Is careers development fundamentally about choice? Surely that is self-evident? Most people would see careers professionals as skilled in supporting individuals making choices about their vocational futures. This is echoed by government policy, statutory guidance in the UK from the Department of Education for example states;
“Schools should help every pupil develop high aspirations and consider a broad and ambitious range of careers. Inspiring every pupil through more real-life contacts with the world of work can help them understand where different choices can take them in the future.”
Similarly the UK based Careers Development Institute defines the job of the careers professional as follows;
“Career development professionals provide activities and services which assist individuals or organisations seeking support to affect a wide range of career transitions. These may be associated with life and career stages, including the development of the career ideas of young people. Contexts include educational choices, work experience and internships, labour market entry… returners to the labour market, portfolio working and pre-retirement choices.”
So for anyone wanting to seriously discuss careers development the place of choice seems like one to get clear on. If it is about choice then understanding the nature of choice is surely the fundamental factor, if it is not the sector has been barking up the wrong tree for a long time. So what might some alternatives be?
Ken Roberts Opportunity Structure theory of careers allocation provides an interesting counterpoint to the dominance of choice. Roberts doing analysis of school leavers in the later 1960s analysed how factors such as class, gender and location were deterministic of careers outcomes. Roberts claimed that personal choice had little place in the study he had made and that careers work should be focussed on adjusting individuals tot eh opportunities available to them rather than encouraging them to make choices which is not possible in the first place. Though we may not want to go as far as Roberts his ideas still highlight an important challenge to choice. Do we believe that the only factors that lead to the success of an individual are ones which are internal to the individual (such as personal values and skills)? Do we think that cultural limits can be moved past if individuals are rational enough or are individuals disadvantaged/ determined by factors outside of themselves and how should this affect our practice?
The Chaos Theory of Careers (CTC) as proposed by Prior and Bright poses a slightly different challenge to the dominance of choice. The CTC argues that careers theory has been dominated by attempts at prediction, choice fundamentally proposes that we can decide what will happen in the future, that our choices can have the consequences we want them to. CTC argues that due to how much the world of work changes, how much we change as individuals and how difficult it is to predict satisfaction on the basis of previous experiences choice and prediction models of careers development are not the most helpful for the individuals we work with. – choice as something that happens up against the coal face not a grand plan approach, opens way for other aspects to come in to play.
Linked ideas of career as construction of meaning and development and implementation of a personal construct (think Super, Savickas) provide a third important challenge. Given these ideas choice can be a limited way of thinking about development as it focuses on stepping into a new domain rather than some of the wider attributes of change. Choice focuses on a big moment when we move from one state to another, development argues for more ongoing general development. Career is about this general sense of development and change, the arc of our lives, the unfolding narrative(s) we live by rather than either being in a fixed state or choosing to move into another fixed state. In this view there is considerably more focus on the unfolding nature of who we are and how we make sense of the world around us and the place of work in our lives. As a careers worker we are involved in supporting an ongoing process which often focuses on personal concepts rather than supporting big moments of change. Choice is clearly part of development but the important thing to see is that development is happening all the time while significant changes only happen on occasion, this significantly changes the nature of the work we do.
To sum up choice obscures fundamental realities of how all individuals have a limit to their possibilities are limited in how well we can ever predict the future and are developing beings making sense. These three factors are fundamental to how we exist and how our careers operate we ignore them out our peril.
In terms of practice there is a fundamental issue of how we are embracing these structures. Often I hear practitioners (and observe in myself) a movement towards new ideas such as chaos/ happenstance or constructivist ideas or them discussing the limits of the clients they work with. But despite this practice still remains around making and implementing choices, this contradiction is resolved by reverting back to a choice/ matching based model and so the effect of the innovation is severely limited.
Maybe I’m wrong? Please comment below. It is my current conviction that three ideas above are in tension with a matching/ choice based model and this model stifles innovation into other areas as a result of this tension when it is not radically re-purposed.