Career Choice: Making plans

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Everyone who has traveled can confirm that deciding where to go is only the first in a long sequence of decisions that must be made if the trip is to be completed successfully. Questions must be answered about when to go, how long to stay, how to travel, what and whom to take along, what to see and do while there, what to read in preparation, what documents to obtain, and so forth. So, too, in career counseling, selecting a tentative career objective is only the first decision in a series.

The comprehensive question for the client is "How should I plan to implement the choice I have made so that I best enhance my opportunities for the satisfaction I hope to attain?" Because we deal with individuals whose experiences and present circumstances are unique, we must assume that each will have particular problems and concerns. Some matters that are troublesome to many clients will be of little concern to others, and what one finds vexatious may be routine to others. Therefore, some of the topics discussed here may require great or little attention by a specific client.

Healy (1982) emphasizes the need for more research on the effectiveness of career plans developed by clients as part of the career counseling process. It is clear that little information exists in the literature about this important step in the total process. He further emphasizes that plans must be individualized to deal with specific needs and characteristics of the specific client. Although some counselors use packaged or prescribed plans arranged according to a standard set of elements, Healy suggests that plans focusing on the particular demands of a target environment will be more viable.

The topics included here are representative of those frequently considered by clients as they attempt to develop plans. Any one client very well may have other significant items that need attention as much as any of these. Obviously, they should be incorporated at the appropriate point in the planning process. Similarly, those items that are inconsequential for a particular client should be passed over.

Present Location and Future Goal

One of the first questions to be faced in the planning process is "Where am I now relative to where I want to go?" In terms of our earlier travel analogy, one cannot make plans to go to a certain destination without first ascertaining one's present location.

For the most part, the items of concern here were discussed with the client during the initial interview. It is now only necessary to review those pertinent facts that were obtained in that earlier interview, evaluating each major item in relation to the tentative choice.

Major attention should be given to those matters that bear most directly on implementing the choice. This includes such items as educational background, work experience, and client characteristics. There may be important considerations in the areas of family, health and physical status, significant experiences, and the client's view of self. Other details that are sometimes important include age, financial resources, and items that restrict flexibility and independence. Sometimes the individual wants to emphasize where he or she wants to live, a desired lifestyle, access to or avoidance of certain conditions or resources such as urban areas, ski slopes, the beach, and the like. All personal characteristics that are clearly relevant to the desired goal should be reviewed, whether they are assets or liabilities.

Meeting Acquirements

Once a tentative choice has been made, one can identify what is necessary for successful participation in that field, how one demonstrates that one possesses those prerequisites, and how entry is obtained.

The most evident requirement for entry into most occupations, other than beginning-level unskilled positions, is possession of specific skill or knowledge. The particular skill needed may range from very simple and concrete (such as making change for small purchases) to very complex and abstract (such as calculating location by celestial navigation). The number of skills required may range from few too many. Specified skills and knowledge will usually involve some combination of tool knowledge, such as mathematical and language development, and also specific vocational preparation.

The amount of required training time, both general and specific, can usually be identified easily in publications such as Selected Characteristics of Occupations Defined in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. The particular content of that training time-the general and special skills and knowledge needed to perform the task-is somewhat harder to identify. Some clues are available from the DOT, employer job descriptions or program descriptions available from training institutions.

For some occupations the requirements are well known, highly standardized, and uniformly enforced. For others, particularly occupations with low general educational requirements and relatively brief specific vocational preparation, there may be considerable variation and flexibility. In these latter cases, local or regional hiring requirements may be the best index of common practice.

For many occupations, especially the professions and other highly skilled fields, the required skills and knowledge are translated into specialized training programs, and successful completion of the preparatory program is considered prima facie evidence that the skills and knowledge are possessed. In other cases, completion of a specified preparatory program followed by an examination, an internship, or similar practical experience demonstrates competence.

In many of the occupations that require formal training and/or examination programs, competence is established by acquiring some type of official permission such as licensure or certification. Standards for qualifying for this type of recognition may be set by either an occupational group or a governmental unit. Examples of this method of demonstrating that one has the requisite skills and knowledge include the teacher's certificate, an accountant's license, or a journeyman machinist's card. Although there may be some variation from state to state or across other political boundaries, in most cases there will be considerable similarity from unit to unit.

Among occupations where formal standards have not been established, one may find great variability. In some cases one may establish competence in a short, informal, on-the-job demonstration observed by a supervisor. There are many levels between the simplest and most complex methods and sometimes variation within a specific occupation.

Methods of demonstrating competence differ greatly across the various occupations. So, too, there is considerable divergence in how one gains admission to different occupations. At the simplest level this may consist only of identifying an employer who is willing to employ the applicant. At the most complex level this may involve not only acquiring the necessary certificate or license but also demonstrating, in some approved manner, greater skill than any other applicant. This may be accomplished through formal preparation, examinations, or hours of seniority at an appropriate lower-level related occupation. Many occupations have a typical admission or placement procedure that is common across the occupation.

The general purpose is to emphasize the importance of helping the client identify clearly what skills and knowledge are required for admission to the desired field, and how he or she can demonstrate possession of those skills and knowledge. At that point the client is able to establish the difference between present status and the desired status. This intervening span (skill, knowledge, training, experience) is what must be traversed if the client is to qualify for admission. The remainder of this chapter considers matters involved in crossing that intervening area.

Possible Paths

Once the client has determined his or her present status and identified the deficiencies that must be satisfied to qualify for what he or she wants to do, the next step is to ascertain the alternative ways for acquiring the needed skills and knowledge. In some cases the route is clear cut and specific; however, in many occupations several options may be possible. For example, the high school student who decides he or she wants to become a registered nurse has a choice of three paths after completing high school: (1) enrollment in a hospital-based nursing preparation program, (2) enrollment in an associate degree program, or (3) enrollment in a bachelor's degree program. Similarly, most crafts and skilled trades can be entered via on-the-job experience or a formal apprenticeship.

Information about the types of preparatory routes leading to various occupations can be found in such publications as Guide for Occupational Exploration and Occupational Outlook Handbook. Information is also included in the Occupational View-Deck and the Worker Trait Keysort (both described in Chapter 9), and in printed career materials and most computerized information systems.

Additional questions are encountered when the tentative choice is an occupation for which the customary preparatory path is formal education. The concerns to be addressed include all of those faced by any individual considering some formal type of postsecondary education. The specific questions are almost endless, ranging across such broad topics as the following:

What schools offer preparation for this occupation? Are the programs in most schools similar or diverse?

What special features accompany different emphases?

What advantages and disadvantages are recognizable?

How can one evaluate the quality of programs?

What about supporting or adjunct areas? Are there special demands or requirements in some programs? Are there special opportunities or payoffs in some programs? How much time is required?

What is the minimum program available?

What is the usual pattern followed?

What is ideal? What cost-benefit ratios can be estimated? Do certain kinds of programs fit my needs better than others?

In addition to the wide variety of program-specific questions, the client must also consider such broad, general institutional characteristics as size, type of school, location, environment, general admission requirements, type of student body, faculty data, student life, campus and community facilities and resources, and the like. This kind of information is easily obtained from the many general educational directories in common use and from many of the computerized information systems. Detailed information relative to particular preparatory programs is harder to obtain from general sources, although professional organizations in the chosen field may prove useful. Both the GOE and the OOH also list some sources for such data. Further, local practitioners in the occupation and local employers are additional resources for information about preparatory programs that are regionally or locally favored.

Except for the professional and technical areas, where the customary preparatory path is formal education to at least the baccalaureate level, most occupations can be entered through paths that require considerably less classroom involvement. Some of the educational options that are available include the following:

  1. A two-year program in a technical school or community college leading to an associate degree.

  2. A one-year program in a technical school or community college leading to an occupational certificate.

  3. A one-year-or-less program in a trade or vocational school.


  4. Any of the above programs extended over a longer period be-cause of the individual's involvement in work.

  5. Continuous, related classroom experience associated with an apprenticeship program.

  6. Supplementary classroom involvement related to an on-the-job training program.

  7. Incidental short courses, intensive or extension courses or workshops occasionally available and relevant to the work experience.

Entry lines that are primarily work-oriented and where classroom preparation is less emphasized include formal apprenticeships, formally structured on-the-job training programs, and informal on-the-job employment where the individual starts in an entry position as helper or assistant and expects to move into the occupation as a result of observation and incidental participation. Some occupations can also be approached through related fields (for example, civilian counterparts of military jobs).

Choosing the Path

Although the task now confronting the client can be described easily in decision-making terms, its resolution may be nearly as complicated as the occupational choice process through which the client has recently journeyed. The fundamental issue for the client can be stated simply with the question "What plan is best for me?" Personal attributes, both self-oriented and externally oriented, are likely to influence decisions about preparatory programs just as they swayed occupational choices.

The process to be followed at this stage is essentially the same as before: self-evaluation, acquisition of information about alternatives, evaluation of available alternatives in terms of all pertinent personal factors, and deciding which alternative is best. Fortunately, at least two factors usually make this decision easier and quicker than earlier ones. First, the client has learned something about the decision-making process and, second, he or she has already dealt with most of the significant personal data in selecting the tentative occupational choice. The major differences are that some new data may be pertinent to this decision and the data are being matched against different criteria at this point.

Questions about the time frame in which the preparatory path is to be completed can be considered only after the preferred path has been identified. Although one might assume that a client who has decided where he or she wants to go and how he or she plans to reach that objective would automatically proceed with all reasonable haste, there may be several factors that require consideration and that may interfere with that automatic assumption.

Clients occasionally will seek ways to speed up the process in order to reach the destination in less than the usual time. This reaction is not limited to those who have been delayed in the usual schedule, for example by military service or family responsibility, but it is likely to occur more frequently with this group. Where skill acquisition is based on a time frame of hours or weeks of experience little can be done to juggle the established patterns. However, where the basic unit is credit hours or similar educational units, many opportunities exist for shortening the time. Examples of ways to accomplish this include testing out of basic courses, carrying a heavy course load, and year-round schooling.

Identifying Adjustments

Sooner or later, the client must personalize the effect that decisions and choices will produce once the process of implementation is initiated. As much as possible, that impact should be anticipated so that it occurs as a natural, expected result of moving ahead with a deliberate plan and not as a sudden, nasty, unforeseen surprise. Although one cannot predetermine every eventuality, it certainly is possible to identify many of the major factors.

One area likely to be influenced by the development of plans is the client's present lifestyle. The young high school graduate who proceeds directly to further formal education probably experiences minimal conflict in this area. For the most part, this person has adjusted his or her life to the cycles, pressures, and other characteristics of academic life. The areas where adjustments may cause the greatest disruption may be related to increased self-responsibility and "out of school" life. For example, college students often report problems adjusting to group life in the dormitory or other housing unit, accepting responsibility for their own time schedule, handling routine matters such as laundry and checking accounts, and dealing with absence of family and long-time friends. On the other hand, students who return to formal study after a lengthy interval describe problems related to academic aspects of their new situation-coping with extensive reading assignments, developing study skills, learning new techniques and using new equipment, or preparing for examinations. They also frequently emphasize time conflicts, with classes and study time encroaching on other activities that have previously filled their lives.

Lifestyle can be affected in financial ways if the preparatory program necessitates diverting funds from other purposes to pay for the education, or if time previously used in income-producing activities is now used in the preparation program. This impact is more likely to be significant for the individual returning to school after a lengthy interruption, for example, the midlife changer or the homemaker returning to paid employment. Budgeting both time and funds may be necessary to accomplish desired goals.

Another aspect of lifestyle that may be influenced by planning for career change or development includes current time commitments. Again, ongoing students moving to postsecondary educational programs are already accustomed to allocating large blocks of time to class work and study. The returning student, however, may underestimate the time required for school-related activities. Also, many such individuals may have assumed various responsibilities or involvements that they are reluctant to relinquish. Examples of these are almost unlimited: community responsibilities such as committees, church or other organizational assignments, recreational or leisure activities such as team memberships, sponsoring or coaching time or regular attendance at events, even personal activities such as reading, hobbies, traveling, and conversation. The important point for counselor and client to consider is the provision of a realistic plan for whatever time is required for the new undertaking. Because most people have already filled their schedules with various activities, this new commitment probably requires elimination or drastic reduction of previous time-consuming involvements. One serious error for many clients is to assume that the new endeavor can simply be an "add on."

Some individuals must also consider the impact on others produced by the proposed change. The housewife or mother who decides to initiate a preparatory program leading to away-from-home employment is, perhaps, most representative of individuals who must resolve many problems in this area. The reallocation of housekeeping activities to other family members, provision of child care, accessibility when needed by children or spouse, time management, and establishing priorities are representative of the kinds of dilemmas included in this topic. Because people exist in social settings, the impact of plans and behavior on others is almost a universal concern. Many of these problems are easily solved, particularly if they are considered in advance and acceptable answers are identified.

Significant others play a vital role in the life of everyone. Consideration of impact on others is clearly a two-way street. Not only must the client review how his or her plans impinge on the lives of those important other individuals, he or she must also evaluate how the lives and activities of those other people restrict or enhance the likelihood of succeeding with the plan that is being developed. One must recognize the individuals who surround the client, and the client's interactions with those people, not only as sources that limit, restrict, or impede client plans, but also as sources of succorance, encouragement, support, and assistance.
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