Meeting to Meet: Adaptive Career Counselling Techniques for Marginalized Clients
By Vivian Hansen
My Career Development practicum setting was at the Mustard Seed Street Ministry in Calgary, an agency that is mandated to provide service to homeless and marginalized people. The organization operates from a Christian-based spiritual practice. The Mustard Seed provides a multitude of services, including meals and shelter at the most basic level. A Creative Centre where guests can become involved in artistic enterprises including painting, knitting, journaling, and other crafts is also available to guests who are registered in a Seed Program. Many current and former Seed guests have sold their art in fundraisers and formal shows.
At the beginning of my practicum, my supervisor pointed out to me that “the purpose of a meeting is to have another meeting.” By this, he meant that there were various checkpoint programs available through the Seed, where a guest/client could not only rebuild their lives, but also to facilitate personal inquiry and progress. Checking in and making a commitment to these programs would allow the Seed guests to construct a place of being where they could find personal healing and explore career goals. If clients checked into my resume workshop and found that they could use an art class, or addictions counselling, then my role as a career facilitator was considered successful.
The Mustard Seed also provides educational bridging programs, as well as employment services such as resume writing, and interviewing skills. Guests are given an entry interview that focuses on their employment preparation (education and training), skills and abilities, whether they have a case worker, where they are staying, and what services they would like to have from the Seed. They are also asked to provide information about their medications and their perceived readiness to enter the work force.
As an employment and career counsellor, my challenge was to encourage guests with their personal storytelling and self-appraisal, which would inform their employment readiness. Many clients spoke freely about their experiences, but rarely in the context of how their behaviours had affected employment and employability. Their personal hermeneutic was mostly reactive and adversarial toward employment experience. I judged this observation to be a by-product of their inability to have basic needs met, like housing and food. Addictions also played a large role in repeatedly poor employment experiences. Counselling for these addictions was available in a supportive group environment, where behaviours could be explored and initiatives taken for personal growth.
The range of guests who make use of the Mustard Seed are many. Lone migratory white men and women, as well as a proportionately large group of First Nations people made up the demographic of most of the Mustard Seed guests. It was noted by Seed personnel that women were a ‘shadow’ population at the Seed. One of my directives was to try to obtain needs assessment of this population. The age group of both men and women appears to be from 18-35. My clients included representation from all these groups.
Almost without exception, the clients presented minimal educational backgrounds. Many had finished a GED in lieu of high school, and some (usually First Nations) had been suitably trained to pursue a career in the trades.
My job was to help them create a resume. This is a concrete exercise with facts explored on the layout and template of a resume. However, with this particular group, their skills and abilities were often missing from their self-awareness and to their articulation on an important employment document. My small group workshop provided them with a one-hour discussion of what their resume should look like.
When we got to skills and abilities, I applied a hybrid skills assessment of Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, and Holland’s Career Model. Processing what I had heard from each of them about their past employment experiences, I asked them key questions from various sectors of Gardner’s inventories. For instance, I asked individuals to consider the following questions from a Gardner profile on Naturalistic Intelligence:
- I love the great outdoors
- I keep one or more pets
- I prefer the country to the city
If they appeared to make a commitment to any particular interest area in Gardner’s MI, I correlated that onto a Holland Model Inventory from the list of Realistic, Investigative, Conventional, Artistic, Enterprising and Social. I asked probing questions to encourage discussion of their interests. In many cases, Gardner’s inventories projected artistic and creative abilities that had been unexplored for them in the past. Logical/mathematics questions and naturalistic intelligences also surfaced, which were in congruence with Holland’s checkpoints in Artistic, Realistic, and Investigative abilities.
The prevailing career development theory that had the most impact on my counselling strategies was Krumboltz. Genetic endowment, environmental conditions, learning experiences and task-approach skills are supposed to affect positive change and career direction. The very lack of these, or at best mutation, in the clients and guests at the Mustard Seed are a vacuum in need of filling.
In all cases, my clients had been affected negatively and abusively by social and economic conditions in their lives. Their parents had exhibited poor parenting skills (one young man had been beaten regularly by his father). First Nations people had virtually all been raised in foster homes. One young white man had been thrown out on the street at the age of fifteen by his single-parent mother with four younger children at home. This had occurred after he had undergone cancer treatment for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He had been unable to receive a complete high school education, but managed to get his GED despite the challenges in his life. Their collective learning situation of these experiences have mitigated drastically against them in terms of seeking career options and directions, and from the socially-perceived norm that we are all on a level playing field of cause and effect.
Associative learning experiences are also prevalent as negative phenomena in this clientele. Pairing a previously negative experience with a motion toward progress has rarely held any salience for them. On several occasions, as I listened or helped the Seed guests overcome a temporary obstacle, the feedback they gave me was expressed as “this is going too well”, and “I always get nervous when things are going right for me.” Their social conditioning and associative learning experiences had slammed them at some trigger point. As a counsellor, I felt it my task to reframe the obstacle to one that was surmountable, via the client’s personal directions and decisions.
Genetic endowment posed a particularly interesting cross-point, as many clients of the Seed are First Nations people. Their race has been the very factor that has marginalized them in a dominant white culture. Whenever I encountered a First Nations client who had been gifted with artistic abilities and interests, I referred them to native agencies and power stories that have been articulated from that community. That situation is not what Krumboltz emphasizes, I am sure. But I felt that where the strengths of a particular culture could be emphasized, the pattern of genetic endowment in trait-factor theory could be applied uniquely to a therapeutic narrative.
The Task Approach aspect of Krumboltz’ theory is an important milestone in career objectives. Values clarification is nebulous for these people, having had no firm grounding in values that held their self-esteem in critical value. Alternatives to their situation were often lacking, or perceived to be so, and therefore goal-setting was very nearly impossible.
Krumboltz’ theory serves to highlight how trait-factor issues assist the counsellor in the process of career decision-making. However, where trait-factor social and environmental discourses have actively compromised the client, it will be critical for the counsellor and the formal agency (in this case the Mustard Seed) to reconstruct a safe learning (instrumental and associative) experience for a client.
My interventions as a career counsellor have included intuitive listening skills, and interpreting client salience. Magnusson points out: “The most certain way to develop a facilitative counselling relationship is by focusing on the generic counselling outcome of increasing client self-worth.” (Career Counselling Techniques 42) In a helping situation, I always confirmed, repeated, or emphasized the main points in the client narrative, what experiences and actions seemed most important, and what themes were arising from the discussion.
The hermeneutical analysis of client stories can help to retrieve a personal salience. Many of the stories told at the Seed are monstrously sad. However, each time I let someone tell me their story, strength of purpose would emerge from the tale. Occasionally, the touch of a dream would shine through: “I always wanted to go into sales. I can sell the very product I’ve been working with for so long.” Or, in the case of an artist: “I really loved carving masks. I’ve even sold a few.” The young man who could not hold a job, who had been beaten by his father, expressed a desire to go into the army. I suspect that there was a desire to escape his circumstances, but I affirmed the fact that he had alternatives; he could dream.
The nature of helping someone at the Mustard Seed is often a small motion in a much larger dynamic. I never had more than two brief meetings with any one particular client, probably because their transient lifestyles did not permit or encourage them to seek out any particular counsellor who did not meet an immediate and graphic need (ie food, shelter, clothing, parole, addiction). However, the Mustard Seed guests I came in contact with allowed me to make certain informed deductions about how to proceed with career theory in combination with personal counselling.
While my career counseling at The Mustard Seed held great challenges, I found encouragement in the decisions to ‘have another meeting.” Unlike linear decision-making process in career narratives, this particular strategy ensured client support and affirmation within a marginalized, employment-challenged group. My facilitating role became much more rewarding for the understanding that I was sending them off to seek another meeting; to another step in their personal journey of healing.
Vivian Hansen is a Calgary poet and writer. Her nonfiction and poetry have appeared in several Canadian journals. She is currently enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts (Creative Writing) program through UBC, and facilitates poetry and writing in literacy groups.
Resources and Works Cited
Egan, Gerard. The Skilled Helper. A Problem-Management and Opportunity-Development Approach to Helping. 7th Edition. 2002.
Gardner, Howard. Multiple Intelligences. http://www.thethinkingclassroom.co.uk
Magnusson, Kris. Career Counseling Techniques. Life-Role Development Group. 1992.
Sharf, Richard S. Applying Career Development Theory to Counseling. Third Edition. 2002.