It’s often said that when you love what you do, it doesn’t feel like a job. That sentiment might be a little idealistic, but all too often, career counselors say, people miss out by not following their hobbies and passions into a career.

Cyndi Doyle met one client in that exact situation. The man was working as a mechanic at an industrial plant but came to Doyle feeling unhappy and unfulfilled. “He would have these creative ideas of how to make things better, but they didn’t value that,” says Doyle, who went into private practice a year ago after working in career and crisis counseling in the nonprofit sector for more than 15 years.

The client revealed how he’d fallen into his career path. “His father told him, ‘You need to be doing something with your hands,'” Doyle recalls. “So that’s where he went. That’s where the money was. He always had this creative side, but he was never encouraged and never knew what to do with it.”

In addition to talking to Doyle about his job, the client shared how he spent his weekends in the air, flying a plane. Despite being unhappy at the industrial plant, the man hadn’t thought to turn his beloved hobby of flying into a career. In their sessions together, Doyle and the client discussed his love for planes and his creativity and came to the realization that returning to school for aerospace engineering might be a great move forward for the man. “Being in this business, I automatically think that way, but a lot of people don’t,” says Doyle, a member of the American Counseling Association.

The résumé and job search components are a very small part of career counseling, Doyle says. At its core, career counseling is about helping people find out who they really are. “It’s having a greater understanding of yourself — your interests, your personality, your values, the skills you have — and how that works into how you would like your working world, how you would like to contribute,” she says. “It’s getting a greater picture of the person and then helping them decide where they want to go with their career.”

Many people can relate to the experience of Doyle’s client, finding themselves in a job not because of a passion but because of a push from a parent, the draw of a lucrative paycheck or some other influence. Career counseling, Doyle says, empowers people to steer their own way forward. Considering most people spend a minimum of 40 hours a week at work, their sense of fulfillment is bound to greatly affect the rest of their lives, she says. The job itself, their coworkers and the work environment can all have a major impact.

More than a job

Many times, counselors who don’t specialize in career counseling aren’t comfortable broaching the subject of careers with their clients, says Mark Pope, professor and chair of the division of counseling and family therapy at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Some counselors focus only on what they specialize in, as opposed to treating the whole individual. “It’s a lesson for the entire profession that there are many different facets of a person’s life,” says Pope, a past president of ACA and the National Career Development Association. “Like Freud said, love and work — those are the two critical components. If we’re not talking about that with our clients and asking those questions, we may never find out that there is a problem. That’s something I think all counselors need to think about.”

Career counselors emphasize that a career is much larger than just a job — it encompasses what people do in their leisure time, as well. Everything a person does in life can be broadly interpreted as career, Pope says. Clients don’t need to seek a career counselor only when looking for a job, he adds. Ideally, career counseling would be long term, Pope says, with counselors helping clients with whatever they encountered along the road of life — adjustment to a new job, the search for a different job or “career checkups.”

In many instances, career counseling needs and mental health counseling needs overlap. “Your career affects your total life,” says Sue Pressman, a career counselor who owns her own consulting firm and is serving as president of the National Employment Counseling Association, a division of ACA. “If you are calling yourself a counselor, you better have that training in mental health.” Having a strong background in mental health is one major advantage career counselors have over other providers such as career coaches, Pressman says. “That said,” she adds, “each one of us needs to know what our limitation is and when we need to refer.” And on the flip side, Pressman believes it should be a requirement for all counselors, including those who don’t specialize in career counseling, to have at least some training in career development.

Jill Schontag, a college counselor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, says career counselors’ mental health background is crucial to their everyday work. An ACA and NCDA member who also works in private practice, Schontag says she covers topics such as family of origin, self-worth, values and identity with career clients. “Your career is a huge aspect of your life, and it affects every other piece. I think a lot of people find their identity in their career because it’s where they are every day.”

Counselors working outside the career counseling specialty need to realize how important the concept of career is to a person’s mental health, Schontag says. “It’s the majority of where our time is spent. In our culture, the reality is that we actually do spend more time with our coworkers than with our family members.” To be fulfilled and challenged in our careers — or not — has a significant effect on our lives, she says.

A person’s values, skills and interests are integral to determining whether a particular career will be a good fit, Pressman says. “Having a career that is aligned with your values, your interests and your skills and that also takes your personality into account is going to add to your quality of life.” Conversely, she says, if there is misalignment, a person’s work and quality of life will be negatively affected.

Effective career counseling, Pressman says, keeps the following truths in mind: Clients’ values should never be compromised, clients’ interests can lead them to where they will feel most satisfied and clients’ skills are the easiest variable to change through training. She gives the example of someone working at a federal agency that requires employees to always put the agency first. “If you can’t do that because maybe your family comes first, you’re always going to struggle in your work,” she says. “You’re not going to be happy, and isn’t that what life is all about? You have to look at your values and what works for you and what doesn’t.”

In addition to values, Doyle says balance has a lot to do with happiness in a career. She cautions that balance isn’t about juggling, which is what many people aim for in an effort to do it all. “Balance doesn’t mean that everything’s equal. It means it is where you want it to be,” she says.

Doyle often asks her clients to divide their life into different categories, such as hobbies, friends, family, work, spiritual health and physical health. She then asks them to draw, in two separate circles, pie charts of what the breakdown looks like currently and how they might like it to be. “That can help people set boundaries,” she says. “To me, that’s balance. It’s not when everything’s on an equal playing field.”

Economic fallout

With unemployment numbers in the double digits and a recent economic downturn that many economists classified as the worst since the Great Depression, it’s no surprise that career counselors are seeing the effects on a daily basis. Pope calls the impact of the economy on career counseling “huge.”

“One thing we find is that in times of economic transition, and this is one of those times, career counselors come to the fore even more strongly,” he says. “They’re needed even more. … You really need to have somebody you can go talk to.” Not only have the numbers of layoffs been high, which naturally causes a lot of stress, but many other people are also staying in their jobs even if they are unhappy, just to remain employed.

“The greatest challenge right now is helping people who have been laid off through no fault of their own find new employment that is satisfying and meets their values, interests and skills because, frankly, there aren’t as many jobs out there as there are people who are looking for them,” Pressman says. A second challenge, she adds, is helping people who are unhappy in their current jobs to find new, more fulfilling employment when the opportunities have been significantly lessened. But she reminds her clients that the best time to look for a new job is when they already have a job. Even in a good economy, Pressman says, she would rarely recommend that anyone leave a current job without having something else lined up.

In addition to the fear surrounding potential pink slips, Pope says he sees the economy affecting both extremes of the employment spectrum — students and retirees. After watching their savings take a hit, many older adults are delaying retirement, finding it necessary to stay in the workforce additional years to make up for what they lost. The trickle-down result is that fewer job openings are available, Pope says, and more students are delaying graduation. “It’s this big domino effect,” he says.

“I hear a lot of people delaying retirement, and I hear a lot of people coming out of retirement,” Doyle adds. “They’re scared, based on the tumble in the stock market.” She acknowledges the current scarcity in the job market is tough on graduating students but says it might be even more difficult for older workers, who may be dealing with biases related to their age from potential employers and competing with younger workers for less pay. In addition, older workers’ education may be out of date or they may not have the same level of education as their younger competitors.

Doyle says the depression and anxiety her clients are experiencing as the result of a bad economy are very real. Two of her clients are facing the possibility of losing their homes because of job loss. Doyle also reports seeing a rise in family and relationship problems in relation to career issues. In private practice, where Doyle treats children, adolescents and adults, she says some kids have come in with issues of anxiety and depression, but the problems boiled down to stress over a parent’s job. “A lot of what they were concerned about was whether or not they would have a roof over their head. It affects the system of the family and the system of individuals. It impacts everyone, not just the individual looking for the job.”

In times such as these, it’s easy for people to fall into a pattern of chasing a paycheck rather than building a career that aligns with their passions and values. When foreclosure might be around the corner, it’s not the best time to pursue a “dream job,” Doyle acknowledges. But even in a bad economy, she encourages her clients to seek opportunities that would result in a good fit rather than pursuing every stray job opening.

But finding any job at all can be hard when a person is feeling down about themselves and their abilities, Doyle says. “It feeds the cycle. If you don’t have the job, a lot of people can be depressed. And if you’re depressed, it’s hard to get the job.” Doyle works with her clients to help them identify their skills and better understand what they bring to the table so that in an interview, the optimism they feel about themselves will shine through. “Helping them to realize their strengths, helping them to build their self-esteem and self-confidence when thinking about themselves, is a huge part of (career counseling),” she says.

Oftentimes, Doyle says, a “transition job” can help — something temporary with a paycheck while the client looks for a more ideal job. Having a job — even if it isn’t the “perfect job” — begins to rebuild the person’s self-esteem, Doyle says. “In all actuality, it’s always easier to look for a job when you have a job. Perhaps they can’t be exactly where they want to be, but maybe they can step into the (target) industry somehow.”

Some of Doyle’s clients come into her office feeling dissatisfied with their jobs but are determined to “tough it out” because of the paycheck and benefits, she says. When landing another, better option isn’t immediately possible, Doyle helps clients determine where they might be able to find a sense of satisfaction outside of work so they can create a better balance for themselves. “When you think about it, we have different ways that our cup gets filled,” she says. “If you’re giving and giving and giving on the job but you’re not getting filled in any way, then you walk away empty.” Finding a job that offers fulfillment is ideal, but in the absence of that, Doyle’s goal is to help her clients “fill their cups” from other areas of life.

Trends and changing times

One of the more recent trends Pope has noticed is a transition from what used to be called placement centers at colleges and universities, which focused on finding students jobs, to career service centers. These career centers emphasize managing a career rather than locating one specific job, and alumni are returning to take advantage of the services. Pope says career service centers also hold great opportunity for career counselors, and many are moving into leadership positions within the centers. He also notes the changeover from what used to be called unemployment centers to workforce or one-stop career centers. While the majority of career counselors are in private practice, Pope says these and other services, such as government-run centers for people in the workforce, offer career counselors optional venues for putting their skills to use.

With the current pace of layoffs, another surge in career counseling has come in the form of outplacement consulting, Pope says. Sometimes, when employers announce layoffs, they offer outplacement services to their former employees. Those former employees can then seek career counseling for a certain period of time on the company’s dime, creating another job opportunity for career counselors, Pope says. There are also in-placement services, he says, which are normally offered when a large employer announces layoffs or restructures. In these cases, career counselors help employees find another job within the same company.

Another major shift has to do with contract employment, Pressman says. In a better economy, contracts were plentiful, especially for government work. But today, many of Pressman’s most highly skilled clients find it challenging to locate new contract work as the old contract expires. “There’s a lot of movement without security,” she says.

One thing Pressman tries to emphasize with her clients is the importance of adaptability and using skills in new and different ways. Pressman refers to this as “planting seeds for the changing workplace” and says even counselors can benefit from adopting this mind-set. For example, as a career counselor, Pressman says she does a lot more than just offer counseling, but it takes careful analysis to see how she might be able to transfer those skills. Graduate counseling students don’t normally take course work on conflict resolution, Pressman says, but “if that isn’t something that counselors live and breathe every day, then I don’t know what is.”

Realizing that was a skill set she could offer, Pressman taught a class on managing conflict at a federal agency through a local university’s office of continuing education. Just as she does with her own career, Pressman encourages her clients to look for new ways to practice what they already know.

There have been times in the past when people were very focused on getting a lucrative, powerful job and moving up the ladder, says Pat Schwallie-Giddis, president of NCDA and chair of the Department of Counseling/Human and Organizational Studies at George Washington University. But post-9/11, that mentality changed, she says, with more people searching for jobs that offer meaning. Schwallie-Giddis says people now routinely tell her, “None of us know what the future holds. I want to do something with my life that has meaning.”

Another way the workplace has changed is with the increasingly temporary view people take regarding jobs, Schontag adds. “Students are starting to realize that they’re not going to get a job and retire 50 years later with a gold watch,” she says. “It’s just not the reality anymore.” That’s good news for career counselors, she says, who now have potentially lifelong clients who will need career guidance as they move from one position to the next. Schontag sees continuing education and continuing self-exploration as the future. “I think that’s going to be more the norm,” she says. “Always moving forward and looking for the next step.”

In the past decade or so, Pope says, career counselors began paying more attention to culture and doing more work with a social justice mind-set. No longer does career counseling focus solely on college students and business professionals. “It’s focusing on the fringe and edges of society,” he says.

Take, for example, past offenders. In the past, felons would finish their terms in prison and then be sent back onto the streets with little help. Now, Pope says, the transition planning and follow-up are better, opening the door for career counselors to help past offenders plan for the future.

Regardless of the client, Pope says, a career counselor needs to understand the many cultures that make that person who they are, taking into account everything from gender and race, to sexual orientation and age, to urban or rural lifestyle. The danger of not taking the time to understand a person’s culture, he says, is that counselors might assume everyone thinks like them and possesses the same experiences.

Pope gives the example of a career counselor who has a Chinese client. The counselor needs to talk to the client about his life and career needs while also understanding that the client comes from a collectivist rather than an individualist culture. That means the client’s decision making will normally be conducted at the group level rather than reaching a decision independently in isolation.

“When you’re looking at career counseling, there’s not just one way to do it,” Pope says. “You have to look at the individual.”

Returning veterans

With wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of returning veterans will continue to rise. That creates a need for counselors, Schwallie-Giddis says, not only in mental health counseling but in career counseling as well. She has met with returning veterans who are now students at George Washington. Some returned home to find that an old job wasn’t there as promised, while others said they felt like different people and wanted to do something new.

Pope says veterans are returning to campuses nationwide to take advantage of the GI Bill benefits. As a result, he says, programs have been created that focus on veterans as students and help them with this change. The challenge for veterans is not just returning to school and passing classes, Pope says, but dealing with the stress that can accompany the transition from military to civilian life. He believes career counselors are uniquely qualified to help in this situation because of their training and competency in dealing with the whole person.

“Veterans who are returning from the armed forces these days are especially vulnerable, so career counselors need all of their counseling skills in working with this population,” Pope says. “There are large number who are returning with a physical disability from wounds suffered during the two wars that are ongoing. This changes for many of them the way that they can work, and the adaptation to that also requires much grief counseling over the losses — of their dreams of what they thought life would be like, other losses of military comrades who were killed, of lost love relationships. These losses are dramatic. Returning vets are either very fragile or very resilient. It depends on the individual. These issues can have important effects on the process of career counseling, and career counselors have to be ready to address these issues as they help our veterans sort this all out. It adds layers of complexity to the career counseling, but it’s what we train our career counselors and all counselors to do.”

Schontag helped start a program for veterans at the University of California, Santa Cruz, about two years ago. Veterans Education Team Support (VETS) is a peer mentor program offering veterans the chance to get support from other veterans and assistance in the transition back to being a student. “It was something I helped spearhead because I felt like, here we were at war, but it seemed like college campuses hadn’t really caught up with the Department of Veterans Affairs in giving support to vets on campus,” Schontag says. The effort had a personal side for Schontag, whose father-in-law did three tours in Vietnam.

Research Schontag did for her dissertation, which focused on veterans returning to college campuses, showed that veterans trust other veterans more readily than civilians when it comes to getting referrals for resources or support. That’s why Schontag felt it was important for returning veterans-turned-students to have a place to go for support. In addition to peer support, a counselor is available to the veterans, Schontag says.

Although Schontag isn’t a counselor with the VETS program, she sees a complete range of students at the university, including some veterans. On top of the post-traumatic stress that many veterans experience after returning from war, Schontag says the transition back to student life can be difficult as well. “There’s the isolation of being back on a college campus where most of the students don’t have the experience they’ve had,” Schontag says. Ironically, it can also be jarring to go from the stressful environment of war to the more relaxed environment of a college campus, she adds. “Our students work hard and classes are difficult, but it’s not life or death. They’re just coming from such different worlds.” If nothing else, Schontag says, she wanted to raise awareness among her colleagues that this population exists and that its members have unique needs and struggles.

When it comes to working with veterans as a career counselor, Schontag says her job involves helping them reintegrate into the civilian work world. “A big part of this work is to help them identify, own and articulate all the skills that they gained in the military,” she says. “Most vets I’ve worked with have many valuable transferable skills to offer any employer. The challenge is to present these strengths in a way so that a recruiter can understand how these military skills match their needs.”

Careers over the life span

Counselors who don’t specialize in career counseling can take advantage of opportunities for professional development, Schwallie-Giddis says. Whether taking courses at a local university, watching online webinars or attending professional conferences, she says there’s no limit to the information available.

Many people will continue their careers their whole lives, Schwallie-Giddis says. That means counselors have the opportunity to take a holistic approach and look at the whole person over the entire life span. This includes helping clients to identify goals, find fulfilling jobs and, eventually, transition to retirement.

But even retirement isn’t the end, Schwallie-Giddis points out. The next step is helping clients figure out how they’d like to fill their post-retirement time. She cites research showing that people who remain active in retirement live longer. “What more of an incentive do you need than that?” she asks, adding that she encourages people to “reinvent” themselves rather than simply retire.

Schwallie-Giddis need go no farther than her Alexandria, Va., church to witness the payoff for someone who is passionate about her career. On a recent Sunday, Schwallie-Giddis and the rest of the congregation celebrated the 100th birthday of one of the church members. The woman was a nurse who stayed active and involved well past retirement age, even starting a program in which nurses visit the homes of new mothers. The woman could — and probably should — serve as a role model for all of us, Schwallie-Giddis says. “She’s very healthy and happy at the age of 100.”

Lynne Shallcross is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at

Letters to the editor:

Career counseling and social justice

Rebecca Toporek, coordinator of the career counseling specialization in the Department of Counseling at San Francisco State University, calls on counselors to be aware of social justice issues related to career development that may arise because of the struggling economy. “When things aren’t going well and people feel like they don’t have control in their environment, there’s a wearing away of trust and there’s an increase of anxiety and fear and a lot of uncertainty,” says Toporek, a member of ACA, NECA and NCDA. “That uncertainty ends up affecting the way they see themselves. Within that context, I think social justice issues are more likely to come up.”

When jobs are scarce, people are more likely to let unfair employment practices skate by, Toporek says. These practices might range from discrimination to employees being asked to go well beyond the call of duty to retain their jobs. “People are feeling less likely to challenge situations that are not right,” she says.

Toporek’s first recommendation to career counselors is to acknowledge the experience for their clients. Many times, she says, people convince themselves they must only be imagining that discrimination is taking place or place the blame and responsibility on themselves. Toporek says it’s important for counselors to be knowledgeable of employment law and help educate clients about their rights. But it’s equally important, she says, to know when to refer a client to someone with more expertise, such as an employment attorney.

Outside of working with their own clients, Toporek says career counselors have a unique opportunity to advocate for social justice on a larger scale, and the ACA Advocacy Competencies can help. For example, counselors can advocate at the community level if they see a group of individuals facing the same employment barriers. Or, they can advocate at the legislative level, which Toporek admits is the broadest level and least likely to show short-term benefits. “But in the broader scope, it’s really important.”

Toporek also emphasizes the potential of “social entrepreneurship” in addressing extensive social issues, including poverty, homelessness and underemployment. “Social entrepreneurship is an approach that combines service, training and programs. (It) does not rely only on public funds or donations but looks at ways of accomplishing large-scale change through engagement of people who are in need,” Toporek says. “Some of this entails training budding career counselors to be creative in assessing community needs, rallying the community as active participants in designing and carrying out programs, and collaboratively creating ways to fund these endeavors, whether through grants or entrepreneurship.”

“Social justice in career counseling is critical in this climate of economic crisis,” Toporek continues, “where those who had few resources before become even more exposed to cuts and disparities in areas such as public education and job training, health, housing and basic services. Career counselors must be able to recognize the larger system within which these problems exist and intervene beyond the individual. Because career counselors work directly with people in need, they can convey the human stories, the vision of the strength and potential of clients and communities that are persuasive in policy-level decisions that affect the most vulnerable.”

— Lynne Shallcross