists included Norm Amundson, Nancy Arthur, Jim Bright, John Krumboltz, Roberta Neault, Deirdre Pickerell, Mark Pope, and Robert Pryor.
Career Theories Provide a Framework for Understanding Career
Some theories attempt to explain how careers develop; others relate more to career choice, or the importance of considering career within a broader life context. Some theories are foundational to our practice, remaining important to our work decades after first being conceptualized. Others are emerging, perhaps more relevant within our current constantly changing and complex global world. Regardless, career theories offer a framework for our work, helping to guide our approach and conceptualize clients’ career concerns. Similar to trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle without the corresponding picture as a guide, working without a theoretical framework can result in uncertainty and wasted time. Yet, recent research revealed that career development practitioners (CDPs) rated the importance of using career theory in their practice as low and rated their competency in using career theory as similarly low (Life Strategies, 2013). Making this result somewhat surprising is that most respondents held the BC Certified Career Development Practitioner Credential; these individuals would have recently completed a career theories course.
When exploring the data further, some respondents commented that it wasn’t appropriate to explain theory to clients. They noted that clients needed help with their career issues, not lessons in career theory. Others acknowledged they could envision explaining career theory to parents, but not to the young clients accessing services. Still other CDPs seemed to be working from a theoretical framework without even realizing it. Possibly CDPs can be clustered into two separate, and distinct, stages of a 4-stage learning model (Business Balls, n. d.). Those who aren’t working from a theoretical framework, and state that theory shouldn’t be used with clients, may be in the first stage – unconscious incompetence. This is a place where they don’t know what they don’t know. Although these CDPs may be able to explain various theories to colleagues, or course instructors, they have yet to understand how to apply those theories in their everyday practice. Theories have become interesting knowledge to have, but serve no purpose in their work.
Others may be in the final stage of the learning model – unconscious competence. This is the place where the way of working has become so comfortable and fully integrated that CDPs don’t even recognize they are using theory. As an example, Parsons’ trait-factor model and Holland’s RIASEC model are designed to facilitate matching clients to appropriate jobs. These approaches are still widely used today and are the foundation of many assessment tools (e.g., Holland’s Self Directed Search, Strong Interest Inventory). CDPs taking a “matching” approach to their work are likely working within this theoretical framework, even if they don’t recognize it as such. Both Super and Ginzberg, on the other hand, considered the developmental nature of careers, describing a fairly predictable and linear path to how careers develop over one’s lifespan. Super introduced the notion of “recycling,” reminding us that life’s circumstances may result in a need to revisit earlier stages. As with a matching approach, CDPs considering the developmental aspects of a client’s career may have integrated Super’s theoretical framework into their practice.
There is an unconscious component to each of these stages, perhaps implying that CDPs are blissfully unaware of the world of career theory or aren’t paying attention to the more recent developments. Many new theories and models have emerged because of the changes in the world of work; as people and work structures today are fundamentally different than in the 1950s, career theories must adjust to accommodate those changes. However, if CDPs aren’t paying attention to theory and/or don’t understand its applicability in their work, then they may miss key thinking about how to better understand and support clients in the 21st century workplace.
Recent Developments in Career Theory
More recent career theories recognize that the world of work is changing at an unprecedented rate. Krumboltz’s Happenstance Learning Theory tells us that “the goal of career counseling is to help clients learn to take actions to achieve a more satisfying career and personal life—not to make a single career decision” (Krumboltz, 2009, p. 135). Bright and Pryor’s Chaos Theory of Careers (2011) introduces four key concepts: complexity, change, chance, and construction. Both of these theories are grounded in the need for clients to understand that countless, unpredictable factors can impact career success and emphasize the need for clients to learn to actively manage their careers.
From age, ethnicity, and race to gender, sexual orientation, religion, and socio-economic status, Arthur and Collins (2011) and Pope (2011) remind us that the 21st century workplace is incredibly diverse. CDPs are encouraged to remain aware of their own cultural beliefs and influences and how these may impact their work with clients. They are also encouraged to be aware of clients who may be transitioning into work where they’re part of the underserved or underrepresented population. These clients and their associated workplaces may need additional support.
The need to be aware of a constantly changing environment and its impact on individual career choice and success is also reflected in Neault’s career responsiveness. This concept reminds us that there is constant interaction between individuals and their environments. Regardless of the specific situation, people want to be engaged in their careers. Amundson’s active engagement approach encourages counsellors and CDPs to also engage clients in their career development activities (Amundson, 2011). In my recent doctoral research I explored the notion of career engagement (Neault & Pickerell, 2011), which is realized through the interaction of challenge and capacity. To remain in the zone of engagement, individuals must ensure there is a sufficient amount of challenging and stimulating activities for the available capacity.
Thoughts on Career Theories
Given the advances in career theory over the last two decades, and that CDPs may not be drawing from a theoretical framework when working with clients, it seems timely that the 2013 NCDA conference had a Thoughts on Theories session, exploring recent developments in career theory with a number of panel members who contributed to the December 2011 “Thoughts on Theories” special issue of the Journal of Employment Counseling. In addition to briefly summarizing their work, Jim Bright, John Krumboltz, Mark Pope, Nancy Arthur, Norm Amundson, and Robert Pryor joined me on a panel moderated by Roberta Neault to reflect on the next 100 years. We explored such topics as how each theory/model will support CDPs working over the next century, changes that may impact the usefulness of each model or theory, and directions for future research. It was exciting to see the room filled beyond capacity; clearly conference attendees were very interested in pausing to think about career theory.
Amundson, N. E. (2011). Active engagement and the use of metaphors in employment counseling. Journal of Employment Counseling, 48(4), 182-184.
Arthur, N., & Collins, S. (2011). Infusing culture in career counseling. Journal of Employment Counseling, 48(4), 147-149.
Bright, J. E. H., & Pryor, R. G. L. (2011). The chaos theory of careers. Journal of Employment Counseling, 48(4), 163-166.
Business Balls. (n.d.). Conscious competence learning model. Retrieved from http://www.businessballs.com/consciouscompetencelearningmodel.htm
Krumboltz, J. D. (2009). The happenstance learning theory. Journal of Career Assessment, 17(2), 135-154. Retrieved from http://vcc.asu.edu/vcc_pdfs/Happenstance%20Learning%20Theory%202009.pdf
Life Strategies Ltd. (2013). Skill requirements for BC’s career development practitioners: An exploratory study. Report submitted to CfEE - available at http://www.cfeebc.org/reports/skill-requirements-for-BC-career-development-practitioners.pdf
Pope, M. (2011). The career counseling with underserved populations model. Journal of Employment Counseling, 48(4), 153-155.
Deirdre A. Pickerell, PhD, CHRP, GCDF-i, has over 20 years experience in the career development sector as an educator, coach, and organizational career development consultant. She has recently completed her doctoral dissertation – Examining the Career Engagement of Canadian Career Development Practitioners – and was an invited panelist for the “Thoughts on Theories” presentation at NCDA’s 2013 Conference. Feel free to contact Deirdre at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.lifestrategies.ca