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Traditional theories, recent developments and critiques

Contribution from Jenny Bimrose Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick
** Please note these are in the process of being updated. **


Matching theories

Parsons (1908) is regarded as the founder of the vocational guidance movement. He developed the `talent matching' approach which was subsequently developed into the trait and factor theory of occupational choice within the evolving discipline of differential psychology. Parsons' core concept was that of `matching'. He suggested that occupational choice occurs when people have achieved:

  • first, an accurate understanding of their individual traits (e.g. personal abilities, aptitudes, interests, etc.)
  • second, a knowledge of jobs and the labour market
  • and third, made a rational and objective judgement about the relationship between these two groups of facts

A key assumption is that it is possible to measure both individual talents and the attributes required in particular jobs, which can then be matched to achieve a `good fit'. It is when individuals are in jobs best suited to their abilities, they perform best and productivity is highest.

Two theorists within this broad academic tradition, Rodgers and Holland, have been particularly influential so far as guidance practice in the UK is concerned. Like Parsons, both Rodgers and Holland assumed that matching is at the centre of the process. Vocational choice is viewed essentially as rational and largely devoid of emotions. These choices were also regarded to be `one-off' events.

Seven point plan

In 1952, Alec Rodger published his `Seven Point Plan'. Originally devised for use in selection interviews, the plan was enthusiastically embraced by guidance trainers and practitioners as a useful model to inform practice. It consists of seven attributes: physical characteristics, attainments, general intelligence, specialised aptitudes, interests, disposition and circumstances. Application of this plan to guidance practice involves first, an evaluation of jobs against these seven attributes; second, assessment of an individual client against these seven attributes to ascertain the extent to which the client is a `good fit'. Only when there is an acceptable match of the two sets of attributes can a recommendation be made by the guidance practitioner to the client that this is an area worth pursuing.

This framework has been used in a number of ways in guidance practice. For example, to assess whether client aspirations for a particular job or career are realistic when reviewed against actual achievements or potential; to generate job ideas for a client who had few or no job ideas; and to analyse jobs, employment and training opportunities.

Hierarchy of orientations

Working within the same philosophical tradition, Holland (1966, 1973, 1985, 1992) developed an occupational classification system that categorises personalities and environments into six model types: realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising and conventional. His ideas still fall broadly within the matching tradition established by Parsons (1908), since he proposed:

  • first, that each of his six personality types are related to need and individuals can be categorised in one (or more) of these types
  • second, that work environments can also be classified in this way
  • third that vocational choice involves individuals searching for work environments that are congruent with their personality type

Subsequent developments of his theory place more emphasis on the interaction of the individual with their environment and the influence of heredity (Holland, 1985, 1992). Holland (1994) noted how he had ‘been renovating the internal structure of [his] own theory (Holland, 1992) to give it more explanatory power’ (p.50). He referred specifically to the way in which he had elaborated his typology to include life goals, values, self-beliefs and problem-solving styles, and how the developmental nature of types over the life-span is now incorporated (Holland, 1994).
Osipow & Fitzgerald (1996) consider Holland’s study of vocational selection and behaviour to be very comprehensive, within his theoretical framework (p.80). They verify how extensive investigations and modifications to the original ideas have been undertaken, yet the theory ‘remained fundamentally unchanged’ (Osipow & Fitzgerald, 1996, p.90). On the 40th anniversary of Holland’s first theoretical statement, the Journal of Vocational Behaviour documented the progression and development of his ideas. In the introduction to this festschrift, Savickas (1999) describes Holland’s contribution as ‘a surpassing achievement in vocational psychology’ (p.2). Continuing this theme, Gottfredson (1999) describes how Holland’s ‘monumental research, theoretical, and practical contributions have irrevocably altered the manner in which career assistance is delivered around the world’ (p.15). It seems unquestionable, therefore, that Holland’s ideas have had, and continue to have, a major impact.

Implications for practice

Undoubtedly, trait and factor approaches to careers guidance in the UK have been enormously influential, since they were first developed up to the present day. How can we account for this?

  • The dominant influence of differential approaches on the practice of careers guidance in the UK can be explained, partly, by their practical appeal. They provide careers practitioners with a clear rationale and framework for practice. Their role is clearly defined as `expert', with the specialist knowledge about the labour market as well as with the methods to assess individual suitability and capability for the labour market.
  • Additionally, and importantly, the underlying philosophy of differential approaches have suited policy makers since they lend themselves to the servicing of labour market requirements. People perform best in the jobs for which they are best suited. Consequently, it has been embraced enthusiastically by policy makers and barely questioned by the majority of practitioners.


The significant, continuing influence of differential approaches on the practice of careers guidance is acknowledged by Savickas (1997) who claims that: ‘Parson’s paradigm for guiding occupational choice remains to this day the most widely used approach to career counselling’ (p.150). Krumboltz (1994) concurs, suggesting that most current practice is ‘still governed by the three-part theory outlined by Frank Parsons (1909)’ (p.14). However, he is critical of Holland’s influence, attributing current problems with career counselling to the continuing influence of this approach. These problems include the low prestige of the profession, the lack of fit of careers counselling within a particular academic tradition and the absence of any significant input in educational reform (Krumboltz, 1994, p.14).

Increasingly, however, the theory is attracting criticism:

Mitchell and Krumboltz (1996) criticise its usefulness in current labour market conditions. Matching assumes a degree of stability in the labour market. The volatility of many occupational environments, together with the increased pressure on individuals to change and adapt to their circumstances makes:

'Trying to place an evolving person into the changing work environment .... is like trying to hit a butterfly with a boomerang' (p.263)

Osipow & Fitzgerald (1996) also highlight the failure of the theory to address the issue of change in environments and individuals. Additionally, they draw attention to problems inherent with the theory’s associated measures for gender, but regard the most serious limitation to be its failure to explain the process of personality development and its role in vocational selection (Osipow & Fitzgerald, 1996, p.104).

Scharf (1997) reminds us that:

'There is little research supporting or refuting trait and factor theory itself as a viable theory of career development. Rather, the research that has been done, of which there is a large amount, has related traits and factors to one another or has established the validity and reliability of measurements of traits and factors.' (p.26)

Although most of the work on the theory is still concerned with scale validation and relating traits to other individual differences such as personality facets, work values, leisure interests, and modes of thinking (see Armstrong and Anthoney, 2009; Gaudron and Vautier, 2007; Sullivan and Hansen, 2004), some efforts are being undertaken to establish the implications of the theory. For instance, Rottinghaus, Hees and Conrath (2009) found support for the hypothesis that congruence between interests and work environment yield job satisfaction. An interesting finding is that, in many occupations, dissatisfied individual showed a higher position on the Artistic code. Probably, since there exist few artistic occupations, Artistic individuals may be more likely to compromise congruence in their work lives (p. 15).

Research designed to evaluate Holland’s theory for particular client groups also reveals weaknesses. Mobley and Slaney (1998) suggest that although extensive empirical and theoretical investigations have explored the use and relevance of Holland’s theory, ‘considerably less attention has been devoted to investigating the implications of the theory from a multicultural perspective’ (p.126). For example, Leong et al. (1998) studied the cross-cultural validity of Holland’s (1985) theory in India. Whilst its internal validity was found to be high, results regarding external validity were ‘less than encouraging on several fronts’ (p.449). Elosua (2007) affirmed that Holland’s structure was not validated in the Basque population and Long and Tracey (2006) found a small fit in China. Leong et al. (1998) concluded that their findings suggest that culture specific determinants of occupational choice should be studied as alternatives to the ‘Western assumption of vocational interests being the primary determinants’ (p.453).

In their study of gender differences in Holland’s occupational interest types, Farmer et al. (1998) found limitations for the practical applications of the theory for women, concluding that ‘counselors may need to re-evaluate Holland et al.’s advice on consistency and job stability’ (p.91). As well, Proyer and Häusler (2007) advise that the structural assumptions of Holland's theory fit men better than women.

Sexual orientation is an aspect of Holland’s theory that Mobley and Slaney (1998) consider overlooked. In particular, they suggest that the relationship between Holland’s concept of congruence and gay and lesbian development need to be carefully researched. Another relevant aspect neglected in Holland’s ideas is homophobic tendencies both in the workplace and society at large (p.131).

Despite weaknesses, it is likely that the theory will continue to inform practice. Osipow and Fitzgerald (1996) suggest that Holland’s theory ‘will exert an influence on research in career choice for some time and begin to have a growing impact on counselling itself’ (p.105). No viable alternative existed during the first half of this century, and it was not until the 1950’s and 1960’s that theories originating from different branches of psychology like developmental, behavioural and psychodynamic, together with other academic disciplines such as sociology meant that practitioners had other options.

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Developmental theories

The general principles underlying developmental approaches to careers guidance are that:

  • individual development is a continuous process
  • the developmental process is irreversible
  • these processes can be differentiated into patterns called stages in the life span
  • the result of normal development is increasing maturity

The names most closely associated with this theory of vocational choice are Eli Ginzberg and Donald Super.

Eli Ginzberg

Ginzberg et al. (1951) proposed three life stages which broadly corresponded with chronological age. First came the fantasy stage which lasted up until eleven years old; second, the tentative stage, lasting from ages eleven to seventeen, with the three substages of interest, capacity and value; third, the realistic stage, which lasted from age seventeen onwards, with substages of exploration, crystallisation and specification.

Donald Super

Super was a doctoral student of Kitson at the University of Columbia. He thought Ginzberg’s work had weaknesses, one of which was the failure to take into account the very significant existing body of information about educational and vocational development (Osipow & Fitzgerald, 1996, p.111). Super (1957) and Super et al. (1961) extended Ginzberg’s three life stages to five (with slightly different sub-stages), arguing that occupational preferences and competencies, individual’s life situations (and hence their self-concepts) all change with time and experience. He also developed the concept of vocational maturity, which may or may not correspond to chronological age. Super (1957) extended Ginzberg's three life stages to five, with slightly different substages. He also developed the concept of vocational maturity, which may or may not correspond to chronological age. Super's five stages were:

  • growth, which lasted from birth to fourteen;
  • exploration lasting from age fifteen to twenty four with the substages of crystallization, specification and implementation
  • establishment from twenty five to forty four, with substages of stabilization, consolidation and advancing
  • maintenance from forty five to sixty four, with substages of holding, updating and innovating
  • finally the fifth stage of decline from age sixty five onwards, with substages decelerating, retirement planning and retirement living

For Super, a time perspective was always centrally important to the career development process: “It has always seemed important to maintain three time perspectives: the past, from which one has come; the present, in which one currently functions; and the future, toward which one is moving. All three are of indisputable importance, for the past shapes the present and the present is the basis for the future. But if I were forced to declare a preference in orientation to time, it would be for the future - even after more than fifty years of work experience”
(Super, 1990, p197)

He continued to develop his ideas over a fifty year period, with the life-career rainbow (1980, p289) representing a significant advance. It emphasised the importance the different roles that individuals played at different stages of their life (specifically child, student, leisurite, citizen, worker, spouse, homemaker, parent, pensioner) and the concept of life space (i.e. four major life theatres: home, community, education, work). Super used the concept of `roles' to describe the many aspects of careers throughout an individual's lifespan. Some key ideas include: the number of roles an individual plays will vary; all roles are not `played' by everyone; each role has differing importance at different times for individuals (e.g student); and success in one role tends to facilitate success in others (& vice versa). The development of his ideas about self-concept and vocational adjustment resulted in a redefinition of vocational guidance as:

“the process of helping a person to develop an integrated and adequate picture of himself and of his role in the world of work, to test this concept against reality and to convert it into a reality, with satisfaction to himself and benefits to society” (Super, 1988, p357)

His archway model (so called because it was modelled on the doorway of Super’s favourite Cambridge college) formally conceded the importance of contextual influences (e.g. social policy, employment practices, peer group, family, community, the economy) which operated on individual choice and attributed them equal importance to individual factors (e.g. values, needs, interests, intelligence, aptitudes). Super also acknowledged the contributions from a range of academic disciplines to our understanding of vocational choice (Super, 1990).


Brown (1990) notes the phenomenological, developmental and differential influences on the expansion and refinement of Super’s thinking, suggesting that it was because of these disparate influences that Super failed to integrate strands into a cohesive statement (Brown, 1990, p.355). Indeed, Super acknowledged that a weakness of his theory was its fragmented nature, anticipating its future development:

“What I have contributed is not an integrated, comprehensive and testable theory, but rather a ‘segmental theory’. A loosely unified set of theories dealing with specific aspects of career development, taken from developmental, differential, social, personality and phenomenological psychology and held together by self-concept and learning theory. Each of these segments provides testable hypotheses, and in due course I expect the tested and refined segments to yield an integrated theory.” (Super, 1990, p.199)

This fragmentation was identified as the most serious criticism of the theory (Super et al., 1996) in a chapter published after Super’s death in 1994: ‘Its propositions are really a series of summarizing statements that, although closely related to data, lack a fixed logical form that could make new contributions of their own’ (Super et al., 1996, p.143).

Osipow and Fitzgerald (1996) consider the original version of the theory was too general to be of much practical use, with its conceptual value being limited by its sweeping style - though this weakness had been addressed by subsequent refinements (p.143). They argue that a particular weakness is the failure of the theory to integrate economic and social factors that influence career decisions (p.144).

This concern is echoed by Scharf (1997) and Brown (1990), who propose that Super’s theory does not adequately address the particular challenges that women and ethnic groups present career theory (Brown, 1990, p.355; Scharf, 1997, p.153). Brown (1990) also specifically criticises the theory for its failure to account adequately for the career development of persons from lower socio-economic groups (Brown, 1990, p.355). Linked with these criticisms is an important concern identified by Osipow and Fitzgerald (1996) that ‘in recent years relatively few new empirical tests of the theory have been conducted’ (p.144) Despite weaknesses, Brown (1990) suggests that Super’s theory ‘occupies stage centre, along with Holland’s thinking. There seems to be no reason to doubt that it will continue to be of considerable importance in the future’ (p.356).

Recent developments

In the last years, studies have addressed some of the criticisms. Several researchers have studied the interconnection between developmental phases and context, suggesting that “life/career evolution of the participants can be understood only when taking into account the dynamic interaction between the unique personal characteristics of individuality of each person and the psychosocial theatre within which the person’s development takes place” (Ferreira et al., 2007). These studies include the context that accompanies the individual (e.g. family) as well as the socio-historical context (Palladino Schultheiss, 2008; Schoon et al., 2007). In terms of developing an integrated theory, some researchers have studied how each developmental stage contributes to career outcomes later in life, such as occupational information and school drop out (Ferreira et al., 2007; Jordan and Pope, 2001). Finally, following previous perspectives, several studies have concentrated on acquiring a better understanding of the different developmental stages, with particular efforts on childhood.

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Theory of occupational allocation (Opportunity structure)

Like many other theorists, Roberts has developed and modified his views over a long period of time. The ‘opportunity structure’ model was first proposed by Roberts (1968, p176) as an alternative to theories of career development advanced by Ginzberg and Super. On the basis of a survey involving 196 young men aged between 14 and 23 selected by a random canvas of households in a part of London, Roberts (1968) suggested that the:

'momentum and direction of school leavers' careers are derived from the way in which their job opportunities become cumulatively structured and young people are placed in varying degrees of social proximity, with different ease of access to different types of employment' (p179)

Roberts (1968) did not suggest that his alternative theory is one of universal validity (p179). Rather, he argued that entry to employment in different social contexts requires different explanatory frameworks and that entry into employment does not take place in a similar manner amongst all groups of young people, even in the same society. The determinants of occupational choice identified are:

  • the home
  • the environment
  • the school
  • peer groups
  • job opportunities

    He challenged the relevance of the concept of choice embedded in psychological theories, emphasising the structure of constraints:

    'An adequate theory for understanding school-leavers' transition to employment in Britain needs to be based around the concept not of `occupational choice', but of `opportunity structure' (Roberts, 1977, p183)

    As a consequence, the scope of careers guidance was somewhat restricted, since it could not make jobs more rewarding for individuals nor create opportunities for personal growth and development. Roberts’ contribution to careers theory carried with it particular significance because he spelt out the implications for careers guidance practice (1977). These included: how the guidance process inevitably became a matter of a adjusting the individual to opportunities available; how guidance should be centred around an individual's immediate problems; and how careers services should concentrate on developing a good information service and more on placement and follow-up. The primary role of practitioners, according to Roberts, was to service the needs of the labour market, rather than to educate, facilitate, or indeed anything else implicated by other theories (Roberts, 1977).

    Roberts' critique of developmental theories and new model of occupational allocation was received with caution and scepticism by the guidance community in the UK. A strident critic of Roberts' early ideas was Peter Daws. He criticised both Roberts' (1977) opportunity structure model and his views about the limited effects of careers guidance as both conservative (Daws, 1977) and fatalistic (Daws, 1992). In response, he promoted the value of careers education programmes as being capable of encouraging social change by supporting and educating the individual (Daws, 1977).

    Far from changing his ideas as a result of these criticisms, Roberts revised and expanded his determinants of occupational allocation as a result of research into comparative labour markets (buoyant compared with depressed) in the UK. He emphasised (Roberts, 1984) the importance of local labour markets on job seeking for young people, finding that:

      • distance to work: a key issue because the average was three miles because of the costs of travel
      • qualifications: continued to be important, since even low exam grades made a difference in finding work
      • informal contacts: crucial, since large firms operated as internal labour markets for young people
      • ethnicity: race operated as multi-dimensional disadvantage (i.e. housing, education and employment)
      • gender: identified as a significant inhibiting factor because, since the aspirations of girls and women were found to be low and short term
      • cyclical and structural factors: operating within the economy resulted in a demand for smaller labour forces in which higher skill levels were required. In these circumstances, young people were found to be particularly vulnerable

      Further research into comparative labour markets in the UK and Germany revealed striking similarities in the labour market constraints operating upon young people in these different European countries. Bynner and Roberts (1991) assessed the importance of a country's education and training system for its economic prosperity. Key findings included, first, that broadly similar routes to employment in the two countries were found to exist (career trajectories); second, that for each career trajectory, these routes originated in education, family and background.

        In 1995, Roberts argued that the debate about `choice versus opportunity' was never won decisively by either side (p111) because:

        • there is an acknowledgement that the opportunities for choice are different amongst different groups of young people
        • the transition period for young people to move from education to employment is now so extended that almost all young people are able to exercise some choices at some stage of this process

        Various changes (e.g. economic restructuring, higher unemployment and pressure from young people and their parents) have necessitated new concepts (Roberts, 1995, 1997) to understand the process of transitions into employment:


        Life patterns have become more individually distinctive than ever before, because of shrinking social networks and changed social behaviour. Several trends have contributed, including:

        • breakup of the concentration of employment in the firms and industries that once dominated many local labour markets;
        • higher rates of residential mobility;
        • the increasing instability of marriages and families;
        • the weakening of neighbourhood and religious communities.

        Uncertain destinations & risk

        Robert's uses the image of different types of transport to convey an understanding of how individuals undertake life transitions. He suggests that typically, people embarkon their life journeys without reliable maps - in private cars, rather than the trains and buses in which entire classes once travelled together. Reflecting reality, these vehicles don't all have equally powerful engines. That is, some young people have already accumulated advantages in terms of economic assets and socio-cultural capital. Some have to travel by bicycle or on foot. Common to all is the requirement to take risks. (Roberts, 1995, p118). Individualization makes young people's later destinations unclear. Young people themselves are aware of this uncertainty and career steps now invariably involve some degree of risk.

        Life course replaces life cycle

        Established patterns are disappearing where individuals prepared for adulthood, then establish themselves in occupational careers and families. Marital instability together with the growing expectation that individuals will return to education throughout their adult lives (i.e. lifelong learning) has resulted in what Roberts refers to as a destandardization of the life cycle.

        Roberts identifies general policy implications and some specifically for career guidance:

        a) Customization There is a need for continuous, individualized careers information, advice and guidance. Young people need customized assistance that matches their particular circumstances and involves a mixtures of strategy and chance. Overall, guidance practitioners should acknowledge uncertainty, and help young people work with it:

        '...whereas it used to be the minority of young people who made prolonged transitions and embarked on careers that would create individualised biographies, these are now the majority situations...there were always those at age 20 or older, who had little idea of where they were heading. Thirty years ago, they might have been described as vocationally immature. Nowadays, the situation has spread to the majority and what was once labelled immaturity has become plain realism.' (1997, p349)

        b) Normalization It is important for practitioners to help clients recognise that this situation is normal and prevent individuals worrying. Information about options and their uncertainties should be included in the guidance process and practitioners will constantly need to update about the changing requirements of employment.

        Recent developments

        Recent work has continued to study opportunity structures among groups, including gender, national, ethnic, generational, micro and macro socioeconomic differences (see Kenny et al., 2007; Orgocka and Jovanovic, 2006; Reay et al., 2001). Some findings suggest that there are still differences in terms of employment realities but not of ideals or expectations (Bielenski and Wagner, 2003). As well, some studies have explored how structures change over time, for example in relation to political-economic models, finding that although the old structures were gone and individuals felt more in control of their lives, new powerful structures emerged (Roberts, 2006). Researchers have proposed the term ‘bounded agency’, suggesting that individuals exercise choice within their opportunity structure, and that informal interactions can support or inhibit this (Diemer and Blustein, 2006; Diemer et al., 2006; Evans, 2002). Also, some researchers have studied the topic of opportunity structure in the case of more privileged individuals, finding that they perceive structural conditions are less relevant to their choice than their own human capital and capacity (Ozbilgin, Kuskus and Erdogmus, 2005). Finally, many of the studies concentrate on youth and school to work transitions.


        Roberts, like other theorists, has been developing ideas in response to changes that have occurred over the past 30 years. Guidance practitioners have often reacted negatively to his thinking. His views about the limitations of guidance have been regarded as deterministic, negative and even gloomy, denying the autonomy of the individual and their right to choose. However, many of his ideas have been reflected in policy changes that have been implemented in the area of careers guidance over the past 20 years. In 1997, he warned that careers services' preoccupation with a target driven culture and with action plans was endangering resources being drawn away from the clients who most needed help to those who were most adept, as consumers, at working systems to their advantage: `Guidance staff may feel, or be made to feel, unable to devote the necessary time to young people whose problems are likely to be the most time-consuming (p358). The refocusing agenda has, of course, now ensured that this is less likely to occur.

        In an assessment of the impact of the Connexions Service on careers guidance, Roberts (2000) concluded that it will be at the heart of the new service. The new policy priorities embodied in the Connexions Service demand a particular combination of knowledge and skills which careers services can supply. He observes that:

        'Many careers officers have long aspired to broaden out into life counselling. They will now have that chance. The attractions of careers in careers guidance will receive a boost' (p27).

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        Learning theory of careers choice & counselling

        From social learning to happenstance

        The original theory (Krumboltz et al, 1976, Mitchell & Krumboltz, 1990), known as the social learning theory of career decision making (SLTCDM), has recently been developed into the learning theory of careers counselling (LTCC) (Mitchell and Krumboltz, 1996). The more recent version attempts to integrate practical ideas, research and procedures to provide a theory that goes beyond an explanation of why people pursue various jobs: `While the two theories were published at different times, they can be regarded as one theory with two parts. Part one (SLTCDM) explains the origins of career choice and part two (LTCC) explains what career counsellors can do about many career related problems' (Mitchell and Krumboltz, 1996, 234). Most recently, Krumboltz has been developing and integrating ideas about the role of chance (happenstance) in career decision making. Summaries of these theory developments are given below. At the heart of Krumboltz's thinking is Bandura's Social Learning Theory (SLT). Bandura identified three major types of learning experiences:

        • Instrumental: results from direct experience when an individual is positively reinforced or punished for some behaviour and its associated cognitive skills.
        • Associative: results from direct experience together with reinforcement when an individual associates some previously affectively neutral event or stimulus with an emotionally laden stimulus.
        • Vicarious: when individuals learn new behaviours and skills by observing the behaviours of others or by gaining new information and ideas through media such as books, films and television.)

        Social learning theory of career decision-making (SLTCDM)

        This theory focuses on teaching clients career decision-making alternatives and makes use of the concept of the `triadic reciprocal interaction' (learning as the interaction with environment and genetic endowment) and emphasises the role of instrumental & associative learning. Consequently, key concepts/tools for the practitioner are reinforcement and modelling. The application of this theory to practice involves the practitioner attempting to identify and correct any incorrect beliefs held by the client about the decision making process. It was developed to address the questions: why people enter particular educational course or jobs; why they may change direction during their lives; why they may express various preferences for different activities at different points in their lives. The following are identified as influential in these processes:

        Influential factors

        Krumboltz examines the impact of 4 categories of factors:

        • Genetic Endowment and Special Abilities - race, gender, physical appearance, & characteristics. Individuals differ both in their ability to benefit from learning experiences and to get access to different learning experiences because of these types of inherited qualities.
        • Environmental Conditions and Events - social, cultural & political, economic forces, natural forces & natural resources. These are generally outside the control of any one individual. Their influence can be planned or unplanned.
        • Learning Experiences- Each individual has a unique history of learning experiences that results in their occupational choice. They often don't remember the specific character or sequence of these learning experiences, but rather they remember general conclusions from them (e.g. I love animals/working with children). The two main types of learning experiences identified in the theory are:
          • instrumental learning experience (which consists of preceding circumstances/stimulus, behavioural responses (overt & covert), consequences)
          • associative learning experience where individuals perceive a relationship between two (or more) sets of stimuli in the environment (e.g observation, reading or hearing about occupations). This can result in occupational stereotypes.
        • Task Approach Skills - Interactions among learning experiences, genetic characterises, and environmental influences result in the development of task approach skills. These include:
          personal standards of performance; work habits; emotional responses. Previously learned task approach skills that are applied to a new task or problem both affect the outcome of that task or problem and may themselves be modified.

        Resulting cognitions, beliefs, skills & actions

        As a result of the complex interaction of these four types of influencing factors (i.e. genetic endowment, environment, learning and task approach skills), people form generalisations (beliefs) which represent their own reality. These beliefs about themselves and the world of work influence their approach to learning new skills and ultimately affect their aspirations and actions. The SLTCDM refers to people's beliefs about themselves as either:

        • Self-Observation Generalisations: an overt or covert statement evaluating one's own performance or assessing one's own interests and values. Involves a constant assessment of our own performance; or
        • World-View Generalisations: observations about our environment which is used to predict what will occur in the future and in other environments (e.g. the caring professions).

        Task Approach Skills and Career Decision Making

        Krumboltz proposes a seven stage career decision-making model (DECIDES):

        1. Define the problem - recognizing the decision
        2. Establish the action plan- refining the decision
        3. Clarify the values - examining (self-observations & world-view generalisations)
        4. Identify alternatives - generating alternatives
        5. Discover probable outcomes - gathering information
        6. Eliminate alternatives - assessing information
        7. Start action: planning & executing this 6 step sequence of decision-making behaviours.The use of these task approach skills of career decision making depends on relevant learning. The most effective career development requires individuals to be exposed to the widest possible range of learning experiences, regardless of race, gender, etc.

        Potential Problems for Professional Practice

        Several types of problems may arise because of dysfunctional or inaccurate world-view and self-observation generalizations. According to Krumboltz, these are that people may:

        • fail to recognize that a problem exists
        • fail to make a decision or solve a problem
        • eliminate a potentially satisfying alternative for inappropriate reasons
        • choose poor alternatives for inappropriate reasons
        • become anxious over perceived inability to achieve goals

        Techniques and strategies for guidance follow from an assessment of the problem.

        Learning theory of careers choice & counselling

        In 1996, Krumboltz developed the Learning Theory of Careers Choice and Counselling (LTCC). Mitchell and Krumboltz (1996:250) state that `the Social Learning Theory of Careers Decision Making provides a coherent explanation of a person's career path after it happens but it does not explain what a careers counselor can do to help people shape their own paths'. So, the LTCC was developed to provide `a guide to practising career counsellors who want to know what they can do now to help people troubled with a variety of career-related concerns'.

        Summary of Practical Applications

        Mitchell and Krumboltz (1996) identify four fundamental trends with which people must cope when making career choices in modern society and with which careers practitioners must help:

        1. People need to expand their capabilities and interests: Practitioners should assist clients to explore new activities, rather than routinely directing them on the basis of measured interests that reflect limited past experiences.
        2. People need to prepare for changing work tasks: Learning new skills for the changing labour market can be very stressful for clients. Practitioners have a role to play in helping them to help them cope with stress as they learn to develop new skills on an ongoing basis.
        3. People need to be empowered to take action: Many issues relevant to career decisions are often overlooked in guidance practice (for example, a family’s reaction to taking a particular job). This could cause a fear of the decision making process (referred to by Krumboltz as `zeteophobia') or cause delay in making a decision. Practitioners need to be prepared to help with these issues as well as providing effective support during the exploration process.
        4. Career Practitioners need to play an extended role: Career and personal counselling should be integrated. Issues such as burnout, career change, peer relationships, obstacles to career development and the work role itself together with its effect on other life roles are examples of potential problems that should attract the support of the careers practitioner.

        Other suggestions

        The role of careers practitioners and the goals of careers guidance and counselling need to be re-evaluated. Practitioners actively need to promote client learning. This may require creative re-thinking which involves designing new learning experiences for clients (e.g. careers practitioners become coaches and mentors to help clients meet the changes in work force requirements). It will also involve developing flexibility in clients (e.g. teaching clients that the criteria for work satisfaction are likely to change over time, as are labour market requirements).

        Learning experiences should be used to increase the range of opportunities that can be considered in career exploration. Practitioners should attempt to discover unlimited experiences among clients and offer proper learning solutions.

        Assessment results (of aptitudes, interests, beliefs, values and personality types) can be used to create new learning experiences. For example, aptitude test results can be used to focus on new learning. Key interests identified through assessment need to be developed. The key issue for practitioners is to resist accepting test results as an indication of `given' abilities. Rather, as a framework for identifying areas for change and development. Intervention strategies suggested by Mitchell and Krumboltz (1996) include those which are:

        1. developmental and preventive: e.g. careers education, use of job clubs, occupational information resources and simulations like work experience.
        2. targeted and remedial:
          • career practitioners becoming proficient in using cognitive restructuring. This implies `reframing' the perspective of the client. For example, a client who is extremely nervous about attending for selection interview should rather accept that the interview is an opportunity to impress the prospective employers and the other candidates (positive self-talk).
          • careers practitioners should use behavioural counselling techniques, including role playing or trying new behaviours, desensitization when dealing with phobias and `paradoxical intention' (i.e. a client is helped to engage in the types of behaviour that have created a problem).

        Evaluating and applying the LTCC

        Krumboltz discusses the increasingly important questions of measuring the outcomes of guidance and evaluating practice.

        New Outcome Measures - Two favourite measures in careers practice are:

        • indecision:a major goal for practice has been overcoming decision. However, in the new labour market, being `open minded' will be an increasingly attractive quality.
        • congruence:work environments are becoming increasingly fluid. Job descriptions are becoming less task orientated and more outcome orientated. Trying to match individuals to congruent environments assumes that both individuals and environments will remain constant.

        Emerging Criteria - The LTCC would put more emphasis on practitioners asking questions like these:

        • How successful have my interventions been in stimulating new learning on the part of my clients?
        • How well have my interventions helped my clients cope will a constantly changing world of work?
        • How much progress are my clients making in creating a satisfying life for themselves?

        Happenstance in vocational & educational guidance

        Most recently, Krumboltz has been developing his ideas around supporting (even encouraging) career indecision (Mitchell et al., 1999; Krumboltz & Levin, 2004). He promotes the idea that not only is indecision sensible and desirable, but that clients can create and benefit from unplanned events. Key ideas from this new development of the theory are:

        • The ultimate goal of career counselling is creating satisfying lives, not just making a decision;
        • Tests should be used to stimulate learning, not just to match;
        • Practitioners should get clients to engage in exploratory action;
        • Open-mindedness should be celebrated, not discouraged;
          Benefits should be maximised from unplanned events; and
        • Lifelong learning is essential.

        Some of the implications for practitioners for this new dimension of the theory are discussed and include:

        • Career counselling should be a lifelong process, not a one-off event
        • The distinction between career counselling and personal counselling should disappear
        • ‘Transitional counselling’ is more appropriate than career counselling
        • Professional training should be expanded to ensure practitioners are properly supported in this extended role

        Recent developments

        In the last years, research has supported the relevance of happenstance in career development. Some studies have analyzed the impact of chance events, finding that the characteristics of the events, personal features, and social and demographic variables affect the impact. For instance, Bright and colleagues (2009) found that chance events which are highly influential and of low control show the biggest impact on career development. As well, in accordance with Bandura’s associative type of learning, those chance events which are connected present a higher impact. Bright, Pryor and Harpham (2005) revealed that the impact of the event is also affected by personal characteristics such as locus of control. Other studies are exploring how social and demographic characteristics of individuals mediate the impact of chance events by allowing them or not to draw on opportunities (Thomson et al., 2002). Finally, research has suggested that chance events can also be negative (Brigh et al. 2009).


        Empirical evidence relevant to the SLTCDM is reviewed by Mitchell and Krumboltz (1996), who conclude that there is considerable support for key propositions in the theory, but that: `Much remains to be learned' (p270). The strength of the theory lies in its potential to `evolve and change easily as new facts and anomalies are revealed' (Krumboltz, 1994, p29). Osipow and Fitzgerald (1996) identify the strengths of SLTCDM as: `first in its great explicitness with respect to its objectives and the means to accomplish these objectives, and second in its emphasis on the environment and social influences' (p177). Brown (1990) agrees with this analysis, though observes that although materials have been produced, they have not yet been integrated into career development programmes to the extent of those produced by Holland and Super (p357).

        Negative aspects of the theory are also identified. Brown (1990) argues that the biggest weakness of the theory is its failure to account for job change (p357), whilst Osipow and Fitzgerald (1996) argue that there is too much emphasis on the choice itself and not enough on the adjustment process. One other weakness is the `paucity of new data to validate the idea of the theory and the relative shortage of new ideas or methods to accomplish its objectives' (Osipow and Fitzgerald, 1996, p177). Brown (1990) notes that although Krumboltz's theory is currently not a major influence on either research or the practice of career counselling, this seems likely to change since it is attractive in different respects to both researchers and practitioners (p357).

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        Psychodynamic theories

        "The term ‘psychodynamic’ refers to systems that use motives, drives, and related covert variables to explain behaviour. Psychodynamic career counseling refers to counseling approaches that are guided by attempts to understand, make meaning of, and utilise individual motives, purposes and drives to facilitate career exploration". (Watkins & Savickas, 1990, p.79)

        Compared with other psychological schools of thought, there has been little progress on developing psychodynamic approaches to career choice, change and development. However, ideas and concepts from this theoretical perspective have certainly influenced thinking in the area of careers. For example, Anne Roe (1956, 1957), who trained as a clinical psychologist as an extension of occupational psychology, undertook research that was heavily influenced by psychodynamic theory. More recently, other researchers (for example, Bordin, 1990; Savickas, 1989; Watkins and Savickas, 1990) have begun developing and applying ideas fundamental to this theoretical perspective.

        None emerge as particularly significant in the UK context, though since Roe was identified by practitioners in the research carried out by Kidd et al. (1993), a brief outline of her ideas, and some originating from Mark Savickas, follow.

        Anne Roe

        Roe had no experience of careers counselling, and was originally interested in personality theory and occupational classification (Roe, 1956, 1957). Much of her early research focused on the possible relationship between occupational behaviour (that is, not just choice) and personality (Roe and Lunneborg, 1990). She found Maslow’s hierarchy of basic needs (1954) a useful framework, as it offered the most effective way of discussing the relevance of occupational behaviour to the satisfaction of basic needs. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, in order of their potency (from the most to the least potent) comprised eight categories: first, physiological needs; second, safety needs; third, needs for belongingness and love; fourth, the need for importance, respect, self-esteem, independence; fifth, the need for information; sixth, the need for understanding; seventh, the need for beauty; and eighth, the need for self-actualisation. Maslow considered these needs to be innate and instinctive but (apart from physiological needs) modifiable, and proposed that the lower the potency of need in the hierarchy, the more it is suppressible (Maslow, 1954).

        Roe (1956) accepted Maslow’s hierarchy as originally proposed, though exchanged the need for importance, respect, self-esteem, independence (number four in Maslow’s original hierarchy) with the need for self-actualisation (the eighth need in the original version). Two of her key propositions were that, first, occupation is potentially the most powerful source of individual satisfaction at all levels of need; and second, that social and economic status depend more on the occupation of an individual than upon anything else (Roe, 1957, p.213).

        She also constructed a new system of occupational classification, since she considered that none of the systems available followed any logical system (Roe, 1957). She saw that occupations could be arranged along a continuum based on the intensity and nature of the interpersonal relationships involved in the occupational activities and in an order that would have contiguous groups more alike than non-contiguous ones. The eight occupational groups she posited were service, business contact, organisation, technology, outdoor, science, general culture, and arts and entertainment (Roe, 1957, p.217). The levels of difficulty and responsibility involved in each occupation were then considered, and six occupational levels based on degree of responsibility, capacity and skill were identified. These were: professional and managerial (independent responsibility); professional and managerial; semi-professional and small business; skilled; semiskilled and unskilled (Roe, 1956 & 1957).

        The original theory contains various propositions on the origin of interest and needs, though subsequent research concentrated on the proposition that since early experience is usually dominated by the family situation and particularly by relations with the parents, some description of parental behaviours was necessary (Roe and Lunneborg, 1990). These are conceptualised as emotional concentration on the child, which could be either overprotective or over-demanding; avoidance of the child, expressed either as emotional rejection or neglect, or acceptance of the child, either casually or lovingly. It was also argued that there are two basic orientations, either toward or not toward persons, that these are related to early childhood experiences and that they can be related in turn to occupational choice.

        A central weakness in Roe’s (1957) original ideas are identified by Roe and Lunneborg (1990) who suggest that it has become clear that there is no direct link between parent-child relations and occupational choice. Brown (1990) identifies other weaknesses including the lack of any longitudinal research necessary to test key propositions; its failure to provide an adequate explanation of how socio-demographic variables interact with career choice; lack of insight into the career-decision making process itself; and Roe’s lack of interest in the practical application of her theory. Brown (1990) predicts that unless the research necessary to validate Roe’s theory is undertaken, it will ‘fall into disuse’, even though some ideas and concepts may continue in practice (p.352).

        Mark Savickas

        Other psychodynamic approaches include Adlerian approaches, and it is within this academic tradition that Mark Savickas developed his career-style assessment (1989). His approach to careers counselling makes use of Adlerian concepts such as lifestyle and career style, encouragement and the use of private logic that emanates from childhood experience (Scharf, 1997, p.290). Savickas’s structured approach consists of two phases - assessment and counselling. The assessment phase consists of a careers interview which focuses on gathering information about lifestyle issues. Each question is focused and provides particular clues about the client’s life goals. They include role models, books, magazines, leisure activities, school subjects, mottoes, ambitions and decisions. After the initial assessment interview, three more sessions are required. The first is to discuss career style and path, decision-making difficulties and interests; the second focuses on developing a list of occupations for further exploration and the third focuses on any difficulties that the individual may be having in making a choice. Throughout the process, there is an emphasis on presenting observations that the practitioner has made about the client (Scharf, 1997, p.290).

        Recent developments

        Recent research on this perspective studies the impact of different family interaction patterns on vocational development (Hargrove, Creagh and Burgess, 2002). Results suggest that perceived emotional closeness and structural flexibility in the family-of-origin are related to higher levels of participation in, commitment to, and value expectations for home and family roles. However, levels of work-role salience and vocational identity seem not to be related to family-of-origin interaction patterns (Hartung et al., 2002). In accordance with Adlerian vocational theory, birth order has been found to influence vocational personality, occupational interests, and value patterns (Leong et al., 2001). Other studies in the psychodynamic perspective propose the importance of perceptions on development, suggesting that the perception of difference from others in society, in relation to class and race, has a relevant impact on identity and hence on development (Fouad and Brown, 2000). Finally, there has been some attention to the concepts of calling and vocation at work (Dik and Duffy, 2009).


        Watkins and Savickas (1990) argue that psychodynamic theories represent a subjective approach to careers guidance. ‘The real value of psychodynamic career counseling is to complement the objective perspective with the subjective perspective’ (p.101). Bordin (1994) considers that a real strength of this approach is to provide the perspective of the family as a system which provides a framework for understanding the transmission of social influences (p.60). However, psychodynamic approaches to careers have almost totally ignored the importance of social variables (Brown, 1990, p.353), and remain inaccessible to most practitioners. These approaches have not been incorporated generally into careers guidance in the UK, though certain ideas and concepts have been used to enhance and inform our approaches to guidance, such as the influence of role models. Brown (1990) considers that the 'present status of psychoanalytical thinking is that it has relatively few supporters' (p.354).

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        Community interaction theory

        'The way in which who-does-what in society is decided is the product of a plurality of interpersonal transactions conducted in local settings, and on the basis of interaction within and between groups of which the individual is a member - the community ... The evidence gives significance to the personal exchanges which occur between individuals and the people with whom they are in community contact - notably family, neighbourhood, peer group, ethnic group and teachers at school.' (Law, 1981, p.218)

        Law suggests that events occur in the context of ‘community interaction' between the individual and the social group of which she or he is a member. A number of modes or sources of community influence are identified, specifically: expectations, from an individual's family and community groups; feedback, referring to the varied messages that individuals receive about their suitability for particular occupations and roles; support, relating to the reinforcement of young people's aspirations; modelling, referring to the process by which people are influenced by example; and finally, information, which is defined as young people's observations of other people's work habits and patterns.

        In 1996, Law extended his theory to include additional propositions relating to the roles of innate abilities, more advanced abilities and feelings in career choice. He identifies the processes linked with these abilities as understanding, focusing, sensing and sifting, arguing that the more developed capacities cannot be engaged unless some basic capacities have been successfully developed to support them. These are all crucial for career development, though Law (1996) suggests that like all other forms of learning, individuals can acquire the necessary skills through education.

        Recent work related to this perspective has suggested the importance of social pressure or subjective norm on occupational intentions (Arnold et al., 2006; Van Hoft et al., 2004). Parents’ and ethnic rules seem to be the most influential factors (Beamon and Bell, 2002; Gordon, 2000). Finally, there are studies which propose ways to challenge the constraints on occupational choice imposed by certain communities (Shepard, 2005).

        Bill Law has his own website,, which includes a section the memory which considers underpinning theory.

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        Critiques of traditional theories

        The significant and continuing influence of differential approaches on the practice of careers guidance is acknowledged by Savickas (1997) who claims that:

        "Parson's paradigm for guiding occupational choice remains to this day the most widely used approach to career counselling" Savickas (1997), p 150

        Krumboltz (1994) concurs, suggesting that most current practice is 'still governed by the three-part theory outlined by Frank Parsons (1909)' (p14). Various reasons probably account for their popularity, for example:

        • Practical appeal: the matching paradigm inherent in this approach provides careers guidance practitioners with a clear rationale and framework for practice, positioning them as 'experts' in the guidance process.
        • Measurable outcomes: the underlying philosophy has suited policy makers since it lends itself to the servicing of labour market requirements and provides accountability (outcomes can be measured).

        It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that this approach has been embraced enthusiastically by policy makers and barely questioned by the majority of practitioners. The theory contains, however, fatal flaws. Scharf (1997) reminds us that:

        "There is little research supporting or refuting trait and factor theory itself as a viable theory of career development. Rather, the research that has been done, of which there is a large amount, has related traits and factors to one another or has established the validity and reliability of measurements of traits and factors." Scharf (1997) p26

        In addition to problems with particular theories, criticisms are increasingly being applied to other theories, which currently underpin practice. Three are briefly discussed below.

        1. Sample bias - Scrutiny of the research populations from which current theory has been developed reveals a strong bias in terms of ethnicity, gender and age. Research conducted by Richie et al (1997) 'confirms the inappropriateness of applying career theories written by and based on White men to White women and people of colour' (p145). Hackett (1997) observes that in order to achieve real progress in theory development, research groups should include ethnic minority women, younger people and representatives of other dimensions of diversity (p186).
        2. Philosophy of science - Theories informing current guidance practice have been developed mainly by psychologists operating from scientific positivist paradigms of research. This has led to:
        3. Neglect of Context - Brooks and Forrest (1994) remind us that psychologists have produced most research data available in the area of vocational choice. They highlight an inherent weakness in the approach of psychologists who prefer to separate the individual from the context in which she exists. This, they argue is a particular weakness when studying some client groups, like girls and women.
        4. Dominance of quantitative research methods - A number of writers have commented on the (relative) lack of data from qualitative research, which has informed practice. Edwards and Payne (1997) state that there is a need 'to embrace ideas from a wider moorland of study than is presently the case' (p537). Hackett (1997) reviews criticisms made in the existing literature on women's career development. She argues that there is a need to move beyond 'simple correlational designs' (p184) and suggests that qualitative research methods 'are highly appropriate in attempts of this sort to truly understand the experiences of a group that has received insufficient attention' (p185). Rainey and Borders (1997) advocate the use of narratives, constructivist methods or other qualitative approaches to examine environmental factors for girls and women (p169).
        5. Labour Market Changes - Changes to the structure of the labour market have been well documented. Mitchell and Krumboltz (1996) remind us how occupational environments are becoming more fluid, with one consequence being increased insecurity for employees. Flexibility has become a key skill and job descriptions have become more outcome oriented and less task oriented. They also argue that matching individuals to particular environments assumes that individuals do not change, whereas in reality, individuals constantly change and develop. They conclude that 'trying to place an evolving person into the changing work environment is like trying to hit a butterfly with a boomerang' (p263).


        As a result of comparing theories, Osipow and Fitzgerald (1996) conclude that they differ not only because of the different philosophical orientations of authors, but also because they are trying to achieve different objectives (p323). They distinguish those that focus on:

        • explanations of the choice process
        • career development over time
        • providing practical techniques

        A common weakness of traditional theories, they argue, is their tendency to claim universality for their concepts (Osipow and Fitzgerald, 1996, p323).

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        Further information: