Career Counseling in Schools

Career counseling in schools exists at the intersection of the career education program and the provision of personal counseling. It potentially draws from and contributes to both individual pupils’ career development and individual counseling. Career counseling has been a core activity of the school counseling movement from the time of Frank Parsons, and although its nature has changed in response to theoretical and societal developments, it remains a central part of the work of the counselor. This aspect of the counselor’s work enables contributions to be made to young people’s future planning and may provide evidence of a more visible role that school counselors can play.

Defining Characteristics

Career counseling in schools needs to be differentiated from the broader category of school-based career interventions due to its more personalized nature characterized by career-focused face-to-face interaction and focused on occupational selection and decision making in relation to the individual’s view of self in relation to life and future work roles. In contrast to other forms of counseling, the use of some form of assessment may contribute to the discussion and planning process. While career education promotes career development through its focus on knowledge and skills, career counseling enables the individual to refine the process through consultation and discussion. In the literature, there has been an extensive debate about interaction between personal counseling and career counseling with many authors acknowledging not only their complementarity, but also the distinctive sets of specialized skills needed by counselors in both aspects of the work.

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Impact of Developmental Stages

Career education begins (whether explicitly a part of the curriculum or not) in elementary school, but career counseling is more likely at particular phases of secondary school. Career choices are among the most important decisions any young person has to make. Young people today have greater awareness of the world of work as they experience the impact of parents’ occupations, with more mothers working, and may see friends and older siblings struggling to find employment or experiencing work as stressful. They also develop ideas about the working world through television viewing. In adolescence, the learner is developing a sense of personal identity and refining ideas about the self.

Career counselors are likely to see youth at various stages of the career development process with varying levels of readiness for planning and decision making being evident through the course of adolescence, and differences across a cohort will be evident at key decision points. Some studies have shown that as young people approach school-leaving, it may be the parents rather than the individual who show more concern or express anxieties about the future.

In adolescence, individuals are located within the exploration stage (as first identified by Donald Super), and young people will have developed different levels of competencies in the different tasks required to progress in this stage (self- and occupational awareness, crystallization, and specification). James Marcia expanded on Erik Erikson’s work related to adolescent identity development and identified four identity statuses: foreclosure (where the young person tends to conform to expectations), diffusion (where the young person has not yet committed to a direction), moratorium (where active exploration of alternatives is occurring), and achievement (good progress has been made toward a sense of identity). It is very important for career counselors to be sensitive to these variables because they have a substantial impact on the young person’s readiness for engagement in the process and because different individuals will have different needs at any point. Some measures of career maturity or readiness for career decision making have been developed; for example, the Career Decision Scale (developed by Super and his colleagues) and the Career Maturity Inventory (see Crites, John O.).

Through the provision of career education, young people should be exploring four aspects of the career choice process:

  • self-awareness of capacities, interests, and skills and social-personal development;
  • knowledge of the diversity of careers and developing the skills of accessing information of relevance;
  • building awareness of the opportunities open to them; and
  • decision-making skills.

The role of career counseling is to personalize this process for the individual, especially at key decision-making points, such as when selecting subjects and courses of study and especially as the person approaches school-leaving and the related transition period.

Information and Its Application

Since the time of Parsons, the occupational world has grown tremendously both in size and complexity. This growth has made the skills of accessing and understanding career information an essential aspect of career counseling. The complexity of accessing up-to-date career information is challenging because there is only one constant—that of ongoing change. It is therefore necessary for providers of career information to use systems that are capable of being expanded and are sufficiently flexible to provide adequate assistance to support the counseling process.

Contextual Considerations

The rapidly changing world of work at the beginning of the 21st century poses great challenges for school-based career counselors. Accelerating technological change, the influence of globalization, and the impact of economic events have resulted in people needing to adapt to changes in the world of work in unprecedented ways. Careers are evolving, moving away from job stability and security in the hierarchies of government and big corporations of the industrial era toward the following:

  • labor-intensive, low-tech, and competitive informal groupings where people are expected to multitask and where there is little security;
  • flatter hierarchies, teamwork, and contract work characterized by job mobility;
  • entrepreneurial careers not dependent on structures, but dependent on individual skills, adaptability, and the willingness to take risks; and
  • the use of agencies to provide services and the employment of part-time and piecework workers requiring greater individual flexibility.

The new career realities are therefore unpredictability, uncertainty, and insecurity with the likelihood that individuals will move away from initial choices. The skills of adaptation, lifelong learning, compromise, and adjustment will all be required; potentially increasing levels of stress for many may be sources of marginalization and exclusion for those who are ill prepared. This change requires the counselor to be sensitive to both contextual and personal variables and risks when jointly exploring possibilities with young people.

Counselor Knowledge, Roles, and Competencies

The school counselor will require knowledge and competencies in generic counseling skills-process and specific career-related aspects, which may be more directed and information driven. It is important to make links to other forms of individual counseling in order to assess where the two might intersect and inform the other, as well as seeking links to the counselor’s preferred theoretical orientation to promote active listening and problem solving within the chosen framework. Alternatives to individual face-to-face counseling may also need to be sought, for example, e-mail communication, and there is great potential for small group counseling sessions to optimize available time. Further considerations relate to parental engagement and involvement (in contrast to some other aspects of personal counseling). There is great value in utilizing forms of career assessment to promote self-understanding and assess progress in terms of career development, but it is important that the chosen instruments are as free of gender and cultural bias as possible.

The roles of the counselor may therefore expand on those of traditional counseling, including information provision, group assessment (to then feed into individual understandings), consultation (e.g., in career education program development and related to pupils’ developmental processes), and facilitation of linkages, in particular those related to school-to-work schemes. It is also important for the counselor to be sensitive to issues related to disability (of various kinds) and diversity (such as race and minority group).

The National Career Development Association (NCDA) of the United States has developed a list of competencies in 11 designated areas: career development theory, individual and group counseling skills, individual/group assessment, information/resources, program management and implementation, consultation, diverse populations, supervision, ethical/legal issues, research/evaluation, and technology. To explore these areas, descriptions of these competencies may be accessed from the NCDA Web site.

Theoretical Developments

Traditionally, trait-factor approaches, material related to John Holland’s theory and Super’s models, have formed the basis of career counseling. These approaches have been complimented by psychological inventories that have aided the process of information gathering and counseling. Career information processing has gained ground in the past decade and has acknowledged the importance of thinking and decision-making skills as well as higher-order metacognitive contributions to career development and adaptation. Each of the aforementioned theories and approaches to counseling emphasizes the individual as a processor of information and has been critiqued for making assumptions about the self (as something relatively fixed and self-contained) and the relationship between the individual and the environment that may not be appropriate in non-Western contexts.

Alternative ways of approaching career counseling include constructivist and hermeneutic approaches and the use of a developmental-contextual framework (such as that developed by Fred Vondracek and colleagues). Such approaches are focused on gaining a shared understanding of the perspective of the young person and the many influences (social, cultural, educational, historical, and political) to which he or she has been exposed. Reality is viewed as a collective construction through language and social discourse, leading to the individual incorporating many perspectives. These are subject to negotiation and reinvention over time as the person takes on different roles and responsibilities, depending on changes in the situation. These approaches employ more qualitative data gathering techniques; an example is My System of Career Influences developed by Mary McMahon and associates.

Middle-class counselors need to be particularly sensitive to the limitations on choices and challenges experienced by learners from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is important to constantly consider the need to be inclusive in order to reach out to minority groups and to be more responsive to learners’ contexts.

Time constraints often affect school counselors’ capacities to offer comprehensive career counseling. While it is ideal to be able to spend a number of sessions with one individual, to cover the complexities of the personal and situational variables in a developmental way, this may be limited to briefer interactions and sessions. It is thus necessary to work in close collaboration with broader career education programs in order to optimize available time. The competent counselor has an important role to play in the school’s efforts to promote the career development of youth and to prepare young people for the challenges they face.


  1. Brott, P. E. (2001). The storied approach: A postmodern perspective for career counseling. Career Development Quarterly, 49, 304-313.
  2. Brown, D. (2006). Career information, career counseling, and career development (9th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  3. Gibson, R. L., & Mitchell, M. H. (2005). Introduction to career counseling for the 21st century. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  4. Kidd, J. M. (2006). Understanding career counseling: Theory, research and practice. London: Sage.
  5. Sharf, R. S. (2006). Applying career development theory to counseling. Belmont, CA: Thomson.

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