When Your Job Doesn't Fit

Career advisers can't get you hired, but they can give insight and direction

A few years ago, William Plough found himself in midlife career crisis. An information-technology and human-resources specialist who worked for Federal Express and as a consultant to other top-name corporations in Memphis, Plough had taken over a nonprofit in Naples, Fla. But he was itching to get back into the corporate whirl. Problem was, he wasn't sure what he wanted to do, nor did he have any business contacts in Florida.

He turned to Linda Friedman, a career counselor in Boca Raton. During interviews and extensive testing, Plough, 47, says Friedman helped him do some soul-searching, build his confidence, and pinpoint his strengths, such as his people skills. When he was offered a job at Web video producer Visual Data in Pompano Beach, he used Friedman's tips on salary negotiating to win a bigger package than he had expected. Hired to help restructure the company, he soon took over as the vice-president in charge of investor relations.

Would you like to make a career switch, but don't know where to go or how to break into a new field? Perhaps you're stuck in a job rut and can't figure out how to persuade management you're ready for a change. If you're trying to determine where your life and career are headed, consulting with an experienced career counselor may be worth your while. A career counselor usually won't find you a job--Plough came across his in a newspaper ad. But the best ones will help you make the right career match and guide you in all aspects of the job search. They can show you how to use online resources. They'll advise you on how to expand your network of contacts, structure your resume, and improve your interviewing skills.

Beyond advising on the nitty-gritty of the job search, a qualified counselor can delve into the psychological aspects of career exploration: What gives you satisfaction? Do you like independence or teamwork? Are there emotional barriers that prevent you from being effective on the job or from moving on?

The counselor finds answers in part by administering standardized tests that help identify interests, work style, and skills. "A good career counselor should be able to understand the whole person, the flaws and personality issues, and the reasons an individual has not been happy and successful," says Friedman.

Choosing the right adviser can be just as important--and confusing--as getting your career on track. Just type "career counselor" into an Internet search engine and dozens of self-described advisers, coaches, and job-marketing firms pop up.

The first step in finding a qualified counselor is to seek referrals from friends or professional associates. Or check with your alma mater's career center. Many colleges offer their alumni access to their own counselors and other job-search services. They might also provide referrals to outside counselors.

You can contact the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) for a list of career experts in your area (table). The group has certified about 900 career counselors who have a graduate degree in counseling or psychology, several years of working in the field, and a passing grade on a certification test.

If you're checking out someone who isn't certified, look for the graduate degree and a state license, if applicable. Also ask the counselor for a list of clients you can contact. Membership in organizations such as the National Career Development Assn. (NCDA) and the American Counseling Assn. means the counselor follows ethical guidelines against exorbitant fees, guarantees of success, and breaches of confidentiality.

Such credentials help distinguish career counselors from career coaches, who are often trained at special coaching institutes. Coaches may offer many of the same services as counselors, or they may specialize in various aspects of career development, such as salary negotiation. What coaches don't provide is therapy.

PROMISES, PROMISES. Because the career services field is unregulated, Juliet Miller, executive director of the NCDA, warns job seekers to be "cautious of prepackaged deals with a fairly high price tag," and not to hand over money up front. Instead, plan to pay $45 to $100 an hour, which may be tax-deductible if you find a job in the same field. Miller recommends steering clear of consultants promising access to unadvertised jobs. "Nowadays, all those job openings are available on the Internet," she says.

But many job seekers are overwhelmed by the information on the Internet, especially if they don't know what they want to do. Seujan Bertram, 33, had taught special education and then computer usage in the Ithaca (N.Y.) schools. She wanted to work in the technology business but didn't know the kinds of jobs that would fit her. She also planned to move to Seattle.

Before she relocated, she got in touch with Janet Scarborough, a Seattle career counselor. "I knew I loved to teach, and I loved technology, so she helped me focus on technical training," Bertram says. Scarborough also suggested Bertram work as a computer industry temp so she "could build her experience and provide a base from which to seek the right job." After taking Scarborough's advice to register with the online job search board, Monster.com, Bertram found a promising listing, and landed the job at a public-relations firm where she provides computer applications training to employees.

Most career counselors are quick to point out it's the job seeker who does most of the work. But the insights you gain from an experienced counselor can give you an edge in finding a job that suits you.

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