An Informational Interview With A Career Coach
By Dave Isbell
I get asked all the time to do informational interviews by people who are considering a career path as a “Career Coach” as an option. Honestly, I love taking the time to talk with people when I can, but I don’t always have the time to spend with them that I’d like. So, what I decided to do with my most recent inquiry is to just “riff” about everything I generally tell people and write it down so I can share it here with the next person who asks me. Keep in mind that I’m just one person, and mine is a pretty “nontraditional” story, so I would suggest if you are serious about this that you spend some time with a few other coaches to get a better feel for what it is like! With that said, here is my long-winded informational interview, telling you my dear reader, far more than you probably care to know about me:
What got you initially involved in career development?
Honestly, I had no idea when I started out that this was even an option. This is a common theme for most everyone I know who does this work! In my case, over 13 years ago, I was laid off from a most miserable soul sucking corporate job that I absolutely hated (as if you couldn’t tell that by the way I describe it). At the time, I had no college degree and a family to support. I had also had enough of the corporate world. I had no idea what I wanted to do (well, I had some idea, since I had just started studying to be a pastor in my church. But, it was going to be a long time until that could happen and I still needed to pay the bills). So, as part of my severance package, they paid for tuition and I decided to supplement my theology studies with college (eventually putting the ordination on the backburner until I got done with school, which I’m still not done with because I have one more year left of grad school! I’m not sure about going back to do the ordination, I’ll leave that up to God to decide that.)
Anyway, I lived a glorious nine months without a job and just going to school, hanging out with my kids, serving nearly full time in my church, playing music/writing songs, volunteering in the community, doing a lot to help other people. It was then that I realized that that is exactly the life I wanted! However when my savings started running dry, I needed to get more serious about finding a job. I was determined to find a crappy job I could work while going to school if I had to, but I was really just looking for a way that I could compassionately help other people and “luckily,” I was referred to an employment program to help me. It was housed in a community center and right when I showed up at the place, I fell in love with their mission, the employees, the program, but mostly, I really enjoyed helping the other job seekers around me. (I did more of that than I did looking for my own job.) My “job counselor” quit and the next day I showed up in the office, resume in hand and told them that I will do the job for free until they hire me or someone else. I volunteered for about two months until my boss finally gave in to the employees (who all wanted him to hire me) and hired me despite the fact that I did not meet his major criteria: a college degree, experience, and the ability to speak Spanish. By the time I left there seven years later to go on to Davenport University I had helped thousands of job seekers, ran the program, brought in millions of dollars in grant funding, started an English as a second language program, learned Spanish, and finally about a month before I was recruited to go to Davenport (where I worked about 3 years before coming to MSU) I finished my bachelors degree in Management and Organizational Development. I had also been certified as a GCDF, and Employment Training Specialist, and a Work Keys Job Profiler. After working at DU (where I finished part of an MBA), I was recruited to come to MSU where I have been for over four years (and I still have one more year left until I get an MSW. Then I’m done with being a student in a degree program forever. No kidding.)
So, the moral of that story? I was “lucky!” In reality, I made my own luck with a lot of very hard work (believe me, when most people around you have more experience and education than you do, you HAVE to prove yourself and be willing to fail a few times). I had colleagues at other agencies in my first few years who constantly tried to make me feel inferior (usually because I didn’t have a degree. Often because of my young age/inexperience.) But that went away by proving myself. Eventually, every competing agency in town tried to recruit me (some of them told me “when you get your degree,” of course.)
Why did I go into that much detail? Well, first because I don’t really have that much of a “traditional story,” but mostly, because I want you to understand that people from all kinds of backgrounds can get into this work! It probably isn’t going to be easy for you though because you are going to have the same “lack of experience” problem I had. But, as with anything else, if you want it bad enough, if it is what you were made for (your “calling,” if you want to use that word), and if you are willing to put in the work, then nothing is going to keep you from it!
What are the most rewarding/frustrating aspects of your job?
I’ll start with the most frustrating things, which I think are pretty universal for this field. There is always an expectation (both by clients and by programs/institutions) that what we do is get people jobs. I’ve worked with thousands of people and I have NEVER gotten one of them a job! Further, it is extremely difficult to prove that my interventions did anything to help them get a job, and even though my help directly/indirectly helped them to be more prepared to get a job, the clients often will forget or not attribute my work to them getting a job. Why? Well, because they are the one who sat in the interview, did the networking, applied for the job, wrote the resume, etc. and oftentimes there is a time gap between what they received from me and when they actually get a job. (Or, frankly, when asked if I helped, they report negatively because they are mad because I didn’t give them a job!) Yet, despite this, most programs/career practitioners are judged on the basis of a job placement rate. This is especially true of schools and will only get worse as career services have to be able to prove their worth since now financial aid requirements are (in part) tied to job placement data. Lastly, on the heels of that frustration, much of the job can be about collecting data, NOT about serving people (who has time for that when they are constantly responsible to fill out and track people down so they can get the information for those reports?)
The most rewarding, which is probably not as universal, is the joy that comes from helping a person who is totally “lost” to find their way. I view “career” as a deeply spiritual concept (Note: I didn’t say “religious.” I’m comfortable working with any person that needs my help, despite their religious/spiritual beliefs and I don’t have the need to push mine onto them!) I think this way because so much of a person’s identity gets wrapped up in what s/he does for a living, and because work can be one of the most frustrating (if not going well) and rewarding parts to life! (Both frustration and reward can be useful to help a person grow.) Truthfully, when I help a person connect the dots from feeling lost/devalued/frustrated, etc. to feeling empowered, happy, whole, and filled with a sense of purpose and mission there is just nothing like it! It’s what I was put on this Earth to do and I love it! Frankly, I’ve chosen to ignore “getting people jobs” and instead I help them to move toward self-actualization (if that’s what you want to call it), with a “job” (or rather, a source of income) being a necessary part of it. If they know where they are going, they are much more likely to get there, and also much more likely to realize that I actually did help them, so it becomes a mutually reciprocal relationship, instead of only a transactional service I provide. I’m lucky though, because I’m not in an atmosphere that uses “job placement” as a criterion for evaluation of my effectiveness, and I have a boss who respects me and values what I do. I’d say that the former is is pretty rare for people who are not doing this work in private practice! The latter is just part of what makes the MSUAA an amazing place to work!
Do you feel an advanced degree is necessary for this type of work?
You can see in my story above that my answer is no, however you will have probably a harder uphill battle to fight without it! Most “career counselors” have a master’s degree in counseling, or some other helping profession like social work, psychology, or student affairs (very popular in student career services in public universities.) However, career coaches run the gamut from absolutely no training (but they probably do have a fancy website filled with testimonials), or a certification (from a couple days in workshop, or online, or maybe something more intense such as the GCDF credential that requires a 16 week class, years of experience, recertification fees, and continued education to retain the credential). Often, people will have an MBA or an HR or recruiting background.
Though the average person doesn’t understand this, there is a professional delineation between a career counselor and a coach. The best way to express this is that a counselor needs to be licensed to practice counseling (even though many coaches call themselves “counselors” and are NOT licensed professionals) and they will work from a mental health treatment model. Meaning, the career stuff is a part of something larger going on and the counselor goes in and out of the career stuff and whatever other “stuff” is affecting it. A coach, on the other hand, is there to help people to move through decision making about careers. Essentially both a counselor and coach use the same kind of helping skills, but the focus for a coach is on moving toward setting some kind of career goal and the “deeper” issues may be a part of that goal, but if they get in the way of the goal, a client will be referred to a professional therapist to deal with them.
Your easiest and cheapest way in is one of the workshops, probably followed by some kind of volunteerism in a church/community center/workforce development system, etc. until someone will hire you! This is one of the trainings I went through, which I think still comes to MI once a year: http://www.careernetwork.org/ijctcct.html You might also consider the GCDF credential which is internationally recognized (though more intense and expensive): http://www.cce-global.org/GCDF The longest and most expensive route, is to go to grad school, but be aware that (in Michigan) if you want to be able to bill insurance companies (the usual way a mental health professional gets paid) you will either need a Ph.D. in Psychology or Psychiatry or a Master’s in Social Work. Counselors, student affairs pros, guidance counselors, and marriage/family therapists, etc. usually cannot bill insurance companies directly. I would advise that you might want to take my former option, gain some experience, then decide if you want to do the latter!
Is there a “typical” career trajectory in this field?
If you are thinking of a “career ladder” –my advice is to look instead at ANY career more like intersecting circles (these include your passions/interests, personality/character/values, and competencies/skills) that are sitting on a square background that is made up of these four corners: your financial/material needs, developmental stage (both in age and career stage-how many years you want to work)/where you want to live (geographically, and culturally)/ and the needs/opportunities as well as strengths/weaknesses/threats in that community.
I say this because, the pace at which change is happening is breakneck. The world of work is changing and the old “work your way up the ladder and retire with a gold watch” philosophy is dead and buried (despite the fact that employers attempt to keep people under the illusion that it is alive, and people love to buy into that illusion because it feels more safe and secure.) So you could say that this way of thinking is a zombie; it still appears to be walking in our midst but people just don’t realize it’s dead until they try to get to know it. (Sorry, I’ve been reading the “Walking Dead” lately and it just feels like a Zombie metaphor would work here, and besides who doesn’t love using zombies in metaphor?) So, a better way of thinking about “career success” is to understand that sometimes it is higher pay or a title. Other times, it is the intrinsic reward that comes from loving your work. Still at other times, you get to live in the town you want to live in and pay your bills while you enjoy your weekend hobbies! The goal is to find joy in your living and make your work subservient to that joy!
It is reasonable to expect that in this field, one can start out as a volunteer or intern, become a coach/counselor, and then some kind of program manager or director (or go into private practice.) Most of the time, you are going to see people who came from recruiting/hr or did some kind of “helping/case management/humans services” type of work; almost all of the practitioners I know “fell” into the occupation.
What are job prospects like in the higher education world (and have you seen more/less opportunities become available)?
Honestly, I don’t know if I can give a good answer to this question. However, I can tell you my perspective (based on what I know from my experience, and trying to forecast the future by looking at current trends.) As you can see from the above, what you can do as a career practitioner is kind of all over the map. That being said, I think there is a golden opportunity right now because A.) the economy still stinks and B.) people are tired of being ground down by meaningless paper shuffling just so they can pay their bills and so they are searching for options. Plus, government funded workforce development programs and higher ed. schools are being put under the microscope for how high their placement rate is (as I said before, financial aid divestments are in part being determined by the almighty “placement rate;” additionally, students/parents are putting a ton of pressure on schools to back up the return on investment.) So, it’s going to be there. However, in what form I don’t know!
A lot of schools are struggling with budget cuts at the same time they need to throw resources at the “placement problem”-so, it is likely that academic advisors could be saddled with more “career” work, or more career services roles might be created, but for sure, the work of actually helping students with career issues is going to suffer because those limited resources are going to be taking up more time by more proving their placement rate than actually being in front of students! Also, there is a push to automate (using the web) career programs/resources to reach the masses. So, it could be that the future of career services is manned by techies and web writers, instead of people (like me) who are trained to help individuals! (Another thing to consider is that some schools are starting to outsource these types of functions. Though, there may be some opportunity in this, so long as the outsourcing isn’t to China or India!)
The other thing that I see happening is that we are the most “degreed” country in the world, and we also have the highest rate of student loan debt in history. Yet, we don’t really produce much of anything, so until we start producing something, it is going to be difficult to create an economy that helps all of these degreed people to find jobs that pay well enough to get out from under the crushing debt they have (which prevents them from being able to do stuff, like say, go to school, buy a house or buy a car even if those things are being produced!) Further, schools haven’t done the best job of training people to do the jobs that are in high demand and talent is scarce (i.e. some technology jobs), and they are slow to respond to change. Additionally, they haven’t been the best at creating critical/creative thinkers who are civically minded and engaged in producing work that matters to the economy. So, while the government is cutting back on financial aid resources and the value of a college degree is being questioned by politicians, students, parents, and employers (who are now starting to reverse the mindset that having a college degree is necessary for every job ever created) the future of academics at this point is uncertain. I’ve heard economists predict that the next “bubble” to burst will be higher education, and if that happens it could affect all kinds of student affairs roles, including career services! Yet, there are always going to be unemployed people and people who feel “lost” and need help to feel “found,” so there is going to be an opportunity to be the person to help them, the occupation just might not look like what it does today.
You can try to find data on occupations and job outlooks on www.acinet.org or www.bls.gov (I’d probably search “counseling” “student affairs” “guidance counselor” “human resource recruiter” or “employment specialist”; I don’t think “career counselor or coach” is there yet.) However, I want you to recognize that A.) these are predictions by statistics nerds that are five years old by the time they get published and can’t possibly predict things like planes being flown into buildings and greedy bankers who “lose” mortgage documents; and B.) the committees who put these statistics together are representatives of industry, so is it in their best interest to over or under guess the need for future employees? Remember that when there is a lot of talent, it is cheaper and easier for employers to find and select the best employees and leave the rest (which is what has been happening the past few years.) However, if there are not enough employees it is costly, time-consuming, and difficult to find people and they usually have to pay them higher salaries to get the best employees! So, I guess what I’m saying here is to take that information with a grain of salt, but weigh heavier those circles and corners that I introduced you to earlier!
Hopefully something I said above helps as you work your way toward finding that thing you were “made” to do! Remember, this is just one person’s experience, opinion, and speculative meanderings, so I would challenge you to do your homework by asking a few other people in your local area about their experiences as you navigate your way toward a plan for your own future.
Dave Isbell is the Alumni Career Service Coordinator at Michigan State University. He has been a Career Coach since 1999. He is also pursuing a Master’s in Social Work/Family Studies at MSU. When he is not working or studying, he is enjoying domestic bliss with his wife and kids, or playing rock music on his bass guitar. You can find him on Twitter (@helpingspartans) and sometimes he writes about compassion, collaboration, and career for this blog, which he owns and begs other Spartans to write for.