intertwinedWhat sets counseling apart from the other mental health professions? In many cases, the lines between the different helping professions can be blurry, causing even counselors themselves to debate the correct answers to that question.

But one truly distinguishing feature of the counseling profession is its roots in career development, says Spencer Niles, distinguished professor and head of the Department of Educational Psychology, Counseling and Special Education at Pennsylvania State University. “It is the cornerstone of the profession. It’s something unique to counseling and counselors. It separates us from others,” says Niles, who has written multiple books about career counseling and also serves as the editor of the Journal of Counseling & Development.

In fact, Niles contends it is crucial that counselors not only stay mindful of the unique role of career development within the profession but also realize that career is a topic that can — and should — be addressed in almost every counseling setting. “My perception is that general career counseling is undervalued, [especially] when we realize how important and essential it is to having a sense of hope in one’s life,” says Niles, who is a past president of the National Career Development Association, a division of the American Counseling Association.

“Everyone has a career, and everyone is connected to people who have careers,” he continues. “There is no escape. As Freud noted, love and work are critical life tasks that must be managed effectively for life to be satisfying. So, because there are few things more personal than a career choice, every counselor will encounter clients or students with career challenges — whether they are the need to address normal career development tasks or career challenges emerging out of crisis situations such as job dislocation. Moreover, every counselor will encounter clients who are part of a network that contains people with career challenges that must be addressed. We know that when career situations go awry, mental health issues increase. Thus, having at least a basic awareness of career development processes and interventions is essential regardless of [a counselor’s] work setting.”

NCDA President Rich Feller likewise believes that issues related to career can find their way into any counseling setting. “The changing nature of work, learning and family leads counselors within any specialty to explore the connection among personal, career and well-being issues,” says Feller, professor of counseling and career development and university distinguished teaching scholar at Colorado State University. “Positive psychology and attention to social justice issues — long advocated by career development — are now center stage among all counselors and advocates regardless of title or training.”

The number of counselors completing NCDA’s career development facilitator training suggests to Feller that counselors increasingly see that personal and career issues are tightly interwoven. The concept of career means finding meaning, satisfaction and choice in all of one’s life roles, Feller says. “Career counselors understand that you can’t separate one’s vocational role from other roles, that career transitions are not on schedule and that learning is lifelong.”

Thomas Ayala, president of the National Employment Counseling Association, a division of ACA, says professional counselors have a responsibility to be competent in as many areas as possible, including employment counseling and career development. “The role that work plays in people’s lives varies greatly. Therefore, the types of issues people seek counseling to help them manage are likely to include aspects of their working life,” says Ayala, who runs a private practice in Lebanon, Ore. “As many [counselors] who are in private practice know, the nature of our next call is undeterminable. I am certain many of my colleagues who are members of NECA would suggest career development and employment counseling proficiency should be compulsory for all counselors.”

Two or three decades ago, Niles says, there was a dichotomous mode of thinking when it came to career counseling versus personal counseling. But that thinking has changed. “What happened is we turned the century and we experienced massive downsizing,” he says. “People are realizing there are few things more personal to them than career choice.”

There is a subjective nature to every career choice, Niles adds. “This makes career development personal in that people seek to make meaning out of their life experiences and translate that meaning to a career direction that they find purposeful.”

Niles agrees with Donald Super’s concept that career choice is the implementation of one’s self-concept in an occupational role. “If that ideally is true, what you believe to be true about yourself matters relative to what you decide to do occupationally,” Niles says.

What people believe to be true about themselves can be positive, hopeful and functional, Niles say, but it can also be fractured and influenced by challenging life situations. “I think that counselors increasingly encounter people who have career concerns no matter what setting they work in,” he says.

Ayala agrees. “Counselors need to know about employment counseling just as much as they need to know about the [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders], trauma interventions, anxiety or any other issue that has the potential of presenting in their office,” he says. “Employment counseling should not be considered in a different light than any other type of mental health counseling. When we consider Adler’s individual psychology, we understand the need for people to be productive and make worthy contributions to our community.”

A hope-based intervention

In the past, career interventions were very objective and rational, Niles says, and were most commonly focused on standardized, formal career assessments. Now, he says, the focus includes engaging clients in a meaning-making process. The idea is to take what has happened to clients, make meaning out of it and turn that into a career direction, he explains. However, both the world of work and one’s self-concept evolve over time, which means that making choices and adjusting are continually required, Niles says.

For students and adult workers alike, being able to see connections between current activities and future possibilities fosters a sense of hopefulness about what the future can hold, Niles says. “That’s where career counseling comes into play — making those connections,” he says. “It’s a hope-based intervention.”

With career counseling, Niles says, neither the past nor the present has to dictate the future. He gives the example of a college student who meets with a career counselor because the student is not doing well in school and is on the verge of being dismissed from college. His performance in school might be suffering because he chose a major that doesn’t relate to his interests, skills or values, so he is struggling to remain engaged and motivated. “Part of what a career counselor can do is help students look at the possibilities that might be more meaningful, more in line with who they are, therefore helping them to develop more hope and engagement relative to academic pursuits and future possibilities,” Niles says.

Niles also subscribes to Super’s idea that career development reflects the total constellation of life roles that a client participates in over the course of a lifetime. A holistic view of career counseling takes into account how each person combines all of these life roles into a life that he or she finds meaningful, Niles says.

In Western cultures, Niles says “tremendous expectations” exist concerning what work can provide, from financial support to human interaction to a sense of purpose. But not everyone will find all of those things through work, Niles says. By taking a holistic view, he says, counselors can explore how a client makes decisions about work not just for the sake of work but also for the sake of allowing that client to create the sort of life structure he or she will find meaningful.

For instance, he says, some clients might want to work a 60-hour week, leaving themselves time for only a few friends and hobbies. Other clients might regard that as a life sentence and would gravitate toward a 30- to 40-hour workweek, leaving themselves more time for other life roles such as being a parent or spouse. “Work doesn’t hold the same level of importance for everyone,” Niles says. “We can’t assume that we know how important work is for a person’s overall life structure.”

If work and other life roles are intertwined, it stands to reason that a problem in one area will spill over into the other, Niles says. “If a relationship is causing stress and it’s not going well, you bring that to work with you” and vice versa, he says. For that reason, Niles suggests that when a client is having a problem in one area of life, the counselor should also explore the effects that problem might be having on other areas of the client’s life.

Another consideration today is that the economy is creating some level of anxiety for almost everyone, Niles says. The old social contract that said your employer would take care of you if you were loyal and hardworking no longer exists, he says. As a result, more people are taking another look at their life roles and considering whether they need to reorient. “As people are dislocated from their work involuntarily, they become less willing to sacrifice everything for their employer when their employer is so willing to sacrifice them,” he says. “Rather than living to work, many people are working to live and seeking fulfillment in life roles other than work.”

Niles contends that counselors in every setting need to understand the meaning of career in clients’ lives, including what their values are and what gives them a sense of purpose. After that, he says, counselors can focus on the types of activities those clients can move toward to help them fulfill those needs.

Niles also points out that a person’s self-concept evolves over time, making career choice and adjustment continual processes throughout the life span. “With each interaction with your environment, you learn more about yourself and your environment, [and] adaptive learners use this new information to inform their sense of self as well as their place in the world relative to work. Moreover, the world of work evolves over time, making choosing and adjusting continuous requirements. You must be a lifelong learner and stay abreast of the evolving requirements within the workplace as well as the emerging skills needed to perform your work effectively.”

Looking forward to the future

What is the best predictor of both career success and job satisfaction? It might be optimism.

Surprised? So was Roberta Neault when she uncovered that finding while conducting doctoral research about 13 years ago. Neault, a private practitioner in Aldergrove, British Columbia, was at the time earning her doctorate while also consulting at a corporate career center during a time of widespread downsizing throughout North America. The company with which she was working was in the telecommunications industry, which had been particularly hard hit. Studying approximately 180 managers at that company, Neault looked at a broad range of factors in trying to determine what helped them find career success and satisfaction, regardless of whether they remained with the company or were laid off. The attribute of optimism came out on top.

“Working [with clients] on hope or optimism is not just nice to do, but in fact, it makes a measurable difference. At least it did in my research,” says Neault, a counselor educator at a number of Canadian universities and a member of both NCDA and NECA.

Neault, who co-authored the 2010 book Career Flow: A Hope-Centered Approach to Career Development with Niles and Norman Amundson, says some people use the terms hope and optimism interchangeably. She is unaware of any research that has measured them differently and tested for them in the same study. Neault and her co-authors write that “optimistic people tend to have faith in the future, a sense that things will work out. They tend to believe in their industry and organization; they also believe in themselves.” In the book, Neault, Niles and Amundson also link hope to positive psychology, encouraging people to pay close attention to and build on their hopes and the positive elements in their lives.

Neault continues to research optimism because she views it as a foundational piece of career development and a vital factor in building resilience. If, for example, a student can’t envision a positive future for herself or can’t see herself getting a job, that will affect how she approaches applying for jobs or whether she thinks it is worth it to seek additional education, Neault says.

“Likely, hope and optimism are both important in any era or economy,” says Neault, a past editor of NECA’s Journal of Employment Counseling. “However, most of what the news covers about work these days is doom and gloom, whether it’s about downsizing, economic crises or high unemployment. Also, the job search cycle is, on average, more often repeated than in previous times. Most people realize their current job isn’t a ‘job for life’ but rather that they’ll need to find other jobs at some point in the future. If people focus on the negative aspects of this — future unemployment, a possible need for retraining, competition for ‘good’ jobs — they may lose hope, become pessimistic and either settle for a less-than-suitable job or lose motivation to continue growing their career. However, instilling hope and optimism can reenergize job seekers and, due to that renewed energy and positive attitude, contribute to their future career success and job satisfaction.”

Beyond the state of the current economy, a variety of life situations can cause clients to lose hope in their career futures, Neault says. For example, a client in a rehabilitation counseling setting who has been injured on the job might find that the future he once pictured no longer seems realistic. Or a client who has just come through a divorce may need to determine how she is going to support herself from now on. Another client might have recently taken on the responsibility of caring for aging parents, causing him to turn down a promotion and interrupting his career. In all of these cases, it could be easy for the client to lose hope, Neault says.

Returning to the example of the student about to enter the workforce who looks at her future and feels that she won’t find anything because of the economy, Neault says she would start by helping the student look for exceptions to that perception. “Even if the unemployment rate is 10 percent, that means that 90 percent of the people in the labor force are working,” she says. “I’d encourage my client to investigate who is still working or finding new work in this tough economy and why.”

Neault would also help the student access relevant labor market information to find where skill shortages and “hot jobs” are located, encourage her to do some informational interviewing about how to get a foot in the door and possibly urge her to explore nonstandard work as an entry point. If she can’t find a job with a salary of $50,000, can she find two part-time jobs at $25,000 each? Alternatively, can she find a “survival job” that pays the bills but leaves her with some free time to accept part-time work when it is available in the industry the client is targeting?

The key to resilience

Hope and optimism are key elements of the flexibility required of people to select and manage their careers in today’s world, Neault says. “Things aren’t as lockstep as they used to be. People optimistic about the future are more likely to be resilient and roll with the changes when they need to,” she says. Someone without hope is locked in a “dark place,” she says, and an unexpected change in career, such as a layoff or a reassignment of duties, can become the last straw for that person.

In fact, Neault had a client for whom that was the case. He had been laid off, and Neault remembers that he looked distraught. He told her that getting the news about the layoff was worse than if he had been told he had terminal cancer. “As a counselor, [that] was terrifying for me to hear,” Neault recalls.

The first thing Neault did was to assess for suicide risk, staying with the client until he seemed stable and safe. Later that day and the following day, she checked in with him and was happy to find that he had been making calls and exploring job options. This was Neault’s first indication that the client retained a glimmer of hope.

“I encouraged him to attend workshops at [his former corporation’s transition center], where he had the opportunity to work with others in a similar situation. They supported each other, normalized their experience and feelings, and kindled a bit more hope that a positive outcome was possible,” she says. “I encouraged him to set some short- and midterm goals, to celebrate small successes and to write a résumé that highlighted his accomplishments. I also encouraged him to get written references. Reading them fostered a bit more hope. Eventually he chose to start his own business. By taking control of his career in that way, his goal was to ensure that he would never again be in the position of being involuntarily laid off. This, too, contributed to his increased sense of hope.”

When counselors keep optimism in mind, they are more likely to look for interventions that will strengthen and bolster that attribute in clients, Neault says. Importantly, Neault emphasizes that optimism is something that can be strengthened in clients, not an attribute that people are born either with or without.

One way counselors can build optimism in clients is to have them look for other instances in their lives when they dealt with a struggle or challenge but managed to stay hopeful, Neault says. Counselors can then encourage clients to draw from that example of previous resilience. Another approach is to use the concept of story with clients, sharing examples of others in similar situations who ended up being successful. It is important to use appropriate examples, however, Neault warns. For example, a happy, upbeat story isn’t appropriate for a client who is feeling particularly low.

Neault also offers the following tips that counselors can use to build a sense of optimism and hope in their clients:

  • Help clients to envision their dreams.
  • Help clients to set measurable, achievable goals.
  • Help clients to identify small action steps.
  • Help clients to create opportunities for success.
  • To ensure that clients maintain hope, prepare them for the unexpected.

Neault says she isn’t entirely sure why optimism supports career success and satisfaction, but she thinks that when people feel hopeful, they are perhaps a bit braver about looking at the future. “They’re not turning away from it. They’re embracing it with the sense that something good can happen,” she says. “That means that they’re more likely to perhaps take reasonable risks, be positive and enthusiastic in networking and making career contacts, [and] invest in their own learning or career development activities because they feel there will be some sort of payoff. [Optimism] helps them engage in the activities that will, in turn, make them successful.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, people who feel low and lack optimism might find it hard to get off the couch and engage in the types of activities needed to find success, Neault says.

It behooves all counselors, regardless of setting, to be aware of the client’s career development and level of optimism, Neault says. “I see an individual’s work integrated with all other aspects of his or her life. Whether or not one is engaged in meaningful work that pays sufficiently to meet one’s needs [and] within a workplace with a positive and respectful atmosphere will impact self-esteem, personal relationships, mental and physical health, life satisfaction and the ability to achieve other life goals. Counseling without attending to career-related issues leaves a very important aspect of one’s life out of the conversation. Research has demonstrated that optimism is the single best predictor of career success and job satisfaction. Therefore, it makes sense that enhancing optimism and hope will positively impact the client’s job satisfaction and career success and, in turn, positively impact other key areas in his or her life.”

The next stage of life

Seventy-eight million. That’s the number of baby boomers in the United States, according to an article on Bloomberg’s And each day, the article notes, 10,000 baby boomers are reaching age 65.

As a counselor, if you aren’t paying attention to the career needs of the baby boom generation, you need to be, says Cheri Butler, associate director of the career center at the University of Texas at Arlington and past president of both NCDA and NECA. Being fully prepared to work with these clients is important for a number of reasons, Butler says, not the least of which is the sheer size of their generation.

Butler says the significantly smaller size of Generation X means that a workforce shortfall is approaching as more baby boomers retire. It is important for career counselors to know this, Butler says, because they can communicate to baby boomer clients that their experience and knowledge are still needed in the workplace. “Career counselors should be aware of these demographics, particularly when working with clients who have been forced to take early retirement as part of a downsizing,” she says.

Also important for career counselors to recognize, Butler says, is that although substantial numbers of boomers are nearing retirement age, many are finding themselves financially unable to retire fully, in large part due to the recent recession. Although some baby boomers can and will continue in their current jobs, many others have been laid off and forced to find something new instead of retiring, she says. And still others who need or want to keep working desire a new challenge instead of doing what they’ve always done.

Regardless of why baby boomers are reassessing their career options, Butler says career counselors need to help these clients realize that they still have something to offer. “Help them bust the myth that they’re too old. Help them see the value in their maturity and be able to sell it,” she says.

Career counselors should also help baby boomers explore what something new or different might look like, Butler says. “Use questions like, What did you play when you were young? What were you doing the last time you lost track of time? Do you have a passion about some cause? What demographic of people do you like to be around? What do you want people to remember about you when you are gone?”

As a group, Butler says baby boomers possess a positive work ethic. They are generally regarded in the workplace as dependable, competitive, hardworking and optimistic, she says. They also like their success to be visible and often feel defined by their jobs. That is important to know, she says, because if a counselor is working with a baby boomer client laid off after 35 years on the job, that client will be grieving the loss of identity that was tied to that job and organization.

Butler recalls working with a 65-year-old client who was essentially forced to retire. As they talked, it became clear that the client had never found closure. Butler said to the client, “We have to come to the realization that you are a human being, not a human doing. You need to separate yourself from your previous title. How could we do that?”

Butler and her client planned a ceremony in which they burned all of the client’s old business cards. Butler then told him, “You’re no longer that title. You’re you. So how are we going to redefine you?”

Eventually, the client was faced with a decision concerning how he wanted to move forward. He was presented with an opportunity to get back into the traditional workforce with another company, or he could travel with his wife across the country in their RV, working odd jobs at national parks.

“We discussed how both [choices] would feel and the pros and cons [of each], but the telling activity was a simple one,” Butler remembers. “I gave him a quarter, and we said, ‘Heads, you go back to work, and tails you get in the RV.’ He flipped the coin and it came up heads. I immediately asked him, ‘It says go back to work. How do you feel?’ He said, ‘Yuck!’ That feeling said it all, and he got in the RV.”

‘Boomers don’t sit in a rocking chair’

The baby boom generation spans roughly 1946-1964, putting these clients between the ages of 49 and 67. That age range encompasses a large variety of life stages and decisions, Butler points out. A person who gets laid off at age 50 will likely be looking at much different options than someone who gets laid off at age 60. Butler calls 50 a “pinnacle age” in life at which clients might be thinking about going back to school and pursuing a complete career change. “They might look up and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m not where I want to be [in life],’” Butler says. “I find that group in my office all the time.”

At age 60, some clients might be looking at ramping down their careers, Butler says. “Maybe they’re old enough to take retirement from their 30-year jobs, but they want to do something else to feel relevant. They might not want a full-time, 80-hour-a-week job; they might want to do something fun.”

At 70, many clients are looking to wind down to something slower, but what that will be depends in part on the individual client’s financial situation, Butler says. Those who are able might want to fill their time with family, travel and volunteer work, while others might need to keep working at least part time. Either way, Butler points out, “Boomers don’t sit in a rocking chair.”

Even for those baby boomers planning to ramp down into retirement and who aren’t likely to be transitioning into another new job, a career counselor’s input can be helpful, Butler says. As opposed to a financial adviser who discusses money issues surrounding retirement, a career counselor can talk with these clients about time, Butler says. “Questions to ask may be, ‘Do you want to slow down with what you have been doing or do something entirely different and fun? How much time do you want to commit to these activities? What other activities do you want to pursue?’”

In general, Butler says, baby boomers are introspective. So, in helping them determine what might be next in their careers, asking questions about why they chose a career path originally and whether they would follow the same path over again can be illuminating, Butler says. Those details can then be used to move forward with the client. Boomers also like career assessments, which produce tangible results and information, she says. In addition, they like to know that the person working with them possesses solid credentials, so Butler recommends that counselors share details of their professional background early on.

Butler also advises career counselors never to assume that a client’s life stage or preferences can be pinpointed strictly on the basis of age. Rather, she suggests asking probing questions related to the individual’s demeanor, interests, enthusiasm and passions to find out his or her “virtual age.” For example, with a 60-something client who is as energetic and passionate as a 50-something client, Butler might suggest seeking certification for a new career rather than discussing the pursuit of a fun part-time job.

More widely, Butler says, counselors shouldn’t make assumptions. “Don’t assume that a 70-year-old doesn’t have the energy to work. Don’t assume that a senior isn’t computer savvy. Don’t discourage someone from going in a direction that you think wouldn’t be a good fit. Suggest that they try it out rather than steering them away from it.”

Career counselors must also keep up with workforce trends to truly provide informed guidance, Butler adds. For example, a career counselor might see a 50-something client with a background in manufacturing who was recently laid off or who is looking for a way to beef up his or her skills. If the career counselor knows that one of the current trends is increased demand in logistics and supply chain management, Butler says, the counselor can discuss this with the client, determine if that might be the right direction to head toward and help the client see how to market his or her maturity and experience. “We [as career counselors] need to have good listening skills just like a [general] counselor, but we also have to have that additional layer of knowledge of what the trends in the industry are,” she says.

Writing life stories

In Pamelia Brott’s view, career counseling in the 21st century is about much more than simply finding a job. It is about career well-being, which she says encompasses clients finding their purpose and looking forward to each day.

Brott, an associate professor in the counselor education program at the Virginia Tech Northern Virginia Center, believes a narrative approach offers clients a helpful path for finding that career well-being because it provides them with a natural way to share the stories of their lives. That is why she has developed what she calls the “storied approach.”

With the storied approach, each client is the editor of his or her own life story. “You can write your future story as you want,” says Brott, a member of NCDA and the immediate past president of the Virginia Counselors Association, a branch of ACA. Framing career counseling from a narrative viewpoint allows clients to feel more control over their lives, Brott says, whether they want to change career paths or continue in the same direction they have already been traveling. “By uncovering the patterns, themes and significant people and events that have occurred in previous chapters of the life story, the client identifies preferences for future chapters across [his or her] life roles,” she says.

Using her storied approach, Brott sees a person’s life story broken down into five life roles:

  • Relating, such as relationships with friends and family members
  • Learning, which includes both formal and informal learning
  • Pleasuring, including play, activities and hobbies
  • Working, which includes employment, home and classroom duties
  • Valuing, which Brott calls the “center of personality” and one’s authentic self. “The valuing life role is how choices are made for one’s career well-being,” she says.

Employment over the life span can naturally include unexpected twists and turns, and the bleak economic landscape in recent years hasn’t helped. Brott says shifting the focus solely from employment to all of life’s roles, and to clients’ strengths across those roles, can help clients find satisfaction and fulfillment even if they aren’t landing the exact job they want. “Helping clients identify what is ‘good enough’ for now can be a chapter that bridges the story and provides hope in what may be extremely trying circumstances,” Brott says. For instance, a client who is unemployed might find that while he is searching for a new job, he can also focus on his “relating” role by spending more time with his children. The goal of career counseling, in Brott’s view, is to make clients feel more empowered in their lives.

Using the storied approach, Brott says counselors can work with clients through the dynamic interplay of coconstruction, deconstruction and construction. Co-construction guides clients in celebrating past chapters of their life while finding themes across symbiotic life roles. Deconstruction opens space to articulate future dreams. Construction of future life chapters is centered on achieving those dreams on the basis of the clients’ strengths, relationships and passions.

As part of her approach, Brott uses three exercises — a lifeline, life roles circles and a goal map — that assist clients in telling their stories and planning out future chapters. “In coconstructing the chapters of the life story, the client and counselor collaborate and develop the narrative language that has meaning to the client,” she says. “Early memories are sketched on a lifeline as the client tells the story, and the counselor illuminates the chapter by reflecting meaning and feelings. Clients are able to see the reoccurring patterns in living a life and begin to articulate those patterns that [they] want to change and those patterns that need to be part of future chapters. Life roles circles are drawn to represent current functioning and then drawn again for a future point in time — a future chapter — which begins the process of deconstructing to open up space in the story and uncover preferred ways of being. A goal map is used for constructing a future chapter based on these preferences so that the client can identify the goal, initial steps in constructing the next chapter, obstacles that may get in the way and resources to use for overcoming those obstacles.”

The idea Brott wants to drive home with her peers is that career counselors can help people not only advance and excel in their working roles but also identify and move toward the total life they want. “We need to have a more dynamic definition when we say ‘career,’” she says. “It isn’t just about the job you have, it’s about the life you lead. You get to write your life story.”

To contact the individuals interviewed for this article, email:

Lynne Shallcross is the associate editor and senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at

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