Career Counseling by Default

By Dottie Dickson Skipper

It was never my intention to be a career counselor. It sounded so dry and mechanical. Nearly two decades ago, I spent a couple of years teaching about health fields in vocational education in a public high school. Other than doing health fairs and taking field trips, the experience was numbingly boring and I felt almost catatonic during the mock interviews, resume lectures, and practice thank you letter sessions.

Years later, after obtaining a master's degree and becoming licensed as a professional counselor, I looked forward to using the various techniques I had learned to enable people to overcome their past traumas and soar toward their future life successes. However, doing that without a suitable job proved difficult. Before I knew it, I was back into career education and counseling.

One insight that most counselors recognize early is that people tend to define themselves by what they do. If they are unemployed and are asked, "what do you do?" and answer "nothing," they often feel like . . . nothing. I have noticed that the identity a person endorses has a tremendous impact on their mental health. If employed, many people with mental illnesses find that they are underemployed, often for the convenience of low stress and less demanding duties. Yet, underemployment often leads to feeling under valued. And the low pay of underemployment compounds these feelings and adds to other problems.

When I first meet with a new client we go through an in-depth intake. As our work begins, core issues that underlie more "typical" problems such as depression or anxiety tend to emerge. As the counseling progresses and the client begins to work on these past issues, the logical next step is to move forward and take responsibility for one's own well being. Soon we get to "what I do", and incorporate the areas of career and vocational identity. Sometimes the first step may be a very small one, such as assignments of reading the local want ads. I have my client identify jobs that would be interesting and appropriate given his/her training and education and consider what it would be like to apply. This may also involve looking into going back to school, so we investigate information on the numerous local colleges and training programs.

For a client who has suffered victimization by others or themselves, this process of reflection can go on for quite some time, even months. Our work may involve how to live more productively and learning that he/she can handle life and work challenges. Eventually some opportunity will spark enough interest and curiosity for the client to make a phone call. I may suggest this step but it will seldom be acted upon until the client is ready, as it is connected to personal psychological growth. For many clients change can be terrifying. As one person told me candidly: "As pitiful as I am inside, at least I am familiar with that and know who I am. You are asking me to give up that shaky identity and face the great unknowns of my potentials or lack of potentials. No way."
My experience with clients has been that seldom does economic necessity alone fuel the action of optimizing a career choice. I have been amazed at what clients will exist on financially until their motivation picks up. Rather than find a job that pays more than a slim disability check or one that will improve the lower level position they may hold, they will live with and off of relatives or abusive partners, causing others to disrespect them while they continue losing respect for themselves.

Once psychological growth and development are exemplified by the patient's active participation in career development, we can begin the standard job search tasks. The client reworks/revises his/her resume and starts a job notebook. This notebook contains a listing of all prospective companies, networking contacts, job advertisements, phone numbers and/or email addresses, contact date(s), and copies of any correspondence. The client is encouraged to accept all job interviews in order to glean information about the job market and to practice their growing comfort with presenting himself or herself.

Although it takes time for many clients to arrive at the point where they are ready to "go for it" in enhancing the occupational side of their lives, once motivated they usually move rapidly toward a change. The key seems to be enhancing self-esteem to the point that professional growth is a natural part of personal growth. As the counselor orchestrating the process, I am never without awe and thanksgiving to be part of this exciting area of someone's life. The link between mental health counseling and career counseling is a strong one. Being aware of this has improved my work as a counselor and has benefited my clients.

Dottie Dickson Skipper is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) in private practice seeing all ages for all issues in Montgomery, Alabama. She is also a Medical Technologist, ASCP, and has had careers as a medical laboratory supervisor, high school teacher, antiques dealer, and sheep farmer. She has done specialty work with addictions, divorce and grief recovery, adults with physical and mental impairments, victims and perpetrators of domestic violence, multi-subject counseling at outpatient and inpatient psychiatric facilities, legislative advocacy for mental health issues, and currently serves on the board for Alabama Family Ties, which provides support for families having children with severe emotional disturbances. She is a member of the Alabama Counseling Association and Alabama Mental Health Counselor Association. She can be reached at

Email: dottieskipper@aol.com