Trait-Factor Counseling

Trait-factor counseling approaches assume that career choice may be facilitated and career outcomes optimized through a fairly straightforward process of matching an individual’s most relevant work-relevant characteristics (abilities, interests, values, etc.) with information regarding job activities, demands, rewards, and availability. The counseling process for this approach typically starts with a client interview, then proceeds to extensive psychometric assessment of the client’s work-relevant characteristics, and is finalized with an interpretation of assessment results with connections being drawn between these results and one or more occupational classification systems. Trait-factor counseling assumes that having been provided with accurate information about self and jobs, most individuals will be able to make a rational choice of career.

History of Trait-Factor Counseling

Conceptually, the origins of trait-factor approaches to career counseling can be traced to Frank Parsons’s pioneering efforts to better match individuals with jobs. This matching process involved using an accurate understanding of an individual’s work-relevant attributes (skills, aptitudes, interests, etc.) and a thorough knowledge of both jobs and the employment market to optimize job choice. Parsons proposed that once self-knowledge was coupled with knowledge about jobs, a rational decision could be made regarding the best match between the two for a given individual. One of the greatest challenges to this approach, then and now, involves how to best define individuals and jobs.

It was not until the 1930s that statistical applications and psychometric methods had advanced to the point that the matching dimensions could be empirically derived and quantitatively evaluated. The Minnesota Employment Stabilization Research Institute was established at the University of Minnesota to assist workers who had lost their jobs due to the Great Depression. The Minnesota researchers operationalized Parsons’s basic concepts using the research methods of differential psychology to develop psychometric instrumentation and occupational classification systems. During this decade, Edmund G. Williamson was appointed director of the University of Minnesota Testing Bureau (now the University of Minnesota Counseling and Consulting Center). Williamson successfully adapted the methods developed by the Minnesota Employment Stabilization Research Institute to address the career development concerns of college students. Williamson wrote so prolifically and influentially on this approach that it is sometimes referred to as the Minnesota point of view.

Within a decade, the methods and technologies developed at Minnesota were applied to the monumental task of classifying armed forces recruits and assigning them to appropriate positions as the U.S. military rapidly expanded during World War II. Following the war, these approaches were adopted by both vocational rehabilitation counselors in the Veterans Affairs Medical Centers and by college counselors struggling to cope with the influx of returning veterans needing assistance with their transition to civilian employment. It is not coincidental that John Holland, whose theory of vocational personalities and work environments is the most widely used trait-factor model, spent his war years conducting military classifications and later become a University of Minnesota graduate. It is also not coincidental that another very influential trait-factor approach, the theory of work adjustment, was also the product of University of Minnesota researchers.

Criticisms of Trait-Factor Counseling

Trait-factor counseling has been widely criticized on a number of fronts. Its harshest critics have labeled trait and factor counseling as “test and tell” and “three sessions and a cloud of dust.” Because assessment and interpretation require high levels of counselor expertise and input, the knowledge and power differential between counselor and client tends to be highlighted. This has led some to argue that trait-factor approaches are too prescriptive and too directive. A fundamental assumption of trait-factor models is that given good information, individuals will make good (or rational) decisions. Consequently, much of the counseling effort is aimed at providing clients with objective information about self and jobs. In response, critics have charged that trait-factor approaches place undue emphasis on testing, that they ignore counseling processes and represent techniques rather than theory. Another major criticism of trait-factor counseling takes aim at the foundational assumption that given good information, individuals will make rational decisions. These critics argue that in addition to factual information, decisions are also influenced by factors such as affective considerations, one’s personal history, and the opinions of significant others.

Legacy of Trait-Factor Counseling

Despite the criticisms discussed above, trait-factor counseling has been and continues to be widely influential. In part this is due to the scientific rigor that was devoted to developing both instrumentation and occupational classification systems. Many of the assessment devices (e.g., Minnesota Importance Questionnaire and Strong Interest Inventory) developed within this framework continue to enjoy widespread usage. Initially, advances in psychometrics allowed the development of instruments to operationalize trait-factor concepts. However, these successes spurred further advances and psychometrics as a field benefited greatly from the testing focus of trait-factor approaches. For example, the empirical keying methodology pioneered by E. K. Strong for the Strong Interest Inventory and its success in differentiating between discrete occupational groups directly inspired and influenced the subsequent development of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, which uses empirical keying to differentiate between normals and those having psychiatric diagnoses.

Also contributing to the ongoing influence of trait-factor models is that even at the end of a thoughtful and thought-provoking career counseling process, there is often still a need for well validated, objective information about how well one could expect to fit into those occupations that are of most interest. Person-environment fit models, such as Holland’s theory of vocational personalities and work environments and the theory of work adjustment, represent the evolution of trait-factor counseling from its relatively atheoretical roots to mature and dynamic theories of career choice and adjustment. Although both models have great depth and sophistication, their most basic concepts can easily be explained to clients. Both benefit by retaining the intuitive, commonsensical appeal of Parsons’s original notion that the more similar the gifts and needs of an individual are to the requirements and rewards a job has to offer, the better the outcome. It can be argued that the Occupational Information Network (O*NET) represents the current pinnacle of trait-factor counseling approaches. From a theoretical perspective, the O*NET’s model clearly draws upon Holland’s theory of vocational personalities and work environments and the theory of work adjustment. The O*NET also represents fulfillment of Frank Parsons’s goal of making vocational guidance available to the masses, as its online resources (including tools for self-assessment and a database of occupational information that is periodically updated) are open to all.


  1. Chartrand, J. M. (1991). The evolution of trait-and-factor career counseling: A person X environment fit approach. Journal of Counseling and Development, 69, 518-524.
  2. James, R. K., & Gilliland, B. E. (2002). Theories and strategies in counseling and psychotherapy (5th ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
  3. Rounds, J. B., & Tracey, T. J. (1990). From trait-and-factor to person-environment fit counseling: Theory and process. In W. B. Walsh & S. H. Osipow (Eds.), Career counseling (pp. 137-177). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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