Career guidance isn’t always about jobs, it is always about people

Executive Summary (for Twitter users):

  1. Career guidance is growing. Many seek work. Many want different work.
  2. O*NET is a database of 1,000 jobs. It’s free, even for commercial use. Free.
  3. 1 and 2 have created a surge of job search applications using O*NET. But,
  4. O*NET is easy to “click around in,” but quite intricate “under the hood.”
  5. Job search applications use “proprietary algorithms.” Most suck.
    1. O*NET data aren’t perfect; no algorithm can fix that.
    2. O*NET data are VERY sensitive; razor-thin margins differentiate jobs.
    3. Algorithm-based applications are non-consultative (“make money at night?”), once they launch, where they land is determined. They’re done but leave the job seeker to pour over 100 job matches(?). {“Blind pig” strategy?}
    4. Following 5.3, job search isn’t like playing a slot machine, it’s interactive.
    5. Algorithms have assumptions built in, it’s impossible to know how your report was created. Given 5.1, 5.2, 5.3, errors of omission and commission are numerous and confusing.
  6. Career guidance isn’t about jobs, or even good search. It’s about people. People with different stories, different wants, and different needs.
    1. A good career coach is an expert in work psychology and psychometrics.
    2. The best career coach is a true coach, centered on the individual throughout the process. They can help an individual through a difficult task, in difficult times.

Job loss can be traumatic. It has serious effects on people’s well-being, and not just the person who lost their job. In my experience coaching people who’ve lost their job, particularly at middle stages of their career, the effects resemble depression. Not to a clinical level, but darn near it. This goes beyond typical career guidance. They need more than a quick career search and a list of jobs to consider.

But having a job isn’t the complete answer. I’ve also worked with many who question, deeply, whether the job they have (and deplore) is their true calling. Sometimes a new job is the answer, but sometimes a deeper review reveals a different story. Oftentimes it’s not the job that’s causing problems, it’s what’s around the job. This can be generalized to “the organization,” or “the culture,” but it usually has to do with the boss. This, too, is beyond the typical call of career guidance.

Add in a global pandemic and things get worse – more unemployed, more general stress and strain for everyone, working or not. As organizations have begun to add employees from the initial lows caused by this pandemic, the competition for jobs, fewer jobs, is driving greater demand for career-related services. And experts agree that not everyone who lost their job due to the pandemic will return once its impact is better under control. A lot of businesses have closed their doors and they won’t reopen. Of greater consequence, the nature and number of jobs in the workforce have been permanently changed by the new normal for work. All of this adds to uncertainty – especially for the unemployed.

Whether out of work or dissatisfied to the point of quitting, what most share is a feeling of being “stuck.” That’s the literal word used.  In this context, being “stuck” includes a variety of emotions, but none, positive. Mostly being “stuck” amounts to uncertainty, anxiety, and the lack of energy to pursue a job when they don’t know what job to pursue. Emotions are high with many experiencing feelings of grief, lowered self-confidence, and optimism – sometimes, feelings that border on hopelessness. Our society places so much importance on what people do that to lose your job is, in a very real sense, to lose your status, your identity. Your dignity.

This isn’t the case for everyone. But I’m not alone in experiencing individuals in a desperate state due to loss of employment. And even if it doesn’t come up that frequently, it’s critically important when it does. The typical career guidance counselor isn’t trained to handle situations like this. This is the job of a psychologist trained in emotional and behavioral counseling. While these aren’t clinical cases, they’re deeply affecting.

At minimum, a good coach needs to be able help individuals through a rebuilding process to regain the confidence and skill to carry out a strategy to gain employment. Job-related skills can atrophy over time. Many of these are the same skills necessary to carry out a back to work strategy that would be exhausting to anyone. But this is just about getting to the interview – not the interview itself. That’s another aspect of career counseling that I won’t go into here.

Over the last year, a multitude of career search consultants and web-based applications have emerged. When an unexpected, urgent, and critically important need arises, more than the qualified rush in. It’s not that these individuals aren’t well-intended, they really believe they have an answer. But is it possible that self-interests can lead to “short cuts” or “bending the truth?” I’ll leave that to you. It’s safe to say that conditions in these times say, “buyer beware.”

Here are a couple things to watch out for with any career search provider:

    1. Beware of applications with secret algorithms that sound too good to be true. No application alone can handle all situations.
    2. Beware of “coaches” promising to uncover your dream job in an hour or two. It’s unfortunate, but true: you didn’t get “stuck” in a couple hours, you aren’t going to find and be on your way toward your dream job in a couple hours.

There is no “Crystal Ball.” No “Great Carnac.” At minimum, you need to know when you’re NOT working with the “right stuff.” Two of the most common tips that you aren’t working with the right person or technology are the two I’ve listed, above.

So, what should you look for?

Professionals in work-oriented psychology are a good bet.

Most important to your job search and strategy, you should identify and vet professionals in the field of people and their performance and satisfaction at work. These aren’t folks who’ve been doing this for a couple years, or even individuals with a list of letters and commas after their name you don’t recognize. And they certainly aren’t individuals “certified” in a 2-day workshop now ready and eager to use their “hammer” on you.

The experts you should look for are true professionals who reflect a balance of scientific knowledge and applied know how. They’re good with the tools, but more importantly, they’re good with people; good coaches. They’ve dedicated their career to understanding and improving people’s performance and satisfaction in a work environment. This includes knowing how to make, evaluate and use valid assessments for either descriptive or predictive purposes.

More on that....

Professionals that understand and use scientifically constructed, contemporary data and methods.

Jobs change fast. Our world of work is more dynamic than ever and getting more so every day. The job you left (or plan to leave) isn’t likely to be your next. Some don’t want that old job, for others that old job is just that – old (as in going away). Moreover, in the dynamic universe of jobs, for some jobs the sun is rising, for others it’s setting. It’s important to consider and work with the most comprehensive and up-to-date information on jobs. You shouldn’t focus your search on jobs with negative employment projections. That’s a strong signal their “sun’s setting.”

Enter O*NET.

O*NET (short for occupational network) came about in the late 90s as a successor and online extention to the long standing print edition of the, Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT). I/O psychologists commissioned by the US government began the work to build an integrated, logically structured, and usable web-based super-network of jobs and applications. Until about ten years ago, O*NET was virtually unknown except to the scientists that helped build it or their colleagues.

Now O*NET is well-known in job-focused industry. The most popular application of O*NET is, a database containing detailed job descriptions (over-simply stated) for over 1,000 jobs with linkages to many other employment related databases including job boards.

O*NET is fully open to the public with relatively minor conditions for use beyond individual or research-related use (i.e., proper citation, reproduction rights, terms of alteration, etc.). It’s even available to individuals and organizations to integrate with their private domains or applications. There’s an entire system, O*NET Web Services, designed specifically to help individuals and organizations secure a direct link to O*NET for whatever purpose (almost).

Many public and private applications have been built using O*NET data and some of its tools. And the system itself has grown in structure, content, and usability. It’s not the obscure database it once was.

But being widely known isn’t the same thing as being well known.

The structure and content of O*NET is both extensive and intricate. There’s considerable theory underlying its many databases and nearly limitless connections. It’s not the kind of website you can easily skip around from headline to headline. It’s WAY more than one-click deep. To the novice user, it can feel like entering a wormhole where before you know it, you’re looking at the price of pork belly in China. (I’m not making this up).

This is the published content structure of O*NET (left) and its occupational taxonomy, SOC (right):

The Standard Occupational Classification system (SOC) is the definitive, hierarchical taxonomy of US jobs (shown at right, above). From the lowest level up, jobs are grouped into Detailed Occupations (i.e., a common title for similar jobs) which are further grouped into more general levels to the highest level of 23 Major groups which translate into “Job Families” in O*NET. In a nutshell, the SOC is the master of jobs and job titles where O*NET adds the rich content for those jobs in the six domains represented by squares (partial) in the model at left.

It’s important that these two data systems are connected because occupations in O*NET get their census, salary, growth projections, etc. from the SOC or databases connected to the it.

Career search applications

As previously alluded, O*NET has enabled the development of many job-related applications. Job descriptions, recruitment ads, and compensation data to the city-level to name a few. Where it’s really made an impact is in career search and the development of career search applications.

Though O*NET is equally accessible and somewhat useful to the general public, its primary users have been career search organizations and academic institutions offering career guidance. Naturally, private firms offering career guidance have created applications that leverage O*NET to help individuals refine their career search. To profit from these developed applications, “proprietary materials” are added to lay claim to improved or added capabilities. Only the developers know what these “secrets” are – the opposite of a scientific community.

This is where several problems have emerged.

As previously mentioned, O*NET is extraordinarily nuanced. Remember, it was built by scientists whose careers relate directly to the product. Scientists survive by adding to the theory and application of their discipline. This creates a quite competitive arena where psychologists must go deep to add uniquely (if trivially) to their field. And even as unlikely as it would seem that anyone else would care or even know about such niche dwellers, they still fight vigorously to defend their own work and challenge the work of others. (It’s ruthless).

My point?

O*NET, though integrated, is the combined effort of many I/O psychologists working to add their unique value to the effort. The result is a system more nuanced than I can adequately describe (and I personally know the geeks who put the thing together). Years of research, data collection and analysis, theory and even a bit of user-friendly tools have culminated in the undisputed heavy-weight champion of job-related data structures.

How well do you think the average mobile app builder understands the dark crevices of O*NET?   Right.

So, here’s the conundrum in verse.

O*NET is,

    • An extremely ornate, powerful network of data,
    • open to anyone,
    • to use as they wish.

See where this is going? Who’s the bigger fool? The clueless developers and shallow consultants who rush in to take advantage of O*NET, or those who commission them?

I don’t want you to be the answer to that question – whether you’re the provider or the client. It’s bad for everyone when it’s bad for anyone. That’s why it’s so important to qualify your prospective coaches and their applications. And coaches, do your homework. With O*NET, what’s easy isn’t necessarily what’s good.

In good hands, O*NET can yield valuable information. In the best hands, the value of the information is known, thereby allowing these gurus to place importance on variables according to their validity. O*NET isn’t a panacea. It has weaknesses. And they’re hard to notice. More concerning? O*NET data are so sensitive (and in some cases redundant) that tiny differences in terms of which data are selected and how they’re used can yield significantly different results.

How it typically works.

The prototypical career search consultant (or standalone application) collects information from job seekers in terms of their interests, values, work styles, and sometimes other variables. In the best cases, data from individuals (i.e., assessments) are assessed independently from O*NET via carefully validated tools to insure the greatest accuracy of personal characteristics without (the false) benefit of common method variance. Algorithms are used to match jobs to job seekers on some, or all, of the data collected (who knows?). Results are presented in one or more reports providing more information regarding the data collected from the individual (i.e., their assessment results) along with a list of the jobs most closely matched to the job seeker based on those “proprietary algorithms” that spit out a list of jobs (typically over 100) pulled from O*NET data.

Interests are king. The most popular algorithms depend heavily (sometimes exclusively) on “interests” data. Not only is this the simplest of any matching process due to the limited number of interests to be considered (just six, but it’s a bit more complicated when more than one interest characterizes people or jobs), it’s also the most appealing data to present to the job seeker. I’ll take these separately.

Because it’s easy, a list of jobs is readily presented to the job seeker in descending order based on the match between their interest profile (which can be assessed with as few as 60 items in a multi-choice survey) and the corresponding interest profile cataloged for every job in O*NET. This is so simple even a Gecko could do it.

Because it’s appealing, this list feeds back to the “confused” job seeker a list of jobs that just happen (sarcasm intended) to reflect what they most like (want) to do. Never mind that you’re your best fitting job may be “Chief Sustainability Officer,” (a job not many can just jump into). With reference to the well-known factoid in the entertainment industry, “Interests sell.”

What about ability? Could this have anything to do with a good person-job match?

Newsflash: Organizations don’t select on the basis of individuals’ interests. They select based on ability – possibly above all else. {Admittedly: If they’re smart, the organization will make an appeal to employee’s interests before it’s too late.}

The problem is the ability match is much harder to pull off. O*NET includes 52 abilities for every job. And they’re measured on two independent scales: Importance (how frequently or critically the ability is needed) and Level (the proficiency necessary to perform the job).

Shining a light on interests when abilities may be a more useful predictor in this context sounds a bit like that old joke:

Person 1: “What are you doing?”

Person 2: “Looking for a quarter I dropped in the ally”

Person 1: “Why are you looking here instead of in the ally?”

Person 2: “The light’s better here.”

O*NET is a complex, logically integrated atlas of personal characteristics on the world of work. One doesn’t learn it overnight – even with a spotlight.

How were data collected? … What are the confidence intervals for numeracy ability for a nurse practitioner? … What’s the relevance of a third dimension to the standard two dimension circumplex model underlying RIASEC theory? These are just a sample of questions one needs to know how to answer in order to produce quality information to a job seeker.

But there’s one, most important, thing to consider.

Being an expert with theses specific technologies isn’t really what good career guidance is all about. Expertise with the technology is directly related to what career search is. But there’s a difference. In my experience, career search alone becomes less appropriate as job seekers advance in their careers. Changes at mid- to upper levels of experience are much more nuanced and specific to the individual. A quick list of related jobs isn’t satisfactory. Moreover, the tools that collect the data are heavily influenced by what someone’s been doing for the last 15 years; environments do influence people.

Any career change at higher levels of tenure is stressful, but individuals experience and manage stress differently.

For low stress situations, career guidance is a discussion - an iterative process of search, review and reflection between coach and seeker. Done this way, the process has a steering wheel, brakes and can go in reverse. Algorithms don’t do these things well. I’ve worked with people who would never consider a given job, but after some education and reflection from a different perspective, new possibilites can emerge to significantly influence the discussion and search implications. This, too, is a blind spot for algorithms.

For higher stress situations (very high), career guidance needs to be taken off the table until personal issues are addressed. The individual needs to be ready. If you’ve seen a friend go through a soul-piercing experience with job loss, you know what I’m talking about. And due to the unfortunate stigma associated with mental health, it’s not uncommon for individuals to present themselves for career guidance when it soon becomes clear that this is an act of denial (unknown to them). Rapidly shoving job lists under these individuals’ noses isn’t helpful at all, it’s punishing.

Career guidance is about people – full stop. All that job search and strategizing bit is still important, but secondary. Everyone gets where they want to go via a different journey.

I still have to remind myself of this. Even though I’ve been one of them, too.

Psychways is owned and produced by Talentlift, LLC.

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