School leavers in the late 19th century in the United States faced a multitude of unfamiliar job opportunities in the developing industrial economy of the Gilded Age. Although a few schools attempted to provide occupational guidance, only one individual, Frank Parsons, established the first vocational guidance clinic and articulated the basic principles of vocational guidance from which the profession of vocational counseling developed.
Parsons, born in 1854, attended Cornell University and studied to become a civil engineer, a vocational goal in that era as prestigious as becoming a computer engineer is today. He succeeded in finding employment with a railroad industry, again the equivalent today of going to work for a major software company. But in the economic depression of 1873, his employer was forced into bankruptcy and Parsons found himself out of a job. After a period of working as a manual laborer, he was able to find several successive positions teaching art and literature in the public schools. Ultimately he “read” for the law and became a member of the Massachusetts Bar.
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In the 1890s, Parsons was very active in Populist and Progressive causes while teaching classes at Boston’s YMCA as well as at Boston University Law School and Kansas State University. He was recruited to teach the class The World’s Best Books at Civic Service House, one of the new settlement houses that offered support to Boston’s Italian, Jewish, and other immigrants. He became director of their program called the Breadwinner’s Institute, a kind of evening high school, and he soon conceived the Vocation Bureau to help Boston’s citizens find careers for which they were best fitted.
Opening in 1908 with three staff members, one a woman, and an advisory board drawn from Boston’s civic leadership, Parsons reported that in its first 4 months the bureau served 80 young men and women ages 15 to 39 years. And, “according to their own spontaneous statements, all but two . . . received much light and help, some even declaring that the interview with the Counsellor [sic] was the most important hour of their lives” (Parsons, 1909, p. 30).
Parsons died before the first year of the bureau was completed, but in a book compiled from his papers, he stated the principles of vocational choice as follows: (1) a clear understanding of yourself and your aptitudes, interests, ambitions, resources, and limitations and their causes; (2) a knowledge of the requirements and conditions of success, advantages and disadvantages, compensation, opportunities, and prospects of different lines of work; and (3) true reasoning on the relation of these two groups of facts. The first two of these principles are highly developed contemporary components of vocational counseling (or career development) practice. Standardized ability tests were being developed in Parsons’s time, and interest inventories followed in the next decade. Today, the Web and every library offer a multitude of occupational information sources. Parsons did not elaborate on his concept of true reasoning. Probably it is equivalent with decision making and career planning as we now know it and is much of what the process of career counseling and development is about.
Parsons should be celebrated as the founding father of vocational psychology. The principles he articulated in support of it continue to be valid a century later.
- Parsons, F. (1909). Choosing a vocation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.