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Trait-and-Factor Career Counseling

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The model of this approach was fashioned from the pragmatics of assisting men and women dislocated from their jobs during the era of the Great Depression to retrain and find new employment (Paterson and Darley, 1936). Stemming from the interdisciplinary work of the Twin Cities Occupational Analysis Clinic, early trait-and-factor career counseling reflected the rudiments of Parson's (1909) "matching men-and-jobs" conceptualization but it went beyond his pioneer paradigm to incorporate the sophistication of the newly developing psychometrics, which produced the fabled "Minnesota" tests of clerical aptitude, manual dexterity, spatial perception, etc., and the fund of occupational information compiled by the U.S. Employment Service for the first edition (1939) of the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT). Philosophically, trait-and-factor career counseling has always had a strong commitment to the uniqueness of the individual; psychologically this value has meant a long-time predilection for the tenets of differential psychology. As a consequence, there have been two significant implications for the model upon which this approach is based: First, it is largely a theoretical, other than that it subscribes to the proposition that individuals differ. It does not posit organizing concepts or hypothetical constructs, such as are characteristic of the client-centered and psychodynamic approaches. Second, it is analytical and atomistic in its orientation. It adheres closely to the schemata of scientific problem solving, as exemplified by a nosological concept of diagnosis, a rationalistic process of counseling and a specific set of decisional outcomes:

1.    Diagnosis is the hallmark of trait-and-factor career counseling. Williamson (1939) defines it as:

A process in logical thinking or the 'teasing out', from a mass of relevant and irrelevant facts, of a consistent pattern of meaning and an understanding of the client's assets and liabilities together with a prognosis or judgment of significance of this pattern for future adjustments to be made by the client.



To aid in diagnosing problems in career decision-making, Williamson (1939b) has proposed these four categories: (1) no choice; (2) uncertain choice; (3) unwise choice; and (4) discrepancy between interests and aptitudes. Contingent upon which problem a client is judged to have, an appropriate process of career counseling would be formulated. Thus, the role of diagnosis in trait-and-factor career counseling is much like it is in the "medical model": differential courses of treatment stem from a determination of what is "wrong" with the client.

2.    Process. Williamson (1939) delineates six steps which comprise trait-and-factor career counseling:

Analysis-collecting data from many sources about attitudes, interests, family background, knowledge, educational progress, aptitudes, etc., by means of both subjective and objective techniques.

Synthesis-collating and summarizing the data by means of case-study techniques and test profiles to 'highlight' the [client's] uniqueness or individuality.

Diagnosis-describing the outstanding characteristics and problems of the [client], comparing the individual's profile with educational and occupational ability profiles, and ferreting out the causes of the problems. Prognosis-judging the probable consequences of problems, the probabilities for adjustments, and thereby indicating the alternative actions and adjustments for the [client's] consideration.

Counseling, or treatment-cooperatively advising with the client concerning what to do to effect a desired adjustment now or in the future. Follow-up-repeating the above steps as new problems arise and further assisting the [client] to carry out a desirable program of action.

The first four steps of this process are exclusively engaged in by the counselor; only in the last two does the client actively participate. Most of the process, then, involves the mental activity of the counselor in gathering, processing and interpreting data on the client.

3.    Outcomes. The immediate goal of trait-and-factor career counseling is to resolve the presenting problem of the client. If his/her choice was unwise, for example, then counseling should eventuate in a more realistic career decision. The longer term objective has been stated by Williamson (1965) as follows:

"The task of the trait-factor type of counseling is to aid the individual in successive approximations of self-understanding and self-management by means of helping him to assess his assets and liabilities in relation to the requirements of progressively changing life goals and his vocational career." Stated somewhat differently, Thompson (1954) has pointed out that this approach should not only assist the client to make a specific decision but it should also "result in the individual's being better able to solve future problems".

The methods used by trait-and-factor career counselors reflect the rationalistic, cognitive model of this approach. Interview techniques, test interpretation procedures, uses of occupational information: taken together, they constitute a logical "attack" upon the client's decision-making problem. They are what the "thinking man" would do when confronted with a choice among alternative courses of action. They are largely action-oriented, and the counselor is highly active in using these methods. Not only is most of the processing of data on the client a counselor activity, as outlined in the process of trait-and-factor career counseling, but the lead in the interviews is typically taken by the counselor. This role should not be construed to mean, however, that the counselor is insensitive or unresponsive to the client's feelings and emotions and attitudes. Quite the contrary, as Darley (1950) notes in discussing acceptance of the client: "The interviewer must indicate to the client that he has accepted but not passed judgment on these [the client's] feelings and attitudes." Whether dealing with feeling or content, the trait-and-factor career counselor nevertheless appears to be "in charge." The counselor role in this approach is probably best characterized as assertive, dominant and participative (as contrasted with reactive and reflective), all of which earned the trait-and-factor counselor the appellation of "directive" during the heyday of Rogerian "nondirective" counseling in the 1950's. To use these methods effectively presumes that they are compatible with the counselor's personality:

1.    Interview techniques. Williamson (1939) has identified five general techniques which he recommends for trait-and-factor career counseling: "(1) establishing rapport, (2) cultivating self-understanding, (3) advising or planning a program of action, (4) carrying out the plan, and (5) referring the [client] to another personnel worker for additional assistance." More specifically, Darley (1950) enunciates four principles of interviewing which the counselor should follow:
  1. Do not lecture or talk down to the client.

  2. Use simple words and confine the information that you give the client to a relatively few ideas.

  3. Make very sure that you know what it is he really wants to talk about before giving any information or answers.

  4. Make very sure that you sense or feel the attitudes that he holds, because these will either block the discussion or keep the main problems out of it.
He then discusses several different aspects of the interview which are too numerous to recount here but which cover such functions as opening the interview, phrasing questions, handling silences and maintaining control of the interaction. If these methods were to be described and summarized by one rubric, it would be pragmatic. Their essence is technological, not teleological.

2.    Test interpretation. This phase of trait-and-factor career counseling is subsumed by those interview techniques which Williamson (1939) calls "advising or planning a program of action", and they include the following:
  • Direct advising, in which the counselor frankly states his opinion as to what the client should do.

  • Persuasion, in which the counselor "marshals the evidence in such a reasonable and logical manner that the [client] is able to anticipate clearly the probable outcomes of alternative actions."

  • Explanation, in which the counselor extrapolates "the implications of the diagnoses and the probable outcome of each choice considered by the [client]."
In Williamson's (1939) opinion, the last method is "by all odds the most complete and satisfactory method of counseling". He illustrates this type of test interpretation in this excerpt from a counselor explanation:

As far as I can tell from this evidence of aptitude, your chances of getting into medical school are poor; but your possibilities in business seem to be much more promising. These are the reasons for my conclusions: You do not have the pattern of interests characteristic of successful doctors which probably indicates you would not find the practice of medicine congenial. On the other hand you do have an excellent grasp of mathematics, good general ability, and the interests of an accountant. These facts seem to me to argue for your selection of accountancy as an occupation.

Thus, the counselor relies upon his/her expertise to make authoritative interpretations of the test results and to draw conclusions and recommendations from them for the client's deliberation.

3.    Occupational information. Probably the most widely cited statement of the use of occupational information in trait-and-factor career counseling is that of Brayfield (1950), who has distinguished among three different functions of this material:

a.    Informational: the counselor provides a client with information about occupations in order to confirm a choice which has already been made, to resolve indecision between two equally attractive and appropriate options, or to simply increase the client's knowledge about a choice which otherwise is realistic.

b.    Readjustive: the counselor introduces occupational information, so that the client has a basis for reality testing an inappropriate choice, the process unfolding something like this:

The counselor first uses leading questions regarding the nature of the occupation or field which the counselee has chosen. In turn, the counselor provides accurate information which may enable the client to gain insight into the illusory nature of his thinking when he finds that his conception of the occupation or field does not fit the objective facts. At this point the counselor usually is able to turn the interview to a consideration of the realistic bases upon which sound occupational choices are founded.

c.    Motivational: the counselor uses occupational information to involve the client actively in the decision-making process, to "hold" or maintain contact with dependent clients until they assume greater responsibility for their choice, and to maintain motivation for choice when a client's current activities seem irrelevant to long-term career goals. Other delineations of essentially the same strategies in presenting occupational information to clients have been made by Baer and Roeber (1951), and Christensen (1949). If there is any significant difference among them, it is Brayfield's (1950) insistence that "Any use of occupational information should be preceded by individual diagnosis," which stems directly from the process sequence in the model of trait-and-factor career counseling.

Comment: For many years, trait-and-factor career counseling held sway as the only approach to assisting clients engaged in the process of deciding upon their life's work, and in the hands of its highly competent and enlightened originators it is probably as viable today as it was in the past (Willimson, 1972). But as practiced by too many journeyman trait-and-factor counselors who have not updated the model (Super and Bachrach, 1957) and methods (Williamson, 1972), this approach has gone into an incipient decline. It has devolved into what has been caricatured as "three interviews and a cloud of dust." The first interview is typically conducted to gather some background data on the client and for the counselor to assign tests. The client takes the tests, usually a lengthy battery administered in "shotgun" style (Super, 1950), and then returns for the second interview at which time the results are interpreted. Not atypically, this session amounts to the counselor "teaching" the client certain necessary psychometric concepts, for example, the meaning of percentile ranks or standard scores, in order to engage in a lengthy discussion of the tests-one by one, scale by scale. The third interview is usually devoted to reviewing the client's career choice in light of the test results and to briefing the client on the use of the occupational information file for possible further exploration of the world of work. And then the client leaves ("cloud of dust"), often without using these materials on his own, due to the lack of initiative which produced the problems that brought him to career counseling in the first place. At best, this widespread over-simplification of trait-and-f actor career counseling provides the client with a mass of test information, which is frequently forgotten or distorted (Froehlich and Moser, 1954). At worst, it completely ignores the psychological realities of decision making which lead to indecision and unrealism in career choice (Crites, 1969), and it fails to foster those more general competencies, for example, self-management, which are the essence of true trait-and-factor career counseling (Williamson, 1972).
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