Commentary

When they were kicked to the curb, jobless workers mostly blamed themselves: Enter career coaches


June 30, 2020

Roberta is collecting her cards when I approach her cloth covered table. She is in her sixties and wears a light purple shawl over a flowing black dress. A matching purple gem – sapphire, she tells me – hangs from a thin chain on her neck and the silver bangles on her wrists are also dotted with purple-shaded stones. The bracelets jangle as her thin hands move over cards labeled “independence,” “knowledge,” “stability,” and “excitement.” Roberta pushes them across the table and invites me to sort the cards as I see fit: it will help me “learn something new” about myself.

Roberta is not a Tarot card reader. She is a professional “career coach” who specializes in guiding the white-collar unemployed through hard times. Roberta is manning a vendor booth at the 2019 National Career Development Association (NCDA) and she is taking me through the first step she takes with clients who have been laid off: self-discovery. I sit and sort the cards into ascending rows of importance as Roberta hums sagely.

“I love the card sorts because they’re kinesthetic,” she says. “It gives people permission.” 

When I finish, she hovers over the card configuration, staring into it before conjuring a notebook and beginning to scribble. Roberta will divine from my movements a set of “career values,” the single most important step if I am to find a job. Return in an hour, I’m told, and she will have my chart ready…

Career coaching is a growth industry, one that we can expect to explode in the post-pandemic recession. But our economy has been friendly to it for several decades. As stable career paths have dissolved into a series of gigs, legions of “coaches” and “consultants” have emerged to help soothe the anxieties of the American worker. The NCDA, once an association of high school career counselors, is now full of freelancers peddling sessions, not to your sixteen-year-old nephew, but to the masses of white-collar workers regularly ejected from 21st century labor markets.

Last summer, as the economy hummed along at 3.5% unemployment, I attended the NCDA’s annual conference in Houston. The trip was part of my research: I follow the fates of older professionals after layoffs, many of whom, as I had discovered, turned to career coaches.

Throughout my research, I had been nagged by one question: why aren’t the unemployed more pissed off? The workers I’d interviewed gave heart, soul, and weekends to their employers, sometimes for a decade or more. But when they were kicked to the curb, they mostly blamed themselves. Of course, I don’t expect everyone to take the barricades. But why isn’t anyone mad at their boss?

The career coaching industry provides one answer. The basic pitch to the unemployed is this: the job market is a puzzle, not a power struggle, and you can solve it with the guidance of personalized experts. Career coaches offer solutions ranging from the pseudo-scientific to the straight up mystical – from dubious personality tests to poetic guru-ism promising to lead the benighted worker to self-actualization.  

There is a special you-shaped place in the economy, they promise, and, as I learn at the NCDA conference, there are plenty of people willing to help you find it. Because as one coach reassured me: “Once you know who you are, it all falls into place.”

***

The enormous Marriot banquet hall is sectioned off by rows of tall blue curtains framing dozens of vendor booths. The booths are filled by career-coaching companies, adorned with flashy posters and endless pamphlets, each serving up its own solution for your labor market woes.

The first booth I pass has a background poster featuring a huge line graph, tracking upwards as it connects data points labeled “grit,” “self-confidence,” and “empathy.” The company sells personality assessments that consist of yes/no questions asking if some 300 adjectives apply to you. One I was asked to consider was “handsome.”

I meander through exhibits selling “strength finders,” and “ability batteries.” There are poster-sized stock photos of confused millennials subtitled “I HAVE NO CLUE WHAT TO DO WITH MY LIFE,” and conceptual diagrams for personality-typing that leave me with my own stock-photo wrinkled brow. I won’t even try to explain the diagram for the “Holland Method RIASEC hexagon” pictured below:

In what I figure is the most expensive booth, right at the entrance to the hall, I speak with two big-bellied white men in suits, representatives from Kuder Inc. In a rehearsed rap, the junior rep tells me that their career-assessment tools trace a direct lineage to Dr. Frederic Kuder, the “father of the assessment world.” Their psychometric techniques have been refined over eighty years, I’m told, to scientifically define my core interests, skills, and values.

The test is no-nonsense: it will boil me down to a three-letter code representing my most prominent characteristics; for example, “Realistic,” “Conventional,” or “Enterprising.” With a single click, my personalized code will be connected to the Department of Labor’s official list of occupations, directing me to career clusters and job titles that will be my best fits.

“We help you see what you can be,” the rep says with a smile and a handshake, happy to have nailed his closing line.

Kuder is the most professionalized of these services I’ve seen so far and, thumbing through the colorful pamphlet they hand me, I begin to wonder how “Enterprising” I myself am. The academic job market isn’t looking so hot, after all, and I can’t help but wonder what other careers might be a better match.

I tuck their business cards into my wallet and plan to take an online Kuder test tonight.

***

I’ve heard more about personality types in the last hour than I have in the last decade. I ask myself: What’s pop-psychology got to do with finding a job?

I go looking for answers in a conference session called “Why Personality Type Matters in Career Transition.” As I shuffle into the meeting, a middle-aged woman in a power suit is directing attention to the image she has projected on a PowerPoint slide: a cartoon trapeze artist who has just been released from her swinging partner and is flying, rope-less, through the air.

“Anyone ever felt like that?” she asks, to a humming affirmative from attendees.

“Who has clients that feel like this?” to which a sea of hands and nods respond, yes, I do.

This is transition, she explains, a dying of the old self and a reinvention of a new self.  “Your ability to take satisfying and productive steps towards career goals” – to find those outstretched hands after job loss – “is closely proportionate to your self-awareness.”

We split into break-out discussion groups and I find myself talking with three “INFJ’s.” Leo, a middle-aged career coach who maintains psycho-level eye contact tells me this is quite a coincidence: INFJ is the rarest of the sixteen personality types distinguished by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test. “It that means that our energy is quiet time,” he says as the two women in our group nod along. “We see the big picture rather than taking in a lot of detail, we make decision based on how it affects people, and we tend to plan ahead.”

I ask Leo if the trapeze-talk is true – if self-discovery leads to job-market success – to which he bobble-head nods in the affirmative, smiling but not blinking.

He is officially certified to administer the Myers-Briggs, he tells me, and uses it with all of his clients. Once he knows their type, he helps them reflect on why their past employment hasn’t worked out and search for a new job that will be a better fit. Perhaps you lost your job, he explains, because you are really intuitive in an occupation that does too much sensing.

Leo’s explanation reminds me of an interview I did a few months earlier with Michael, a former corporate trainer that I met at an unemployment program in Austin. After himself receiving some coaching, Michael patiently explained to me how the Birkman Personality Assessment helped him understand why he lost his last job: he was a “linear-concrete” thinker, see, a poor match for his boss, who he guessed was a “global-conceptual” type.

Only later did I learn that Michael was laid off in a corporate reorganization that tanked his whole division.

Career coaches like Leo teach the unemployed to interpret their job market struggles as a problem of personality, not power. When they turn the diagnostic lens onto the worker, their client, they avoid the broader, structural questions about the trapeze artist like: Why is this person being thrown through the air in the first place?

***

Social scientists have no shortage of political and structural explanations for why employment has become less and less secure, and why it feels like an unfamiliar circus act. Globalization, financialization, the expansion of temporary and contract employment, the decline of unions, technological developments – the list goes on.

But career coaches can’t reasonably hope to solve these problems, so they go looking for answers in personality types and value assessments. It’s a political sleight-of-hand, leaving workers scrambling for solutions in all the wrong places. Themselves.

I’m far from the first to note the anti-political nature of career coaching. Barbara Ehrenreich went gonzo into white-collar job search world in 2005 and declared the nascent coaching industry to be part of a “bait and switch” being pulled on the middle-class. More recently, the sociologist Ofer Sharone has singled out the American fetish for employer-employee “chemistry” as a particularly depoliticizing element of career advice.

But the critiques of career coaching tend to underestimate the gravitational pull of these self-help discourses, the profound power that a promise of career salvation has over an increasingly anxious American middle-class.

After all, the unemployed themselves purchase the career-success self-help books, they take the personality tests, they hire the coaches. Why would they buy into this?

It’s a bit like astrology. Astrological readings provide an unassailable source of authority with which to explain one’s fate, a kind of meta-rationalization for one’s problems. Having a rough time at work? Your moon must be in recess. Struggling to make the rent? Let’s have a look at your chart.

Astrologers would never tell you to rebel; the horoscope instead provides “expert” guidance on how to navigate the world in a way that leaves every essential economic relation intact.

Personality provides an answer to the unemployed, yes, but it’s also something to do: in the lonely depths of the job hunt, a personality test can be a welcome break from mindlessly trolling Indeed.com.

And it does something else, too. It lets you dream of something greater. It holds out hope that you can find harmony and self-actualization in the labor market – if only you study your charts closely enough.

A former project manager for GM would later make this clear to me. Mary had been out of work for two months and was eagerly filling out personality tests at a job search support group. “You can’t land your dream job,” she told me matter-of-factly, “until you know what your dream job is.”

***

Who, then, are the coaches pushing these interpretations? Surely Leo must be a covert capitalist, dedicated to preempting any emergent class-consciousness.

Not quite. The first thing I learned in talking to dozens of coaches and consultants is that their own career trajectories are strikingly similar to those of their clients. They, too, were recently laid off from white-collar jobs – as corporate middle-managers, HR professionals, and adjunct professors. They reinvented themselves as professional “coaches” and “consultants” only after multiple expulsions from steady employment.

I met Dana, a fifty-two-year-old “life and career coach,” at a job search club. She came to this work after going through three different, life-altering, layoffs of her own. Every time, she recalled, “You’re just like, ‘Wow, my life’s changing today.’”  

First was the hardware-shipping company that moved her program management job from Texas to Kentucky, leaving her behind. Then there was the sales position with a truck-tracking GPS company that went kaput in 2009. And there was the software sales job at Dell that evaporated in a corporate acquisition and re-org. She jumped shipped before the pink slip: “They were laying off teams of people. It was like the bullets were hitting all around me.”

After a second, shorter, stint at Dell and another layoff, Dana decided to strike out on her own as an entrepreneur. She formed her own LLC and started to recruit unemployed professionals for paid coaching sessions that combine motivational pep-talks with networking support. Dana actually credits a coach she worked with after one of her layoffs for helping her to get into the business.

Dana’s life is still precarious, though. Some are able to make a living out of career coaching, but Dana has been struggling to hold clients and is simultaneously looking for a corporate position. During our last interview, she picked through diner fries as she worried aloud about finding a job fast enough to maintain her mortgage payments. At the end of our conversation, she mentioned she’d been watching YouTube videos of people who demonstrate how they save money by living out of their cars.

***

When I circle back to Roberta, my Tarot-card career-guru, she hands me a table ranking my top career values – “Influence People,” “Independence” and “Creativity,” etc. She shows me how, in the table, I can use these to calculate my fit (on a scale from -3 to 4) for various jobs. Roberta is sweet, but I think I need a little more direction.

When I make it home from the conference, I open my laptop to take the Kuder Inc. online assessment. The fifty-dollar individual-use cost is a bit out of budget, but I learn there are plenty of knock-off versions.

The test I take asks me how much I would like or dislike doing a variety of tasks: operate a calculator? (slightly dislike); fix a broken faucet? (neutral); perform stunts for a movie of television show? (like). In ten minutes, I learn my top three types: “Artistic,” “Social,” and “Investigative.”

One of the perks of this test is that it is linked directly into the Department of Labor’s exhaustive list of American occupations. I eagerly click through to the jobs recommended for my types, a list ranging from marriage therapist to home economics teacher. I scroll down with hope and anxiety.

When I find my ideal job of the future – college professor – on the list, I get a giddy feeling. It’s like learning that my crush is a Libra to my Aquarius.

Cross-posted at Public Seminar.

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