There is a “coach” for everything these days. There are dating coaches, health coaches, career coaches, and speaking coaches. There are coaches to help you find wellness, financial freedom, and the serenity of a decluttered closet. And, perhaps most audaciously, there are legions of self-described “life” coaches.
Where did all these new experts come from? And, given their general lack of credentials, why do people hire them?
You may wonder if this a multi-level marketing kind of arrangement – suspecting, correctly, that coaches are much less successful than they let on and are hoping to sell others on an entrepreneurship class (also correct). You may wonder if this is outright fraud, ideological snake-oil, or just the blind leading the blind. And you may also ask yourself, occasionally, does it work?
In a recently published article, I report results from a year I spent studying career coaches, in particular – observing their pitches and conducting in-depth interviews with both coaches and their clients. I find that none of these characterizations quite capture why and how “coaching” has grown to $3 billion industry in recent years.
The forty unemployed professionals who made it to this meeting at Jump Start Job Club are prepared to chant. Arranged in folding chairs with Styrofoam cups in hand, their eyes are fixed on their lines, projected on a PowerPoint slide: “I’m not over-qualified, I’m absolutely qualified!”
The bubbly presenter orchestrates: “Let’s say it all together!”
The crowd looks like a twenty-year reunion of the characters in the movie Office Space: not its scheming anti-work hero, but the background cast, the characters who decided to stick with the company until the layoffs came around.
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.