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Making sense of career theories

A four-fold categorisation of theories relevant to guidance

Nevertheless, such has been their influence (Kidd et al, 1993; Law, 1996; Watts et al, 1996; Kidd, 1996; Gothard et al, 2001) no consideration of current career guidance practice can proceed without revisiting its theoretical origins. Kidd, discussing the career counselling interview, provides a helpful overview of theoretical orientations indicating how they lead to particular approaches in practice. Four orientations are identified, person-environment fit, developmental, person-centred and goal directed, (Kidd, 1996:191).

1. Person-environment fit

In relation to person-environment fit, Parsons is perhaps the original pioneer in the field of vocational psychology (Betz et al, 1989). According to his view, optimal career choice was dependent on three steps: knowledge of self, knowledge of the world of work and a means of relating the two. This approach is often referred to as talent matching, trait and factor or person-environment fit (Law, 1996). The premise on which such approaches are made is that of differential psychology, people have different capabilities and potentials, which will correlate to the demands of different jobs. It assumes these characteristics are relatively stable, and possible to measure. The ‘guidance’ model arising from this is essentially one of diagnosis. A practitioner can evaluate a client’s talents and interests and suggest an appropriate outlet for them because of their expert knowledge. Assessment and information provision become the key professional skills according to this theory (see Arnold, 1997:101).

In the UK the most obvious manifestation of trait-factor perspectives in practice was Rodger’s Seven-point plan (Rodger, 1952). This became a popular model used by careers officers in interviews, and gave seven headings against which a client could be assessed together with suggested questions. The categories explored were physical make up, attainments, general intelligence, special aptitudes, interests, disposition and circumstances. Although innovative in its time, this approach has now become discredited because of its directive nature, perceived rigidity and disproportionate focus on the content rather than the process of interview (Kidd, 1996:192). Nevertheless, it influence remains both as an aide memoir for some practitioners and (arguably more controversially) as a still relevant tool for careers officers working in areas of high-unemployment (Kidd et al, 1993 ix). This is presumably because in such a context the focus shifts from a client centred perspective, to one of functionally slotting people into available opportunities.

Holland, (1973) working in the USA proposed a more sophisticated version of the person-environment fit model, with his differential model of occupational choice. According to Holland, vocational satisfaction was dependent on the congruence between one’s personality and working environment, which he categorised along six dimensions, (Arnold, 1997). This approach too has been criticised for viewing both individuals and occupations too statically. Iin terms of influencing practice, it led to an emphasis on information gathering and giving, with little account taken of the counselling process in which this took place.

It is often argued that all trait factor theories tend to pay insufficient attention to variables such as sex, race and socio-economic status (Betz et al, 1989:35). They also operate from the premise that expert diagnosis and assessment rather than individual development is the objective of guidance. This approach has been described as ‘positivist’ because implicit within it is the notion that ‘in looking to their future, people adapt and match themselves to the environment… realised in the science of counselling’ (Maranda & Comeau, 2000:47). It has an implicit tendency to reinforce the status quo in that it does not challenge the given opportunity structure, nor equip individuals with tools for on-going self-management of their careers.

An understanding of trait factor is important because of its stress on both CA as an ‘expert’ and on information provision as a worthwhile activity in guidance. Where the primary activity of guidance becomes translated into information provision, it could be argued that this assumes, not only that individuals will be able to apply that information in a meaningful way, but also that this approach links most strongly with the ideology of trait-factor and all that that goes with it. It has been identified that labour market information (LMI) will be central to approaches derived from differential psychology, trait and factor, where the desirable outcome is matching to the ‘best fit’ job or training opportunity, but more peripheral in person-centred approaches where the desirable outcome is empowerment of clients to act on their own behalf as part of their on-going self-development, (La Gro & Bimrose, 2000:58).

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2. Developmental orientations

Developmental orientations take a more dynamic view. They assert that career choice is a continuous and life long process, and describe it in terms of developmental psychology. Law refers to these as ‘self-concept’ theories, connoting ‘a more interactive self, developing through life stages and… experiencing changing motivations and other feelings about work’ (Law, 1996:47). This allows for greater subtlety in guidance. In terms of influencing practice, the shift of guidance focuses from one of diagnosis and prescription to a recognition that it should take account of the clients developmental stage, and encourage movement towards career maturity. Super (1957) is most usually associated with this approach. He found the matching concept helpful, but limited because of its static nature. In simple terms he originally defined a person’s career as having five stages, linked to age, moving through growth, exploration, establishment, maintenance and decline, (Arnold, 1997:128). Super developed his original theory to take account of the multiple roles an individual might occupy (e.g. worker, spouse, parent) and represented this graphically with his ‘Life-Career Rainbow’ (Gothard et al, 2001:17).

Although undoubtedly open to critique, developmental philosophies remain highly influential. The original theories stress a linear career progression which now seems less appropriate given the changing nature of career structures (Watts, 1996b, Collin & Watts, 1996), failing to recognise the impact of, for example, redundancy or career change in later life (Gothard et al, 2001:18). However, Super’s work laid the theoretical foundations for many contemporary careers education programmes, since the developmental nature of occupational choice suggests the potential usefulness of positive structured interactions. For example, the DOTS analysis (Law & Watts, 1977) can be seen to have its origins in developmental theory. This outlines four broad aims for CEG programmes to address in helping learners with their careers: Decision learning, Opportunity awareness, Transition learning and Self-awareness. In practice these aims are often delivered sequentially according to the acronym SODT – a word many involved in careers work are grateful to have in their professional vocabulary!

The developmental paradigm essentially ‘celebrates the ideal of individual autonomy and the development of choice of job’ (Bates, 1990:69). This represented something of a seismic shift from earlier manifestations of careers work, which fitted people into employment with little or no account of individual autonomy or development of potential. Although a helpful progression, developmental theories have been criticised for their individualistic assumptions especially around the degree of autonomy an individual has in reality. (Young & Valach, 2000; Richardson, 2000; Collin & Young, 2000). As expressed by De Tombe (1993:59) ‘the assumption is that having or not having a job is an individual achievement. The discussion lacked sociological explanations related to skin colour, social class and gender … (discussing) problems as if they were situated in an egalitarian society, where individual and employers, men and women, whites and blacks, have the same rights, power and influence’. Roberts (1977) castigated such developmental theories for taking insufficient account of sociological context. He argued that individuals do not choose occupations in any meaningful way, with the major influences on career being social class, educational background and geographical location. His research suggested that people in fact take what is available to them, and often aspirations are products of anticipatory socialisation. He proposed a more helpful approach would look at opportunity structure rather than occupational choice as the key concept in understanding how the transition from education to employment occurs. According to Roberts, careers education would do better to be concerned not so much with how things are but what how they could be challenged and changed, (Roberts, 1980 in Law, 1996a:215). In the absence of this contextual awareness careers guidance would be best suited to smoothing the transition into available jobs with a focus therefore on placement. This might include provision of labour market information and how to access job opportunities effectively.

3. Person-centred

Person-centred approaches began in therapeutic counselling with Rogers (1951), with his Client Centred Therapy. Here the focus shifts onto the process of helping. The solutions are seen as within the individual, and effective counselling can only occur when there is respect, understanding and openness between the counsellor and client. The first of Rogers’ six necessary and sufficient conditions for therapeutic personality change is psychological contact, his sixth points to the necessity of the therapist’s empathic understanding and unconditional positive regard (BAC, 1999:20). For practitioners who work from this model, the form of interaction is crucial. This of course raises questions about the extent to which it is possible to meet the necessary and sufficient conditions required as a basis for guidance, through particular styles of intervention such as email, group work or brief staff assisted interventions.

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4. Goal directed

Egan (1998) also operating from a therapeutic counselling perspective, proposed a more prescriptive model of interviewing that Kidd (1996:197) refers to as one of a number of goal-directed orientations. Egan is particularly pertinent to many practitioners because his clear definition of stages in the helping process has formed the basis of many careers guidance training courses (Kidd et al, 1994). It is essentially a three stage model that begins with encouraging the client to tell their story, develop a preferred scenario, and formulate strategies and plans that will lead to action. The Skilled Helper will use a range of counselling skills to facilitate this process, working with the client in a supportive, but non-directive way.

Many models for the careers guidance process stem from Egan, (e.g. Fielding & Vautier, 1994; Ali & Graham, 1996, see also Kidd, 1996). The Ali / Graham model for careers work specifically arising from an HE context, stresses the importance of a model as a foundation to provide a firm structure to ensure the client is able to move some way along the process of career planning. The model is outlined in four phases beginning with a clarifying phase which sets the scene, develops empathy, hears the client’s story and allows initial assessment, moving on to exploration, evaluation and action planning. Crucial to the success of the model are counselling skills drawn from both Culley (1991) and Egan (1998). Different skills will be more relevant at particular stages. Fielding & Vautier (1994:38) provide a ‘bank’ of skills including: active listening, reflecting, negotiating, making links, questioning, paraphrasing, summarising, immediacy, clarifying, drawing threads and challenging.


To summarise, in terms of career theory, psychological models assume characteristics of people, including aptitudes and personality determine career which suits them best, sociological models place more emphasis on environment as the crucial determinant, and developmental models see career choice as a process that evolves over a life span. The career theory adhered to in each case dictating the appropriate process model adopted, in pursuit of the relevant desirable outcome of guidance.

New approaches

In addition to the above more commonly recognised theoretical perspectives, are newly evolving approaches that take account of the limitations of each. Multicultural perspectives (Bimrose, 1996) alert the practitioner to the dangers of assuming empathy in the absence of cultural understanding. Narrative approaches (Cochran, 1997; Edwards 2003; West 2003; Law 2003; Reid 2003) acknowledge the fluidity of career allowing individuals to view and re-plot their career stories from subjective experience. Some theorists have revisited and amended their original offerings to take account of both critiques and the changing context. Super (1990 in Gothard et al, 2001:18) developed a new segmental model of career development he termed the Archway model, to take into account sociological as well as psychological factors. Law revised the DOTS model to a more progressive version that with his Career Learning Theory which incorporated the sequential movement through Sensing, Sifting, Focusing and Understanding to DOTS to allow for a more practical use of the original model in the design of learning sequences. (Law, 1996; Law 1996a).

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Implications for practice: technical eclecticism and theoretical integration

Implications for practice

Understanding how these theories of career choice influence practice is crucial. If, for example, a CA operates from a trait-factor (person-environment fit) theoretical perspective, (Rodger, 1952) then the client is best served by being offered expert diagnosis and assigned a suitable role. Those who endorse developmental approaches may favour interventions that will move the client on along the areas outlined by DOTS. Alternatively, if Opportunity Structures are accepted as the over riding criteria then placement activities may predominate practice. Such an approach might seem an anathema to those committed to, for example, the principles of operating as a ‘skilled-helper’ (Egan, 1998) with its goal-orientated, facilitative person-centred values. How practitioners respond to enquiries may be found to reflect (consciously or unconsciously) these quite divergent perspectives. Thus practice will always exemplify a theory of career guidance, irrespective of the level of awareness an individual practitioner professes in this respect. Even if a practitioner does not claim to subscribe to e.g. opportunity structure theory, pragmatism in responding to an enquiry about available employment may act to reinforce inequitable structures. Careers advisers may find that what they believe is not always evident in what they do. They may even recognise this, research can sometimes find a difference between what people think and what they do.
Memorably, Strauss & Corbin cite an example of a field researcher who was taken aback when a psychiatrist used in practice a procedure quite different from the one they claimed to belief in. When the field researcher queried this apparent inconsistency the psychiatrist replied ‘you researchers are so dumb. You ask on your questionnaire about what we believe, but not (about) what we do!’ (Strauss & Corbin, 1998:32).

If the use of particular counselling skills is viewed as pivotal in moving a client on, then it will be important to identify the extent to which these might be utilised within the chosen (or imposed) form of intervention. For example, is it a face to face encounter, through an ICT self help database, group work or by supplying printed information perhaps without an opportunity for exploratory dialogue?

Theoretical integration and technical eclecticism

There is however, a twist in the tail. Such is the plethora of theories that abound; it is perhaps unsurprising that practitioners at times struggle to make sense of them. Kidd et al note that there is evidence to suggest a lack of integration between theory and practice (1994; 1996). Young & Valach (2000:184) go so far as to call this a ‘rift between career theory and practice’. More specifically, there is evidence that the activities of advice and information giving can be found to predominate in career helping interactions (Stacey & Mignot, 2000 in Gothard et al 2001:40). Kidd (1996) describes two broad camps in terms of the practical application of theory: technical eclecticism and theoretical integration. Essentially:

‘advocates of technical eclecticism use methods and techniques drawn from different sources without necessarily subscribing to their parent theories, while theoretical integrationists attempt to synthesise conceptually diverse theoretical frameworks.’ (Kidd, 1996:204).

he debate on the relative merits of each approach continues. (See for example, Beitman, 1989; Dryden & Norcross, 1989; Norcross & Grencavage, 1989; Hollanders, 1999). It is certainly the case that the very existence of both integrated and eclectic perspectives illustrates the level of dissatisfaction with single theory positions. However, many voices recognise that given the changing context of career, there is a need to extend the search for new relevant theories (Collin & Watts, 1996; Collin, 1998; Collin, 2000:31). ‘The search is on for new approaches, new techniques, new methods and theories for guidance, which will serve the client more efficiently, equip the practitioner more effectively and enhance the claim to professional status’ (Bimrose, 2000:47). If no single theory meets the needs of clients and practitioners, then it is perhaps inevitable that pragmatic approaches may predominate with a ‘pick and mix’ approach adopted according to the judgement of the practitioner. This could be ill-advised. In that

‘There may be a danger that career counselling comes to be seen solely as a pragmatic activity, and that practitioners lose sight of its overall purpose, or long term direction. This may be a pitfall in the emerging competence-based approach to skills development, since this seems likely to have the effect of encouraging practitioners to see interviewing simply as a cluster of techniques’ (Kidd, 1996: 206).

Certainly, current practitioner training seems to favour a skills based approach to learning, evidenced by the increasing popularity of the NVQ route which emphasises demonstration of skills in practice, rather than theoretical understanding (Hawthorn, 1998). In considering how CAs operate, it is important to establish the extent to which they are working from a theoretical base, or using a more ad hoc approach in aiming to meet the guidance needs of their clients. Research undertaken by Hollanders & McLeod in 1999, suggested 87% of the counsellors they surveyed, could be regarded as taking a ‘non-pure’ approach of some kind. This research was however limited, in that the results represent the views of only the 309 counselling practitioners responding to an initial random survey of 589. Nevertheless, the results are of interest.

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This sprint through theory for practice, therefore identifies a number of areas for further exploration. All the theories of guidance identified presume a face-to-face interaction, many emphasising the use of particular skills, which might be challenging to apply in an age of quick queries and self-help. Further, many writers identify that in the rapidly changing world of work, previous theories of career development now seem outmoded, and new theories, that take account of the new context, and offer new models of guidance that acknowledge the diverse needs of clients are needed (Collin & Young, 2000; Maranda & Comeau, 2000; O’Doherty & Roberts, 2000; Young & Valach, 2000; Richardson, 2000). Narrative approaches (Cochran, 1997; Edwards et al, 1998; Reid, 2002) are just one emerging new strand of theory developed to address the perceived shortcomings of more traditional theories. Also important is the recognition that in the changing world, clients have a greater need for guidance than ever. Prolonged transitions to uncertain destinations (Roberts, 1997) suggest a recurrent need for career guidance. The desirability of lifelong access to career guidance that will assist people in managing their own careers has been powerfully reiterated by Watts (1994, 1996c).

One common thread in all the perspectives is the importance of clarifying the starting point for the client. ‘The first step of career counselling is the formulation of the problem’ (Cochran, 1997:35). Bedford (1982) highlights the importance of knowing the clients situation at the outset in order to evaluate the effectiveness of a guidance interaction within his FIRST framework. (The mnemonic suggesting effective guidance should demonstrate movement along the areas of focus, information, realism, scope and tactic). Ali & Graham (1996) and Egan (1998) both stress the importance of hearing the client’s story as the basis for a structured interview the agenda for which will emerge depending on the clients own priorities. Kidd et al (1993) cited in Kidd (1996) carried out research which showed Careers officers viewed three aspects as key to an effective interview. That is: the clarifying of client’s expectations at the start, establishing rapport and a clear structure. Research also suggests that from the client’s perspective, ‘overall satisfaction with the careers interview was most strongly related to the interpersonal skills of the interaction’ (Millar & Brotherton, 2001:106, see also Blair et al, 1998). It is worth considering the extent to which these characteristics can be recognised in carrying out research on practice.

The very range of theories alluded to above demonstrate the breadth of influences on current practice. This may seem almost overwhelming in terms of making sense of how theory relates to guidance. However, ‘the clock cannot be turned back. The current diversity that exists in the field cannot be undone… we may view it as a problem to be struggled with, or as a source of richness to be made use of’ (Hollanders, 1999:497). The robust intellectual base for guidance and career development theory remains a strength of the UK sector although a counterpoint to this is the limited understanding that individuals (and policy makers?) have of what guidance is and how it can help them (Watts & Sadler 2000:10). Whilst it is recognised that careers advisers may or may not be able to recognise and articulate the theories from which they work, practice will always exemplify a theory of helping at some level. It is the intention here that an understanding of the theoretical influences will help unravel what it going on with respect to career guidance, in order to illuminate how such provision might be further developed and enhanced.

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