Working as an employment counsellor in a small community for the past 20 years has connected me with thousands of clients. Because we work in a small town, the workers in my agency are likely to see a broad range of people. We don’t have enough of any particular group to really specialize. We see people who have just lost their jobs after working 25 years in a particular field. We see people who have never known work; some whose families have been unemployed for generations. We see people with simple barriers to employment. These barriers may include transportation challenges or missing a simple qualification. A large number of our clients have significant and compounded barriers. These can range from addictions to homelessness, mental illness to family violence. We see men and women (young and old), minorities, skilled workers, school leavers, First Peoples, immigrants and people with disabilities.
In those 20 years I have learned a great deal about employment in rural communities. I see how people see themselves as limited by the available career choices. I see how folk develop a parochial view of the world. I see how some are desperate to leave and some desperate to stay.
Every one of them is in transition. That transition is where we work. We support change and growth. We connect at a human level. We talk to our clients about what’s going on, where they see themselves going and what we can do to help them. In the midst of this change we ask, “So what would you like to do?” It is the question every employment counsellor hates to ask because the answer is nearly always, “I don’t know.” Clients will ask about the labour market, what courses are available locally and what I think they should do for a living. When case managers ask them about their passions, desires and interests they often draw a blank. So many people just don’t know what it is they want to do.
As a result of this consistent theme in my work, I decided to develop an approach to awaken passion. I utilised many of the tried and tested approaches to career development adding in current research and my own strategies.
I developed workshops and started to counsel clients specifically about passion. I crafted materials and activities that would ignite passion and inspire people to set goals to help them move along the employment continuum towards living a life they love.
Getting passionate for a career is fundamentally about discovering something you would love to do. In his book, “The Element”, Ken Robinson explains that people experience high levels of achievement when they engage in activities for which they possess a natural aptitude, but also a personal passion. “When people are in their Element,” says Robinson, “they connect with something fundamental to their sense of identity, purpose, and well-being.”
Sadly, for so many folk, passion for anything has never been allowed to develop. It has never been fostered or encouraged. Many people believe they should provide their children with the realities of life.
Once in a while I get to speak to children in Grade 4 about what it is they want to do when they grow up. Most of these 10 year olds are excited about fame, adventure and have enormous ideas about the future. Once in a while one will say, “I wanted to be a famous singer but I’m going to get a job as a receptionist at my mom’s company.” When I ask why, they tell me that that is a more realistic choice. I am confident that children don’t come to these terms of reality by themselves. That limitation is placed upon them by well-meaning adults.
Children are naturally passionate about so much around them. When you watch a three year old playing with her shadow, you can understand how children are fascinated by every little thing in the world. A recent study determined that when children enter school they ask about 200 questions a day. When they get to high school they ask a handful each day. This decline in inquiry suggests that the application of reality reduces curiosity and the exploration of the world. This limited world view doesn’t allow for people to take advantage of the opportunities and possibilities that surround them.
A famous example of this is the story of the digital watch. Futurist Joel Barker explains that in 1968 a team of Swiss researches developed the digital watch. Switzerland was the world’s centre for watch production, supplying 65% of the world’s watches. But the Swiss watch industry was not interested in the design. The components were too simple and the watch contained none of the components that the Swiss were famous for making. A Japanese company saw the watch at the World Watch Congress and decided to manufacture digital watches. Within ten years the Swiss watch industry had fallen to 10% of the world’s watch production, laying off 50,000 of the 65,000 watch workers .Barker uses this story to illustrate the idea of paradigm shifts and how we reset when the world changes. But it also shows how we so often fail to see the gifts, resources and opportunities that already exist.
When this limited world view becomes interwoven with an unhealthy self-esteem too many people take on the belief that they are unworthy of success. The rut is safe and comfortable.
So when people come in to see an employment counsellor, many are stuck. They can’t seem to move forward. They are dealing with a “crisis of imagination,” as employability theorist, Norm Amundson says.
In his book, Active Engagement, Amundson says people are unable to imagine a new future. “This crisis of imagination requires new ways of thinking that are more creative and more empowering,” he says.
In order to find success we must move out of the safety of the current situation.
I want to challenge you to move out of the comfort zone, look at things in a new light and apply creative approaches to determining a new future.
So how can you get a career? There is no one right way. In many parts of the world most people do what their parents do. And that is how it was in the Western World until the industrial revolution required people to do a wider range of jobs. The development of the division of labour, where different workers carried out different tasks in the manufacture of an item, led to the need for specialists in each area of production. There are those rare people who know what it is they want to do when they grow up. They go to school and enter that field of work and do it for their whole career. However, those people are the exception. Most people follow opportunities and those lead them to a particular type of work.
People become unemployed for many reasons. Employment counselling typically centres on a simple process. First, the client is assessed for their skills, interests and preferences. Additionally, most counsellors have their clients complete a personality assessment such as Myers-Briggs. There is no shortage of personality assessments on the internet. You fill in answers to forced-choice questions, and then you receive a pigeonhole categorization for jobs best suited to you. The results are quick and easy. The client often completes labour market research and follows up with specific skills training to apply for jobs in the area suggested by the assessments.
Many clients go on to careers that provide them with income and ongoing employment. However, the question must be asked, “Have we helped the client to connect with work that truly satisfies him or her?”
The problem with this process lies in the assessment phase. First, the client and case manager have given power to the designers of the assessments. These scientists have developed inventories based on personality types associated with each career. They research people working in particular fields and then create a personality dimension based on those types.
But remember that clients are facing a crisis of imagination and are feeling unworthy as a result of the stress associated with job loss. So they put their faith in these assessments as being “true.”
Second, the approach is flawed because the assessments only look at a thin slice of who we actually are as humans. No imagination or creativity has been applied to the process. Humans are complex creatures and we live in a highly complex world. These factors have led theorists to talk about the degree of chaos that we face in developing our careers.
Among others, Jim Bright says that the vast majority enter careers because of unplanned events. These events include the kinds of connections we make, being in the right place at the right time and recognizing opportunities as they appear.
We can improve these opportunities through a process called Planned Happenstance. This concept says that our career success is improved if we remain curious, persistent, flexible, optimistic and willing to take risks.
As a result of my suspicion of assessments, I have worked to find other approaches to help people connect with work that will bring them enjoyment and satisfaction. At the base of my approach is the building of a trust relationship with the client. We connect and talk about their circumstances and determine a course of action to employment. This is a common counselling approach. However, new employment programs are designed to help clients get a job as quickly as possible. Many employment programs have had to trade off building the trust relationship against efficiency.
More unconventional in the Free Rein approach is the idea that the client is the expert in their life. Our approach trusts the client to determine the goal. We provide guidance and encouragement, helping the person to move in the direction they are interested in.
Some might say that we are setting the client up for failure. If the client wants to be a marine biologist but only has a Grade 10 education then it is not probable they will be successful. No, it is not probable. But it is possible. It is probable that as they move towards their goal, they see other opportunities related to their goal that are achievable and that they are more suited to. This approach follows the idea of having a direction but also being open to new opportunities that relate to your goal.