Tuesday, 10 December 2013

A Few Useful Career Theories

Careers theory has been developing since the end of the 19th Century, formally commencing with the work of Frank Parsons in Boston, USA (1909). Initially focused on the individual and the static, career theory has evolved into holistic and life-long endeavour for each of us.

Theories are a tremendously useful thing. They can help us to deconstruct complexity through the lens of a simplified, organised model (Thompson, 2008). In order to create a personal sense of structure, I spent some time categorising parts of the career theory field that I was interested in, developing a timeline to provide clarification, trends and demonstrate relationships (download by right-clicking the image & selecting "Save Link As"):

Like most of us in the career field, I do not subscribe wholly to any one theory. The variation amongst clients is too great to ever assume there can be an effective ‘one size fits all’ approach. It is only by using a very broad range of career tools from a number of different theorists and theories that I can meet my client’s needs.

So I am going to take a quick look at some career theories, a mixture of structural (individual) theory, and developmental (holistic) theory. Structural theories focus on individual characteristics and occupational tasks such as Trait and Factor, Vocational Personalities and Environments, Socioeconomic Theory. Developmental theories focus on human development across life span and include lots of wonderful models including Super's Theory, Krumboltz's Social Learning Theory, Decision Making Theories and Cognitive Theories.

The theories I am going to explore are the Framework of Occupational Choice, constructivism and sociological perspectives. We will travel from the micro, focused in on the individual; through their view of their world; to conclude in the macro, where we consider how each person fits in their society. Each of these theories provide me a slightly different career perspective, enabling me to continue to develop fresh tools and ideas to offer my clients.

Ginzberg, Ginzberg, Axelrad and Herma’s 1951 Framework of Occupational Choice is a developmental theory (Howell et al, 1977), and is now considered to be one of the Life Span theories, a field dominated by Donald Super. The Ginzberg & Associates team recognised that our career choices are influenced by four factors; ‘reality’, the effect our education has on us, our emotions, and those individual values we hold. Ginzburg et al propose that from primary to secondary school, we grow from a primary ‘fantasy’ stage, work through ‘tentative’ until our career choices firm – our educational process is almost complete, we are more emotionally mature, our values are more formed and reality steps in – to ‘realistic’. Young people’s skilled, interested or preferred activities are consolidated into likely career roles. If done well, the young person feels a strong connection to what has become, for them, a logical career choice (VirtualHabitats, 2003; Penn State, 2003).

The fantasy stage, where as a child we are free to pursue any role, is a wonderfully freeing tool for us to use with adults. I really enjoy using this with clients to retrieve childish things and, through role play, mind-map, drawing or dialogue, feel our career through the freedom of a child’s imagination. I find it good as an exercise to break free from old thinking patterns, although I find that often older men find this an uncomfortable or a difficult activity. I think, from my observations, that this may be because they find it harder to suspend disbelief (must investigate this one day!).

Super too has some extremely useful and durable career tools, but for me, the star in the crown of developmental theory is this simple model from Ginzberg & Associates.

While the Framework of Occupational Choice can be a tool for liberating the mind, and letting go of what has gone before, my next theory is a tool for seeking patterns.

Constructivism – the idea that we create knowledge and meaning from the interaction of our experiences and our thoughts – is about seeking patterns. We human beings naturally look for connections and structure in everything, and over time, we will see similar themes emerge. In the process of understanding increasingly complex and changing patterns, we derive meaning from what we see and feel, and form our own constructions of reality (Bright & Pryor, 2005; Careers in Theory, n.d.).

Working with a client to reflect on a behavioural pattern that has held them back is an extremely rewarding process; as is helping a client to identify positive life-patterns to repeat. I have a Buddhist friend who asks “How is that working for you?”; a wonderful constructivist phrase for someone who has the strength of character, reflective maturity and self-esteem to accept the challenge of personal responsibility. Holding up a mirror so that the client can see themselves reflected clearly, but without judgement, can at times be difficult. I usually find it easy to respect and understand my clients and their contexts, but I find it hard at times to help them see themselves. Clearly. Honestly. Without self-judging themselves.

Peavy (1997) feels there is no one “God’s eye” real world; he feels there are multiple realities. He also feels that as we are "self-organizing" animals; we are pattern seekers. We make our own reality, we tell our own stories, we create our own meaning and use multiple voices. We are relational beings, and it is through reflecting on those relationships that we feel connection with others. Without critical reflection, we are not fully empowered.

I like Peavy’s views on reflection; the process of career guidance is all about personal, critical reflection supported by a trusted guide. Like the timeline of career theories I put together to give myself structure to understand the career field, I attempt to simplify my client’s career critical path so they can identify their cusps and critically reflect.

From the seeking of patterns and self-reflection, I lastly turn to sociological perspectives; or, more simply, “where do I fit?”.

Sociology focuses on socio-economic variables, and looks at how we construct and live in our societies. The career aspect of sociology looks at the mobility of our careers, how we enter work, our gender and our societal standing, but is not an exact or accurate science (Palmer & McMahon, 1997) because of our human observational bias.

Roberts’ “Opportunity Structure Thesis” (1981, cited in Palmer & McMahon, 1997, p. 343) is a very interesting concept; Roberts feels that in many cases people have no choice about their job. They simply take what is available.

I think this lack of choice is 'true' for many people, and as a result is a key area in which I can make a real difference for my clients. When clients come to me, we work through their self-concept, their behaviour patterns and then look at how they fit in their world. Then, once I understand who they are as a person, I aim to work with them so that they can see choice.

Sometimes clients need to give themselves permission to move on, sometimes they need the support and permission of their partner, their parents, their families, or their wider
whānau. Sometimes a barrier is necessary for the person’s or their social group’s happiness, sometimes it isn’t; but for me, it is about giving clients the tools to make their own choices in their life context.

Understanding the society in which people live is essential to understanding the person themselves. While much of our career theory has come from the United States, now in New Zealand we now have two Māori career perspectives, which I feel fit with sociological theories; the model of Whakapapa Tikanga (the spirituality of representing all those who have gone before us; and ownership of cultural protocol) and Durie’s model of Te Whare Tapa Wha (Careers NZ, n.d.).

These models have been purposefully and carefully designed to reflect the spiritual and traditional aspects of Māori culture, to explain the difference in cultural approach to careers. It is fantastic to have Māori contextualised models for me to help clients understand who they are from a Māori perspective, and where they see that they fit within those. I have found that these models often have value for non-Māori New Zealanders, particularly people born in Aotearoa.

While New Zealand does not have the very broad gap between the ‘haves” and “have nots” that many other countries have, we do have a certain amount of stratification of society; along lines of wealth, profession, birth, gender, ability, sexuality, belief and culture. As career counsellors, we need to remain alert for making stereotypical assumptions about our clients’ barriers, beliefs, attitudes and abilities. As professionals, we must leave the determination of the barriers to the client. As my mother always said, “Assume makes an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘Me’”.

To help avoid me falling into the "assume" hole, I use sociological perspectives as a tool by asking clients to create me profiles of successful people whom they admire (I have developed this model myself in my practice). There is a list of questions in a table – such as what kind of car does their person drive? Where do they live? What training did they do? It is usually surprisingly easy for a client to quickly construct a profile. They can then use this to determine if that successful person’s career is something that the client could aspire to, and why or why not. We usually manage to quickly identify a number of barriers that we can examine and test.

Testing barriers is what I feel career counselling does best. The leap of excitement for the client when they realise that the barrier they held onto is no longer there is very rewarding; just as is the quiet content that comes with the reaffirmation of the status quo.

Career theory provides a structure for career practitioners to help clients with their work issues. So we can conceptualise concerns and bring about change for our clients, having a sound theoretical grounding is really important. It is what PD is all about!

The theories I have touched lightly on assist me to provide sound feedback to my clients. They assist in creating positive and beneficial outcome to both partners in the process.


  • Bright, Jim E. H. & Pryor, Robert G. L. (2005). The Chaos Theory of Careers: A User's Guide. The Career Development Quarterly, Volume 53, issue 4 (pp. 291-305).
  • Brown, Michael T., Lum, Joyce L., Voyle, Kim (1997). Roe Revisited: A Call for the Reappraisal of the Theory of Personality Development and Career Choice. Journal of Vocational Behavior, October 1997, Volume 51, issue 2 (pp. 283-294)
  • Careers in Theory (n.d.). Using the Chaos Theory of Careers in Counselling. Retrieved 7 December 2013 from http://careersintheory.wordpress.com/tag/coaching/
  • Daft, R.L. (2009). The Leadership Experience. Australia: Cengage (Asia Pacific ed). Australia: Cengage
  • Department of Employment Services (n.d.a). Structural Theories. Retrieved 7 December 2013 from http://www.does.dc.gov/does/cwp/view.asp?a=1233&q=538107 
  • Department of Employment Services (n.d.b). Structural Theories. Retrieved 7 December 2013 from http://www.does.dc.gov/does/cwp/view.asp?a=1233&q=538100
  • Durie, Dr Mason (1982). Te Whare Tapa Wha. NZ: Careers New Zealand. Retrieved 2 December 2013 from http://www.careers.govt.nz/educators-practitioners/career-practice/career-theory-models/te-whare-tapa-wha/
  • Howell, Frank M., Frese, Wolfgang & Sollie, Carlton R. (1977). Ginzberg's theory of occupational choice: A reanalysis of increasing realism. USA: Journal of Vocational Behaviour, December 1977, Volume 11, Issue 3 ( pp. 332-346)
  • Palmer, Stephen & McMahon, Gladeana (1997). Career Theory, sociological perspectives (Second Edition). UK: British Association for Counselling. 
  • Parsons, F. (1909). Choosing a Vocation. London, UK: Gay & Hancock Ltd. 
  • Peavy, R. Vance (1997). Constructivist Career Counseling. Retrieved 6 December 2010 from http://www.ericdigests.org/1997-3/counseling.html

1 comment :

  1. This article is so good for building a brilliant CV. Its Useful Career Tool is so good.


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