Career practitioners need to help clients situate their careers within social realities, while also recognizing their own biases

Taylor Witiw

Taylor Witiw headshotCareer development is a learning activity. In government, post-secondary and private career offices, clients seek guidance and support to learn how to actively create “the life one wants to live and the work one wants to do” (Redekopp, 2017, p. 444). Clients are learners, inside and outside career offices, which ties career development practitioners to adult education (AE). AE is a broad field of scholarship and practice specific to adults and the varied ways they learn. This article will explore how career development is intertwined with AE and highlight why critical adult education (CAE) – scholarship and practice that critiques the way mainstream AE decontextualizes learners and oversimplifies their learning – and issues of social justice are imperative for many clients (Foley, 1999). Finally, it will suggest strategies to transform these sometimes-abstract and theoretical disciplines into career practice.

Waymarkers of adult education in career territory

Practitioners meet with adult clients who are (or sometimes need encouragement and support to be) self-directed; influenced by their experiences; ready to engage their career; addressing immediate life changes; internally motivated; and purposeful. These are all aspects of Knowles’ adult learning theory (Chan, 2010). Practitioners facilitate client learning through reflective conversation, cataloguing strengths, and creating action plans to mitigate barriers and move forward. Thus, practitioner-led workshops, and even one-on-one sessions, are forms of AE.

Further, practitioners often encounter terms like human capital development, competency training, vocational training, continuous or lifelong learning, quality assurance and upskilling. Whether worked into career conversations by the practitioner or curious client, these are also hallmarks of AE (Foley, 1999). The need to understand terminology and guide clients exploring career paths makes AE scholarship relevant and necessary to practitioners.

However, advocates of CAE argue that, while AE typically focuses on institutional courses, educational techniques and one-size solutions, it is important to recognize that significant adult learning happens non-formally, informally and incidentally (Foley, 1999). Practitioners can attest to this: clients learn about their preferences and career steps with the help of their families, communities, co-workers, organizations and, of course, career offices. This is one way in which career development is intertwined with CAE.

Critical adult education and the career practitioner

CAE at its root is about helping learners develop their consciousnesses and understand the contexts they must navigate, which helps them address injustices they may face (Foley, 1990; Freire; 1970; St. Clair, 2004). This highlights a crucial connection between CAE and practitioners, since careers exist within social realities. This may sound lofty or abstract, but it quickly becomes real in scenarios where a client’s barrier isn’t a Lean Six Sigma certificate or software training. Sometimes, clients struggle to lead the lives they are hoping for because, as one young woman said to me, “employers are only hiring men because they say it’s physical work.” A client may not get a job because they don’t have an English-sounding name (Sienkiewicz, 2017) or because the client is a newcomer to Canada or from a minority group (Lightman & Good Gingrich, 2018). This raises questions for practitioners: are these topics you address in a career office? If so, how, and in what depth?

“CAE at its root is about helping learners develop their consciousnesses and understand the contexts they must navigate …”

Practitioners who wish to help diverse clients create the lives and work they hope for must address these topics. Issues of social justice are within the terrain of career development because they are inextricable from the lives of clients trying to build careers. CAE-informed approaches can help practitioners address these realities in their client interactions.

Old territory and new: Where to go from here

First, practitioners must remember that career development is fundamentally a learning process for clients. Practitioners help clients integrate their various non-formal, informal and incidental learning experiences to map their preferred paths. Unfortunately, this may include experiences of discrimination. In my post-secondary institution, newly graduated students often tell me how career and life-management courses influence their thoughts, but they struggle to connect their learnings to other areas of their life. Integration is itself learning, and clients usually need support. While this work is old territory for practitioners, explicitly calling it adult education may offer new vitality and possibilities, like engaging in critical adult education.

Practitioners can use CAE literature to deepen practice. For example, Paulo Freire’s (1970) foundational approach to engaging adults in a process of action and reflection (see Pedagogy of the Oppressed) is a good starting point. For Freire, reflection involves connecting personal experiences to bigger social themes, which could help clients develop their decision-making abilities and, thus, shape their worlds (Choudry, 2015; Puroway, 2016). As St. Clair (2004) puts it, “Giving people the cognitive tools to analyze their life situation allows them to realize how they are oppressed and hopefully encourages them to end the oppressive circumstances” (p. 37). CAE literature offers ideas that can be adapted to enliven career work.

Facilitating critical learning requires practitioners to develop their awareness of where they stand in relation to social realities. Career development literature already features calls for practitioners to address issues of social justice in these ways (Arthur & Collins, 2011; Arthur, Collins, McMahon, & Marshall, 2009). Collins, Arthur and Wong‐Wylie (2010) developed a reflective guide called “cultural auditing” to help practitioners become more self-aware of their biases and position in the social world. Practitioners must also cultivate an awareness of how adults learn from unique intersectional experiences and social realities (such as discrimination). CAE literature and literature addressing intersectionality – interlocking aspects of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender that make up social identities – can be useful to practitioners (Evans, Forney, Guido, Patton, & Renn, 2009). By exploring social realities and identifying their own relative positions, practitioners will be better able to facilitate their clients’ learning.

Practitioners could also find unconventional ways to support clients. This may include providing referrals to support services or social action groups that are working to mitigate specific barriers an individual client is facing. Such work may be needed for the client to create the life they want to live. Practitioners could contact community, social and government service referral lines to create referral lists.

Of course, clients must choose whether they wish to engage in these critical adult education conversations or referrals. CAE is a humanizing process – it is about cultivating a person’s consciousness, decision-making abilities and action-taking capacities. Ultimately, practitioners, as adult educators informed by CAE, must seek to support their clients’ growth in this way, and that begins with respecting each client’s agency.

Taylor Witiw works as a supervisor for the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology’s Advising and Career Development service for prospects, students and alumni. He is currently studying in the University of Alberta’s Master’s in Education Policy Program.


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