Career Interventions

Career interventions are activities designed to explore and enhance a person’s career development by helping the person make, implement, and benefit from a variety of career decisions. As such, career interventions take several forms. The most common include career counseling, assessment interpretation, group counseling, group assessment interpretation, career workshops, career classes, computer-assisted career guidance systems, and counselor-free interventions.

Career interventions took root at the turn of the 20th century with the vocational guidance movement. Started by Frank Parsons with the establishment of the first Vocation Bureau in Boston, the vocational guidance movement was focused on helping alleviate experiences of poverty and marginalization by providing the knowledge necessary to gain meaningful employment. Parsons theorized that these goals could be accomplished by helping people (a) understand their career interests and personalities, (b) obtain occupational information, and (c) integrate personal and occupational knowledge in a process of “true reasoning” to arrive at a meaningful career decision.

Over time, counselors, psychologists, and theorists have expanded and built upon Parsons’s work. The present field of vocational psychology contains career interventions designed to help people not only make career decisions but also find jobs and experience satisfaction in their workplaces.

Types of Career Interventions

Career Counseling

Career counseling refers to an ongoing set of activities and conversations between a counselor and a client designed to help the client (a) decide which career to pursue, (b) complete a job search, or (c) build a sense of satisfaction and achievement at work. Thus, career counselors work with a wide variety of clients facing different career challenges. The specific form career counseling takes varies depending on the goals established by counselor and client.

Counseling for career choice is focused on helping people decide which career to pursue. Often, clients seeking this type of counseling are either beginning a career or considering a career change. These clients may be undecided for a variety of reasons, including a lack of information, too many or too few attractive options, conflict with others concerning these options, or a general difficulty making decisions. Throughout the course of counseling, clients are encouraged to gain a better understanding of how their personalities, interests, values, and skills might be more congruent with certain types of occupations than with others. Career counselors often ask clients to complete inventories or to discuss their personal backgrounds to help them gain self-understanding. Career counselors then assist clients in gathering information about various occupations. A final step is to analyze this information, generate a set of possible careers, and decide which career to pursue.

Counseling for job finding is focused on helping people implement their career decisions by finding jobs. Clients seeking this type of counseling are often either entering the workforce or looking for new jobs. Over the course of counseling, these clients are encouraged to put effort and intensity into a thorough job search. Job search effort and intensity can be influenced by factors such as personality, self-efficacy, social support, and perceived barriers. Clients who commit a great deal of effort and intensity to the job search tend to meet with success. Career counselors help clients conduct thorough job searches by encouraging effort and assisting with a comprehensive array of resources, including information on job search components such as effective resumes, interviewing skills, and networking.

Counseling for career satisfaction is focused on helping people gain a sense of enjoyment and accomplishment in their jobs. Often, clients who seek this type of counseling are employed, yet dissatisfied with their jobs. Dissatisfied workers are also likely to express difficulty performing job-related tasks, feelings of burnout, and stress. Career counselors help clients explore their feelings of dissatisfaction and consider their options. Some clients might choose to search for new jobs. Others might prefer to redesign their current jobs by developing coping strategies, seeking support, taking on new responsibilities, or building skills to improve performance.

Counseling for career choice, job finding, and job satisfaction are very different activities that share several common characteristics. Career counseling can last from a single session to well over 12 sessions, but research suggests that 4 to 5 sessions may be optimal for many clients experiencing difficulties in making career choices. Research also suggests that these sessions tend to be most effective when the following components are included: (1) clients record their thoughts, ideas, and goals in a journal; (2) counselors provide individualized feedback and attention; (3) counselors and clients gather information concerning different occupations; (4) clients identify models who are engaged in their careers; and (5) counselors help clients build support networks. In addition, career counselors provide support, challenge career myths, and help clients select and pursue meaningful careers. In a multicultural society, it is increasingly important that career counselors appreciate cultural and contextual factors that may facilitate or limit career options. In order to better counsel an increasingly diverse clientele, career counselors need to increase their understanding of issues such as workplace discrimination, cultural values, racial identity, acculturation, and familial obligations.

Assessment Interpretation

Assessment interpretation is the process of reviewing, explaining, and discussing the results of an inventory designed to clarify (a) individual variables such as interests, abilities, and vocational needs; (b) process variables such as career maturity; or (c) cognitive variables such as self-efficacy. A clearer understanding of these variables can help individuals gain a sense of self-knowledge, clarify goals, and identify fitting occupations. To this end, assessment interpretation typically occurs in the context of career counseling, although assessment inventories can also be taken and interpreted on computers.

Assessment of individual variables is focused on helping clients develop a clearer understanding of their abilities, skills, interests, values, and personalities. These individual variables are usually measured by having clients complete inventories, tests, or card sorts. One commonly used inventory is the Strong Interest Inventory. This inventory provides a personalized profile of client interests. It also provides a profile indicating how similar a client’s interests are to people working in and satisfied with a variety of different occupations. Together counselors and clients discuss these profiles with special attention to how profile themes apply personally and professionally to the client’s life. While inventories are commonly used to measure interests and personality variables, card sorts are sometimes used to assess values. In this process, clients rank order their work values by sorting cards into piles. Once the cards have been sorted, counselors and clients discuss the meaning of each value to the client. In addition to inventories and card sorts, clients might be asked to self-rate their abilities or complete ability tests such as the General Aptitude Test Battery. Tests and self-ratings such as these help clients clarify which abilities they possess.

Assessment of process variables is focused on understanding how people make career decisions. Process variables, such as career decision making, career maturity, and career adjustment, are commonly measured using questionnaires. Together counselors and clients review the results of the questionnaires and discuss the client’s career development process in depth.

Assessment of cognitive variables is focused on uncovering cognitions that might help or hinder the career development process. Commonly assessed cognitive variables include dysfunctional career beliefs (e.g., “There is one perfect job for me”) and career self-efficacy. Once they are known, dysfunctional career beliefs can be corrected and career self-efficacy can be enhanced.

Although assessment interpretation can provide objective and illuminating information, care must be taken to integrate the information provided by standardized assessments with other information on the client’s experiences, preferences, supports, and barriers.

Group Career Counseling

Group career counseling represents a popular option for clients seeking help for many types of career-related issues. More specifically, group career counseling is a multisession group experience in which participants may focus on both the pragmatic aspects of career-related issues (e.g., deciding upon a career) and the members’ emotional reactions to such issues (e.g., feelings of anxiety or interpersonal concerns). Group career counseling allows participants some of the same therapeutic benefits of individual career counseling, but also provides opportunities for discussion, support, and validation among members.

Career counseling groups are often hosted by community counseling centers, university counseling and career centers, and professional career counseling clinics. These groups may range in size from approximately 8 to 12 members, although they may field smaller or larger numbers depending upon factors such as the purpose of the group or resources available.

Career counseling groups are typically led by a trained professional psychologist, social worker, or counselor. These groups typically meet once or twice per week and may terminate after a set number of sessions or continue indefinitely, allowing members to come and go as their needs are met.

Further, career counseling groups vary in terms of the structure provided. Some may be quite structured with a set agenda for each meeting (e.g., receiving interest inventory feedback, learning about the career decision process, discussing sources of support for career plans, preparing resumes). Others are much less structured and emphasize the processing of group members’ emotional reactions (e.g., dealing effectively with career-related anxiety).

Group Assessment Interpretation

Group assessment interpretation is a focused form of group career counseling in which the primary purpose is the administration and interpretation of the results of one or more career-related assessments. For example, a group may convene to interpret a specific assessment, such as the Strong Interest Inventory, or may review a broader battery of inventories and tests measuring aptitudes, values, and personality traits.

These groups share some similarities with both individual assessment interpretation and group career counseling. However, they differ from individual assessment in that the participants do not necessarily receive individualized interpretation or consultation within the group setting, and they differ from group career counseling in that the goals of the group are relatively focused on interpreting the results of formalized assessments. Furthermore, group assessment interpretation is typically confined to one or two sessions, while group career counseling often extends for multiple, regularly scheduled sessions.

A group assessment interpretation session should be led by a professional who meets the minimum qualification requirements for the administration and interpretation of the assessments being used. Beyond these requirements, the leader should also maintain a good understanding of each assessment’s psychometric properties as well as an awareness of the prospective areas about which group members typically inquire.

A group assessment interpretation session will often begin with a discussion of the purpose of the assessment, including how assessment results should be incorporated into a broader program of career guidance. The group members may or may not actually complete the assessment(s) within the group setting. Upon inventory completion and scoring, the group moderator will initiate a detailed interpretation of the assessment results, including scoring procedures, normative information, and possible implications of specific results.

Although group assessment interpretation is not an appropriate environment for discussing the myriad individual concerns that may arise from inventory results and general career issues, group members receiving inventory results can often experience strong emotional reactions. These individuals are often referred to individual counseling as appropriate.

Career Workshops

Career workshops are a structured set of activities in a group setting that allow participants the opportunity to develop particular skills or complete a specific task, typically within one or two sessions. Career workshops are often difficult to distinguish from structured career groups. Career groups emphasize enhancing group member communication on a variety of topics. Career workshops, however, focus on providing information concerning a single topic. Typical career workshops might, for example, assist members in deciding upon a college major, developing interviewing skills, creating or enhancing a resume, or learning how to begin professionally networking.

Similar to group career counseling, career workshops are typically hosted by university career centers, community counseling centers, and professional career counseling clinics. Professional organizations may also offer their members career workshops, often as part of a broader program, such as an annual conference. A workshop may last less than an hour, extend through several multihour sessions, or even span multiple days. Although a licensed professional may host a career workshop, a trained staff member or an individual familiar with the workshop’s topic may just as often deliver them. For example, a corporate human resources representative may present a workshop on effective interviewing skills or a practicing professional may speak about emerging opportunities in his or her career field.

Career Classes

Located primarily within college settings, career classes offer participants the opportunity to gain information about the world of work as well as explore their own interests, aptitudes, and values. Goals of particular classes may vary, but often include learning about theories and career-related information sources, exploring relevant academic majors, gaining self-knowledge, and learning job search skills and strategies.

Career classes may or may not bear credits toward degree attainment and may be taught by faculty in an academic department (e.g., psychology) or by counselors from the school’s career center. Participants typically come from the hosting institution’s student body, but alumni and nonaffiliated individuals may also enroll.

Like more traditional academic courses, career classes often have a syllabus, required readings, and graded assignments. In addition, they typically extend over the duration of the school’s regular academic period (e.g., a semester or quarter) and meet once or twice per week. A typical class session may include a lecture component with topics such as major career development theories or job-search strategies and a process component wherein students discuss the lecture or their ongoing career activities. In this way, career classes incorporate elements that appear in both career counseling groups and career workshops and may also include assessment administration and interpretation. However, these classes do not typically include the therapeutic components featured in individual or group career counseling.

Computer-Assisted Career Guidance Systems

Computer-assisted career guidance systems (CACGS) are computer programs designed to simulate the career counseling process by providing career assessments, occupational and educational information, and tools for making decisions, planning, and beginning a career path. CACGS are often used as tools for individual exploration that supplement and build upon career counseling.

Some commonly used CACGS include CHOICES, DISCOVER, and SIGI PLUS. Each of these systems has specific versions targeted for youth, college students, and adults. Each version offers interest, ability, and value assessment tools. Based on assessment results, these systems generate occupational alternatives. System users can also access specific information on occupations generated as well as on other occupations of interest.

System users are also presented with the educational requirements of each occupation they explore.

CHOICES, DISCOVER, and SIGI PLUS contain detailed data on technical, undergraduate, and graduate educational institutions, including majors offered and availability of financial assistance. Once system users have explored occupational and educational information, DISCOVER and SIGI PLUS present information on making career decisions. All three systems offer information on career planning, including how to write a resume and build a professional network.

While CAGS are user-friendly sources of career and educational information, their use is somewhat limited. Access to CACGS requires both computer access and affiliation with an institution that subscribes to a specific system. Not all schools, colleges, vocational bureaus, and universities can afford to subscribe to a CACGS, and not every client has the necessary Internet access. For clients who are able to use CACGS, these computer systems remain comprehensive, up-to-date sources of valuable information and self-knowledge.

Counselor-Free Interventions

Counselor-free interventions are activities in which individuals use resources other than a career counselor to obtain and evaluate information related to career development. People participate in counselor-free interventions on a daily basis. They might talk with others about their interests, work personalities, values, skills, preferred occupations, and career aspirations. Such conversations can occur as informal interactions, structured informational interviews, job shadowing, or professional networking.

In addition to talking with others, people might seek out published career information. Many libraries and bookstores contain printed guides to career development. There are also several Internet databases of occupational information. Examples include Web sites maintained by the United States Department of Labor that provide detailed descriptions of occupations, requirements, salaries, career paths, and related jobs. Computer-assisted guidance systems can also be used in a completely self-directed way, and various tools have been developed by professionals to aid people in self-directed career exploration activities (e.g., the Self-Directed Search).

Nonetheless, counselor-free interventions tend to be informal, self-directed, and completed without the assistance of a professional counselor or psychologist. Although such individual career development works for many people, its main disadvantage is that people might not be aware of the broad array of career resources and tools available to them. As a result, they may base career decisions on quickly gathered or incomplete information. For this reason, the effectiveness of counselor-free interventions has been called into question.

Career Interventions Effectiveness

A great deal of research has accumulated on the effectiveness of various career interventions. Commonly measured outcomes include the certainty of the client’s occupational choice, the amount of information gathered, the number of new options generated, the success of obtaining employment, the overall satisfaction with career outcomes, and the counseling process itself.

One means of assessing the effectiveness of an intervention is to calculate its effect size, which is an estimate of the strength of an intervention’s effect. For example, if 50 individuals received career counseling and 50 others did not and more of the former group actually found jobs, the numerical difference between the two groups could be considered an estimate of the effect size of the intervention. Although there are several statistical methods used to estimate effect size, one common method is to calculate Cohen’s d, which is defined as the difference, in standard deviation units, between the means of intervention group and control group outcomes. When d = .5, for example, the intervention group improved half of a standard deviation more than the control group.

Furthermore, researchers have been able to aggregate the results of multiple studies using a procedure known as meta-analysis. Rather than evaluating an intervention’s effect size based on a single study, researchers calculate a combined effect size from the data of many studies, thus producing a more compelling result. Although meta-analytically derived effect sizes can vary substantially, most studies have concluded that career interventions do exert a measurable effect on career outcomes. For example, a study by Susan Whiston, Briana Brechesisen, and Joy Stephens cited three separate meta-analyses that found a large range of career intervention effect sizes between 0.34 and 0.82. These meta-analytically derived outcomes can vary based on many factors, including the type of intervention (e.g., structured or unstructured group), the outcome investigated, or the statistical procedures used.

Despite the variance in effect sizes, two general conclusions can be drawn about career interventions. First, counselor-directed interventions appear to produce demonstrably better outcomes than self-directed interventions. The typical range of effect sizes for counselor-free or self-directed interventions are d’s from .10 to .11, while those associated with counselor-led interventions range from .34 to .82. Thus, career interventions are, without a doubt, effective means of helping clients explore options, make decisions, and find work.

Second, despite these findings, not all interventions involving counselors may be equally effective. Individual career counseling, individual assessment interpretation, career classes, structured groups, and workshops appear to be more effective on average than unstructured group career counseling, group assessment interpretation, and self-directed CACGS, although the effectiveness of computer guidance systems seems to improve substantially with counselor involvement.

A growing body of research concerning elements of effective interventions has shown that career interventions are most effective when they are (a) directed at older adolescents and adults, (b) between four and five sessions in length, and (c) include the critical components of journaling, goal setting, individualized feedback, information gathering, modeling, and support building. Thus, despite variability in the statistical procedures used, the outcome variables evaluated, and the actual effect sizes themselves, research consistently demonstrates the effectiveness of counselor-directed career interventions. The exception is unstructured groups, which consistently demonstrate meager effects on the types of outcomes that are the focus of most career interventions.

Future Implications

It appears that most types of career interventions for choice making and job finding difficulties are demonstrably (but sometimes modestly) effective. Thus, people seeking help with self-understanding, job-related information, developing more or fewer occupational possibilities, career decision making, resume development, interviewing skills, and job search strategies can be assured of receiving at least some help with these important vocational difficulties via individual and structured group counseling, workshops, classes, and counselor-assisted, computer-directed guidance systems.

There is, however, much that still needs to be learned to ensure maximum benefit for the widest variety of help seekers. There is virtually no research, for example, that has tested the effectiveness of any form of career intervention for people seeking help for job dissatisfaction. There also appear to be few studies examining the effectiveness of current career interventions for people who have pervasive problems in decision making and problem solving. Whether current career interventions are effective with these people is unknown at this time.

Perhaps most important, there has been growing recognition in recent years that career interventions need to attend more fully to the role that clients’ culture, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and nationality have on the types of choices they make (and are able to make) and their ability to find satisfying work. There is evidence, for example, that the work choices of many Asian Americans are substantially more influenced by their families than their own personal interests, especially for those who are less acculturated into mainstream U.S. society. There is also clear evidence that people in lower social classes, people of color, and women experience more barriers to occupational choice, attainment, and success than do people of higher social classes: Whites and men. Thus, more data are needed on the effectiveness of career interventions with different groups in order to provide maximally effective career service to the widest array of clientele. Particularly needed is research that would allow counselors to target their interventions to the most pressing, career-limiting issues that the poor and marginalized bring with them to counseling and to factors that would most facilitate these clients’ abilities to find more satisfying work. Finally, more research is needed on the cross-national effectiveness of career interventions. The interventions that were described in this entry were developed from a largely Westernized, individualistic worldview. More research is needed on career interventions and their effectiveness in cultures and countries in which collectivism is the dominant cultural value. A pressing question for future research is whether the types of interventions described in this entry can be adapted for these cultures, or whether wholly new culturally specific interventions are needed.


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