Career checkup: a career guidance tool for supporting employability
In a paper published in the International Association for Educational and Vocational Guidance newsletter (n. 52 June 2005), Stuart Conger, Past Executive Director of Canadian Career Development Foundation, claims that in order to foster an ‘Achieving Society’ career checkups should be encouraged. In this article we try to explain the philosophy behind the career checkup and outline how, in practice, it might be structured.
2. The philosophy behind the career checkup
According to Giddens (1991, pp.20, 21) one of the distinctive features of modern society is that entire fields of human experience are brought back within the realm of rationality (Giddens talks of ‘institutional reflexivity’). The idea comes from the concept of Enlightenment which aims to replace beliefs and behaviours based on traditions and superstitions with ones having a ‘scientific’ basis, in other words, ones based on rational thinking through the constant accumulation and expansion of knowledge. Initially, this process was applied to the field of medicine and the natural sciences (physics, chemistry, etc.), but in modern times we can identify this type of process, for example, in the field of nutrition, in sport, in the production and supply of goods and services, and in the area of emotions and relationships. The development of Career Guidance has also taken place from this standpoint: since the beginning of the twentieth century, rather than relying on circumstance or common sense, practitioners have sought to identify laws which determine successful career development and, based on these, strategies for choosing the best career paths.
As well as accumulation and expansion of knowledge, this type of process also sees the training of practitioners specialised in particular activities (medics, psychologists, economists, nutritionists, etc.) and the organisation and public provision (through both the impetus of public authorities and the initiatives of private organisations) of services designed to help people according to the dictates of scientifically developed theories. This was also the case for career guidance services which, in the United States and the UK, were set up in the 1930’s.
Some life problems can be resolved or significantly reduced with a minimum of effort on the part of the individual. For example, certain illnesses can be overcome by simply taking regular medication. But there are other problems which can’t be resolved or substantially reduced without direct and concrete action (see Servan Schreiber 2003:241-242). Staying within the medical field, for example, in order to lose weight a person must control and modify his or her day to day nutritional regime. In these cases, achieving the final objective requires the adoption in one’s daily life of a series of intermediate actions. However, these are not easy to maintain as they often require a personal investment in terms of time or money and don’t bring instant results. The field of employment falls within this category because, for most people, gaining employment and ensuring professional success require the frequent attendance of training courses, on the job training, periodic job search and the continual cultivation of their social skills.
3. Context and focus of career guidance
The increase in employment instability, which in many Western countries has characterised the last 50 years, has heightened the need for individuals to be more pro-active and progressively changed career guidance objectives and practices. In particular, in the last 50 years, it is possible to identify three main areas on which career guidance activities have focused.
Focus on educational and vocational choice: in many countries, career guidance services started focused mainly on the choice of educational and vocational paths. The context is one of industrialisation, mass education, and potential full employment. It is a context in which those wishing to enter the job market (particularly those who have access to training) will not encounter employment difficulties and so career guidance can be focused on helping young people make the right choices when embarking on training or entering the world of work.
Focus on job search: at the end of the 80’s, career guidance which aimed at school leavers and adults, and which centred on teaching pro-active job search techniques, began to spread within Western countries. The context, here, is an employment market where a stable level of unemployment exists and where individuals are obliged to compete for available jobs.
The two contexts outlined so far do not require individuals to have an enduring commitment to professional development. The common condition in this and the previous period is the total predominance of permanent employment (in many countries the standard work contract governed by law is that of the permanent contract and individual redundancies are prohibited). So, once employed, a person does not need to worry about his or her professional development and can leave it up to the employer. Career guidance is still characterised as being an occasional activity connected with the transition from school to work or, in the case of company failure, from one firm to another. Constantly changing one’s job is even seen as a sign of ‘vocational immaturity’ (Killeen 1996:31).
Focus on maintaining employability: we can define employability as a person’s value in the employment market, resulting from his or her skills. In many Western countries, fixed term employment has been deregulated for some years and, at present, constitutes the major share of new employment. We can envisage that, in the future, many people’s working lives will be characterised by fixed term contracts and non standard work. In this type of context, it is no longer enough to help identify vocational objectives and teach job search techniques. If a person’s value in the job market is low, he/she can end up applying to hundreds of employers without success.
As the best insurance against unemployment is having a good level of skills, a growing number of individuals are now obliged to maintain their employability (that is, maintain and continually improve their value in the market) at their own expense and in their own spare time.
Career guidance, therefore, becomes a service which people periodically need to turn to, as it also helps identify the best strategies for improving their skills. It is for this reason that European countries decided in 1997 to set up career guidance services aimed at adults (note 1), and it is adults who have become the main users of the service.
It will not escape your notice that this new context places much greater responsibility on the individual and, therefore, increases the likelihood of failure particularly for those who (because of poor social skills, low levels of education, straitened circumstances, etc) are not able to begin and sustain the continual improvement of their value in the employment market.
This new context requires a shift in career guidance:
- from services aimed principally at students, to services aimed principally at adults
- from guidance aimed at the unemployed, to guidance aimed also at those in employment
- from a ‘one-off’ activity, to providing guidance on a long term basis. Depending on individual cases, this will involve yearly meetings to look at professional development (the so called career checkup described in this article), weekly support meetings for those in search of work, carrying out job search activities and mediation on behalf of those belonging to disadvantaged groups
- from an activity carried out independently by a guidance practitioner, to one conducted in close connection with other services such as education and training, social services, apprenticeship schemes, job matching etc.
- from using approaches and methods taken from staff selection which allow personal characteristics to be accurately identified, to approaches and methods taken from psychotherapy which allow individual action and motivation to be effectively sustained.
4. Client motivation techniques
When client action is necessary, the construction of a ‘scientific’ frame of reference relating to specific fields or life problems is only the first step. Equally important is the need to develop and adopt optimum interaction techniques between practitioner and client. In career guidance, this need introduces, alongside with ‘career theories’, which explain vocational paths, ‘guidance theories’ which explain how to interact effectively with clients (Watts et al.1996:1).
When individual action is required, the client who turns to an expert is guided through the following stages :
1. an initial stage which involves (note 2)
- a. analysing their background with reference to their situation or problem
- b. identifying an objective
- c. drawing up a logically and chronologically structured action plan for achieving the objective. Giddens (1991:85) talks of ‘life-plan calendars’ whose function is precisely that of organising one’s course of action.
2. a subsequent stage which involves providing support in implementing the plan and, periodically, checking that the actions proposed in it are being carried out effectively.
It therefore becomes fundamentally important that the expert (in our case, the career guidance practitioner) has a good command of these types of techniques. Traditionally, most career guidance theories (and, consequently, guidance practitioners’ training and professional practice) have focused little on stage 2 (and often, not much on stages 1b e 1c). For example, three well known books on career guidance training [Amundson (2003), Ali, Graham B. (1996), Egan (1998)], which are widely used in the English speaking world, devote very little space to the best methods of providing support (stage 2). According to Carl Rogers’ theory the transition to action would simply occur as a ‘secondary effect’ of empathic listening. Other authors instead maintain the efficacy of helping the client work out structured action plans and very few of providing support in carrying them out.
An important factor to bear in mind when promoting change is that not everyone is ready to embark upon change immediately. Some can find themselves in a condition described by Prochaska and his associates (Prochaska et al., 2004) as one of ‘pre-contemplation’ or ‘contemplation’, a preliminary to the decision to act. In these cases, doing one’s best to get clients to take immediate action is not productive and, instead, it is better to help them increase their desire for change.
5. Definition of the career checkup and how it works in practice
Generally speaking, a checkup is a periodic examination to make sure things such as health or mechanical systems are in order. It is used from the perspective of prevention being better than cure and is based on the belief that it is better to prevent something than wait for the problem to manifest itself. The career checkup can therefore be defined as:
- a periodic meeting to help the client to check the progress of its career path and professional development
A career checkup is a method of:
- making the client aware of the importance of continually improving their employability. The success of this can vary, that is to say some clients, after the stage of analysing their career path, may legitimately decide not to take any action
- helping those who decide to take action define their professional goals and, over time, maintain their commitment to achieving them. This is referred to in points 1.b., 1.c. and 2 in the previous paragraph. In line with Prochaska’s approach mentioned above, drawing up an improvement plan and providing support in its implementation should be proposed only to clients who have decided to commit themselves to it.
The career checkup is aimed mainly at those in employment because, barring unforeseen circumstances such as redundancies, unexpected changes of responsibilities, or company failures, meetings following stage 1 take place at least 12 months later. Unemployed jobseekers, on the other hand, generally need assistance at more frequent intervals, for example, weekly or fortnightly. Though the methods are the same, the difference in the frequency of meetings requires the use of record sheets which are laid out differently from the one shown at the end of this article and we do not propose to cover them here.
During an individual interview, the career checkup, when appropriate, can be introduced with the following questions:
- can we reconstruct together your employment history?
- in which periods did you learn the most?
- what are the periods which gave you the most satisfaction? Etc.
- in your opinion, on what does your value in the employment market depend?
- how do you rate your skills/employability? (high, medium, low)
- in your opinion, has your employability increased or decreased in recent years?
- what direction would you like your professional development to take?
- what is your professional objective?
- what decisions could you take to increase your employability? (eg: greater flexibility and/or learning new skills and/or improving things you already know how to do)
- would you mind trying to write down the actions which could increase your skills? (it is a brain storming exercise, all the actions are written down together on a blank page, with others being suggested as they come to mind)
- can we write down on this record sheet those things you would like to undertake? (show the form to the client and get him/her to fill it in)
- ok, now I’ll take a photocopy for myself. If you like, we can talk again, at the latest in a year’s time, to determine how your professional development is progressing. If you should encounter any problems or if you need my help in any way, you can contact me sooner.
Mode of operation: it involves an initial stage where the client determines a professional objective (if he or she doesn’t already have one) and the action which he or she intends to take in the immediate future to achieve it (see paragraph 4, stage 1). The objectives can be quite different, for example, be able to carry out a particular profession (‘become a geologist’), a specific professional role (‘become manager’), change duties within a firm (‘transfer to the mailing department’), obtain a certain qualification (‘get a degree in physics’), etc. To determine the objective and draw up the action plan, between 1-5 individual meetings of an hour each may be necessary. If the client does not have a professional objective, stage 1 will take longer as it will be necessary to determine an objective. Stage 1 can also be carried out during a bilan de competences.
The identified objective, actions already carried out (if any), and the actions proposed in the action plan, are inserted in the relevant sections of the record sheet shown below (see the instructions on how to fill it in). If the person concerned has more than one objective, further record sheets should be completed.
The stage 1 meetings are followed by further meetings held approximately once a year. At these follow up meetings, the client, with the help of the adviser, enters the activities he or she has actually carried out (each one in a new column) and also those they intend to carry out the following year.
How to fill in the checkup record sheet:
- The objective is inserted in section A
- The date goes in section B. Section B can also be used to record the client’s level of interest.
- The activities already carried out go under section C.
- The activities identified for achieving the objective are written under section D
(1) Luxembourg Jobs Summit (November 1997), see http://ec.europa.eu/employment_social/employment_strategy/develop_en.htm
(2) See, for example, Egan 1998: 66-69. The various stages use the principal techniques for the promotion of change: A. making emerge the cognitive and emotive value of the situation or problem and of the desired change, through activities which facilitate to attribute meaning and to be aware of one’s emotions B. Defining an objective for improvement and devising and organising, in an action plan, activities which will help achieve it C. provide support to the client by periodically checking their progress. The action of the practitioner is more effective if it takes place within a relationship that is meaningful for the client (in particular, a counseling relationship).
- Ali L., Graham B. (1996) The Counselling Approach to Career Guidance, Routledge
- Amundson N.E. (2003) Active Engagement. Enhancing the career counselling process,
Edition two, Ergon Communications
- Conger S. (2005) ‘Towards an Achieving Society’, Newsletter of the International Association for Educational and Vocational Guidance (n. 52 June 2005), at http://www.iaevg.org/crc/files/newsletters/Newlet52en.doc, retrieved on the 6th July 2007.
- Egan G. (1998) The Skilled Helper. A problem-management approach to helping, Brooks/Cole Publishing Company
- Giddens A. (1991) Modernity and Self-Identity. Self and Society in the Late Modern Age
- Killeen J. (1996) ‘Career theory’, in Watts et al (1996)
- Killeen J. (1996) ‘Theory and context’, in Watts et al (1996)
- Prochaska J.O., Norcross J.C., Diclemente C.C.(1994) Changing for good. Avon Books
- Servan-Schreiber D. (It. trans. 2003) Guarire. Una nuova strada per curare lo stress, l’ansia e la depressione senza farmaci né psicanalisi, Sperling & Kupfer Editori
- Watts A.G., Law B., Killeen J., Kidd J.M., Hawthorn R. (1996), Rethinking Career Education and Guidance. Theory, Policy and Practice, Routledge
Author: Leonardo Evangelista www.leonardoevangelista.it © Leonardo Evangelista. First placed in this website on 13th of August 2007. Version of 25th of July 2007. This article can be reproduced quoting Author’s name and website www.orientamento.it and article’s URL.