A Consumer's Guide to Career Counseling

A Consumer's Guide to Career Counseling

Tony Lee

Services vary widely, so be sure to investigate your options before handing over your credit card

Demand for professional career counseling is running high. Corporate downsizings are shoving thousands of unprepared candidates into the job market each month, and many are looking for a job for the first time since college. Add to the mix new graduates trying to start their careers amid rising unemployment, and lines are forming at consultants who offer expert job-search help and personal guidance on how to choose the right career. Yet determining which of these services offer legitimate counseling at a fair price is an education in itself.

"There are many qualified consultants who can help with testing, career counseling and campaign management who charge reasonable hourly fees," says one Miami Beach consumer advocate. "Why pay thousands of dollars in advance of getting help, when you can pay as you go and change counselors whenever you want?" he says.

Career counselors say that selecting one should be no different from choosing a family physician or a lawyer. Seek personal referrals from friends, relatives and colleagues, they advise, then request free consultations with several counselors to determine which one best fits your style and approach. Many counselors also maintain websites and blogs, as well as strong presences on sites such as LinkedIn and Twitter, which can aid your research further.

Before signing on, however, it's critical to understand the available services, as well as who offers them. Players range from resume-writing firms and corporate-paid outplacement providers, to individual career counselors and career-marketing firms. Each offers a different level of help and a unique fee structure.

Approach Career Marketing With Caution

State consumer-protection directors, as well as many career counselors, agree that a number of career-marketing firms should be approached with caution. Many charge high fees in advance of providing any services, and sometimes disappear before complaints outnumber satisfied customers. Widely publicized investigations prompted the closing of many such firms in the past, yet consumer refunds were rare.

When seeking career advice, realize that a resume update should be approached no differently than a complete career overhaul. Whether you're just changing jobs or shifting careers, if you're confident in your skills and direction, you'll probably need minimum help, say career counselors. But if you're very introverted or shell-shocked by your job loss, finding professional assistance can be a big help.

To get your bearings, try attending free or low-cost job-hunting workshops, either in-person or online. These are widely offered by religious and nonprofit groups nationally, and many independent counselors offer free courses and introductory advice on their websites. Then seek one-on-one help in the areas where you're weakest, such as assessing your skills or interviewing professionally, says Dallas career advisor Taunee Besson. Once you've settled on where you need help most, seek a counselor who shares your priorities. For example, some advisors specialize in helping clients who aren't sure of their career direction to set goals. Others focus on teaching job-search techniques, such as resume writing and networking to clients who know what they want to do but need help selling themselves into new positions.

Another way to differentiate among career advisors is by their settings. Those who work out of non-profit groups, such as a church or community college, typically charge less per session but provide less personal consultation as well. Independent counselors providing individual help often work in private offices or from home, charging more for a more comprehensive service. Career marketing firms usually have multiple, well-appointed offices and can charge thousands of dollars for an array of services, sometimes even including clerical support and office space.

Finding a competent career advisor needn't be costly, counselors say. Try a local college or university placement service for suggestions, or research online to find ones who get good reviews from fellow job seekers. Once you've narrowed your search down to a few finalists, besides requesting free consultations, don't hesitate to ask each counselor for a list of satisfied clients you can contact to get more in-depth information beyond public website comments and Linkedin recommendations.

Another approach is to try nationally certified career counselors, who are required to hold an advanced degree, have at least three years' experience and pass several certification exams, according to the National Board for Certified Counselors in Greensboro, North Carolina. To use a free tool that will help you identify a counselor in your area, go to www.nbcc.org/counselorfind

Be Skeptical of Quick Fixes

Before signing on with any counselor, whether certified or not, ask in-depth questions about their offerings and expertise, Ms. Besson suggests. "Find out their understanding of the local job market, and their ability to develop a target list of prospective employers," she says. "Do they know the best way into a specific company? Would they try human resources? A line manager? An interim assignment? Each company is a little different, but does the counselor know these differences?"

Ms. Besson recommends screening about a dozen counselors by email to narrow your list to three, then speaking to them on the phone or (if possible) visiting them in person before making a final choice. "Be skeptical of services that make promises of more money, better jobs, resumes that get speedy results or an immediate solution to your career problems," she adds. Just like with work from home and high-salary job advertisements on the web, if what's on offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

"The real issue with any type of job-search guidance is that there are some very good practitioners, and some that aren't good at all," says Ms. Besson. "Look for ones who have strong recommendations and, more importantly, are service-driven rather than sales-driven, and your experience should be a good one."

Tony Lee is the Publisher of CareerCast.com and JobsRated.com

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