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Parsons' theory

Frank Parsons is regarded as the founder of the vocational guidance movement. He developed the talent-matching approach, which was later developed into the Trait and Factor Theory of Occupational Choice. At the centre of Parsons' theory is the concept of matching.

A hand drawing a bow across cello strings.
People perform best when they are in jobs best suited to their abilities

Parsons states that occupational decision making occurs when people have achieved:

  • an accurate understanding of their individual traits (aptitudes, interests, personal abilities)
  • a knowledge of jobs and the labour market
  • rational and objective judgement about the relationship between their individual traits, and the labour market.

This three-part theory still governs most current practice.

The trait and factor theory operates under the premise that it is possible to measure both individual talents and the attributes required in particular jobs. It also assumes that people may be matched to an occupation that's a good fit. Parsons suggests that when individuals are in jobs best suited to their abilities they perform best and their productivity is highest.

In his book, 'Choosing a Vocation', Parsons maintains that personal counsel is fundamental to the career search. In particular, he notes seven stages for a career counsellor to work through with clients:

  1. Personal data: create a statement of key facts about the person, remembering to include every fact that has bearing on the vocational problem.
  2. Self-analysis: a self-examination is done in private and under the instruction of the counsellor. Every tendency and interest that might impact on the choice of a life work should be recorded.
  3. The client’s own choice and decision: this may show itself in the first two stages. The counsellor must bear in mind that the choice of vocation should be made by the client, with the counsellor acting as guide.
  4. Counsellor’s analysis: the counsellor tests the client’s decision to see if it is in line with the “main quest”.
  5. Outlook on the vocational field: the counsellor should be familiar with industrial knowledge such as lists and classifications of industries and vocations, in addition to locations of training and apprenticeships.
  6. Induction and advice: a broad-minded attitude coupled with logical and clear reasoning are critical at this stage.
  7. General helpfulness: the counsellor helps the client to fit into the chosen work, and to reflect on the decision.

Much of Parsons’ work still guides career counselling today, though it is not without criticism. Matching assumes a degree of stability within the labour market. However, the reality is that the market’s volatility means individuals must be prepared to change and adapt to their circumstances.

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