Trait & factor quizzes, personality assessments, career tests and psychometrics are ubiquitous with careers guidance, from Holland’s Theory of Careers Choice from 1958 through to assessments in use today based on these and similar tools such as Start Profile , Kudos and Morrisby. Yet what is the narrative we use when we present these different types of assessments to students in our schools and colleges? Are they presented as a way to tell students “what they should do with the rest of their lives” or “a compass to help them chart a direction through changeable and volatile waters”? What is the risk with the former and how does the way in which they are presented impact on their validity with students?
A ‘one size fits all’ trait & factor approach that allows students to choose a career is an appealing thought and an easy win for a time and resource poor school. It also looks good to external stakeholders and gives the impression that the careers service in school is having an impact, with seemingly measurable outputs and quantifiable outcomes. Nice solid, concrete results which tell each student what they can do as a career. Tidy and also (if I was being cynical) easy to market as a product.
Yet such an approach ignores the elephant in the room that life isn’t tidy and quantifiable. We know through vocational psychology that all of us change as we age, it was Donald Super who noted that most of us go through an explorative phase before forming a more settled idea of the type of adults we wish to be and the work we wish to engage in, often settling on an idea in our late twenties. Yet, as these concepts have developed into the 21st century we recognise that our development remains non-linear and we continue to change and evolve throughout all our years; as echoed by the work of the Promise Foundation in their guiding principles.
This recognition of individual change is set against the backdrop of occupational change and instability, where the rate of change within the work place is rapid. New jobs are emerging and old ones fading away due to automation and technology , as well as shifts in the ways in which we work such as the gig economy and the impact this has on employee rights . What use is a matching assessment that looks at the skills a person has and what a job requires when those skills are changing as the very nature of each job shifts?
Complexity and chaos underpins the very certainty and security we seek; not as polar opposites or the flip side of the same coin but something which is woven within the fabric of our lives; interwoven like a tapestry of many hues. Jim Bright, one of the leading figures and advocates of taking a Chaos Theory of Careers (CTC) approach which recognises this complexity, argues that chaos shouldn’t be ignored, rather used as a vehicle for opportunity and creating our own luck within our careers . He also cautions us about our ability to predict the future:
“The common claim [of Career Development Theory] is that a life can be encapsulated, summed up, captured in a three-letter code, or in a narrative, and that past behaviour predicts future behaviour… we would be right to be humble about our capabilities to understand the trajectory and cautious in making any long-term deterministic predictions about the future. The Chaos Theory of Careers draws attention to the limitations of our simplifications and the challenges of living uncertainly in our predictably complex world.”
So do these personality & matching assessments, psychometrics and similar which seek certainty have a place or purpose in such a chaotic world? We would argue that yes they do, when framed in a way which recognises the elements of complexity and change within a wider careers education, information, advice and guidance (CEIAG) programme. As we recognise that the notion of the job for life is declining a need for an all-age careers service is crucial, helping clients navigate the transitions they face; often unplanned.
In terms of our assessments if we present them to our clients as a way in which they can provide an initial direction, this re-frames their purpose. No longer are they presented as a panacea, which seemingly provides the answer to life, the universe and everything (which we know is quite different ). Instead they can become a compass, to help clients potentially find an initial direction of travel into the future… thus taking the pressure off of certainty. Such a re-presentation though requires some thought and time taken to consider how these ideas are best presented. It is the difference between the thought and consideration a qualified careers professional may take and an approach which is about ticking boxes.
From an anecdotal perspective, it is worth considering how students feel about these assessments… when do they work and when do they fall short of their desired aims? From experience when they are presented on mass to a cohort as something which is “done” to them, typical comments include “These results are rubbish, I don’t want to do any of these jobs” and “No way, will I do that!” or at best they say “Yes, that sounds like me” but in doing so shuts down any lines of curiosity or inquiry into related careers (thus limiting their awareness of what else maybe possible), as there is no follow up challenge or discussion.
In many cases the assessments lack meaning and validity when left as a standalone process, with limited meaning. However, when they are used alongside careers guidance sessions, where there is time for clients to make sense of the results and reflect on why certain patterns emerge they become meaningful; there is the chance to discuss the notions of change, uncertainty and complexity (as well as how they may face and navigate these through developing their career management skills).
It is what careers guidance excels at, helping to make sense, find patterns of meaning and unlock ideas. Within a broader view, developing a careers service which helps clients to identify opportunities and take advantage of chance events is more likely to result in far more positive outcomes. When we know there are vast changes and threats to our livelihoods, it is important we take an approach which helps our clients of all ages understand how to realign their transferable skills to take advantage of the opportunities these changes bring.
In terms of how such approaches compare to the traditional trait & factor assessments, the evidence speaks for itself…
“When we formally evaluated the CTC counselling approach by comparing it to a more traditional interests-inventory and vocational recommendations type approach, not only did the CTC score higher on every success and satisfaction measure, it continued to do so 1 month later…(McKay, Bright & Pryor, 2005) .”
So, let’s take the best of both. CTC encourages us to make the most of convergent and emergent perspectives within a holistic approach, which allows for creativity, fuzzy goals, mystery and acknowledges change and chance . We need to ensure our CEIAG delivery provides space for the exploration of complexity and that any assessments we use are not part of a tick box exercise, but part of genuine learning and growth activities for clients which recognises that the world is a far more uncertain and complex place than some traditional narratives suggest.
Sources / References
 http://www.brightandassociates.com.au/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Introduction-to-using-the-Chaos-Theory-of-Careers-APCDA-2017-reformat.pdf – this also includes evidence of how a CTC approach can also reduce stress, anxiety and depression in some client groups.
CXK’s impartial careers advice and guidance services effectively support a school or college in meeting the Ofsted framework for measuring the personal development, behaviour and welfare of students by promoting and supporting students’ choices about the next stage of their education, employment or training (NEET).