by Sonny K. H. Wong

The Canadian labour market has become more complex over the last few decades. The unemployment rate is an indicator of economic recovery. However, it does not address the effects job loss has on individuals in society.

The everyday conversations around why people are unemployed and how those messages are cognitively processed by job-seekers can hinder positive career identity development and career advancement. Career counsellors should fully explore their clients’ cognitive processes and scripts to identify employment barriers.

In particular, foreign trained professionals (FTPs), mature workers and new graduates may be experiencing more anxiety due to their unemployment experiences. Some FTPs believe that Canadian credentials and experience are career obstacles rather than the demands for specific professional skills. Mature workers may see their work experiences as obsolete and perceive the young as multi-talented. New graduates can deem their degrees as useless rather than considering their lack of training.
These types of social constructions – whether they are myths or realities – manifest as “voices” in the heads of job-seekers. In turn, the voices serve to hinder career advancement. It is not uncommon for a FTP to refer to her career identity in the past tense: “I was an Engineer back home.”   A mature worker seems to be engulfed in his biological age role rather than their professional attributes: “I’m 55 – too old to be employed again.”  The new graduates states:  “What good is it to have a degree? I won’t work in my field.”

For these job-seekers, cognitive scripts become negative thoughts and it is hard for them to move beyond those voices and to engage in effective job searches. As job-seekers face continuous rejections from the labour market, the formation of pseudo-career identity emerges where they deem themselves as the “unemployable.”

The longer individuals are in this type of job loss stage, the more likely that unemployment becomes their master status or script. Labour market rejections are felt as personal injuries chipping away at their social identity and self-worth. The scripts become ingrained in their cognitive processes where inner voices are developed to protect the self.

It is not uncommon for job-seekers to experience depression, isolation and withdraw, and to view past professional achievements as meaningless. Some job-seekers start to marginalize themselves from social and support systems, which only serves to limit their networking opportunities, leading to decreased career mobility. For these job seekers the future is experienced with uncertainty and anxiety. Worse, the unemployed view the employed with mistrust.

It is important for career practitioners to explore clients’ career identities by generating dialogue that examines the unemployed person in his/her totality. Career counsellors working with the unemployed must go beyond assisting clients with career assessment exercises, career goals, and job search skills training. By querying clients’ duration of unemployment, a light is shone on their socio-emotional state and how they are coping with unemployment. It is vital that counsellors elicit feedback and perceptions of why clients believe they are unemployed and to assess the validity and reliability of their rationale. Moreover, every effort must be made to determine the clients’ claims about their unemployed self as a career identity.

The connection of a client’s feelings, perceptions and claims can reveal the types of barriers to address so that the career counsellor can begin to work to alter cognitive scripts. We all have professional insecurities; challenging these inner voices is the key to career advancement and mobility.

Sonny K. H. Wong, M.Ed., holds a Masters Degree, from the University of Toronto in Adult Education/Counselling Psychology with a focus on Work and Career. He offers one-on-one confidential counselling sessions and deliver train-the-trainers series for organizational/professional development.  Presently, Wong works at Ryerson University as the Faculty of Arts Career Counsellor.