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Trends in the history of vocational guidance.

In this article, the relationships between vocational guidance and vocational education, employment counseling, career guidance, and career counseling are explored. Also examined are the wide-ranging federal and state policies that have stimulated and shaped the professional history of vocational guidance, vocational policy, and contemporary terms.

Keywords: vocational guidance, industrial revolution, Frank Parsons, career policy, career guidance

Theorists, researchers, and practitioners have often pioneered the changing trends and resources in the disciplines that compose vocational guidance. Furthermore, those who study work now witness rapid transformations about how work is organized, how it is done, by whom, and the meaning of careers. Career counselors and specialists are learning a new vocabulary about work and about the effects of globalization, including organizational downsizing, outsourcing, off-shoring, global surpluses, the pervasive use of advanced technology in how work processes are implemented, the increasing use of part-time workers, international economic competition, and the evolution of new career paths.

Although there are other elements of change, most workers in the future will need to reinvent their careers to keep up with a fast changing workplace. They will need to cope with the complexities of the job market and find positions suited to their talents and interests. Workers will be more dependent than ever on career counselors (vocational guidance practitioners), coaches, and mentors (Cornish, 2004).

In this article, the relationships between vocational guidance and vocational education, employment counseling, career guidance, and career counseling are briefly explored. The roots of vocational guidance and vocational education have been prominent for most of the 100 years that are being celebrated. However, there were efforts to guide and to educate persons to find jobs and to learn through apprenticeships and other specific methods long before the current decades (Gimpel, 1976). Through these years, vocational guidance and vocational education and the scholars and practitioners who implemented them continually developed models of vocational guidance. One of these major theories, now named actuarial, or trait and factor theory, emphasized matching clients to available jobs.

The Language of Vocational Guidance

Contemporary forms of vocational guidance arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a partner to vocational education. In these years, the world of work and the world of career interventions changed dramatically. Different groups of scholars and practitioners became members of the National Vocational Guidance Association (renamed the National Career Development Association [NCDA] in 1985) and published their important theories and research in the Journal of Employment Counseling and the Vocational Guidance Quarterly (now The Career Development Quarterly), among other journals and publications. Although scholars had not yet implemented a scientific frame of reference in their advising and counseling, that goal was significant for identifying the elements of vocational guidance.

Frank Parsons

In the United States, Frank Parsons, a lawyer and an engineer, was considered the dominant visionary and architect of vocational guidance and vocational education. Parsons had been an activist and, through much of his life, engaged in various reform movements. In particular, Parsons had been highly involved with immigrant settlement along the northeastern coast of the United States, especially in the Boston area. Having established the Vocations Bureau in Boston, Parsons worked to provide a scientific basis for assisting immigrants and others to develop effective techniques for choosing specific work. An outspoken critic of the Boston public school system and a major advocate of educational reform, he was concerned that children were not getting training in the technical skills of the day. He and others criticized the public schools, which were primarily teaching by book learning only and not teaching current skills and techniques. Parsons, however, believed that book-based instruction should be used part of the time in culture and industrial science classes (Stephens, 1970). Parsons also saw the process of adapting vocational guidance to the school as completely relevant to educational reform.

Parsons continued to critique book-based learning, and he advocated that students be trained to engage in action and in the use of skills acquired in manufacturing, business, and other emerging occupations. Students were beginning to be taught various lines of useful work according to their aptitudes and varied experiences (e.g., internships, apprenticeships). In Choosing a Vocation, which was published posthumously, Parsons (1909) elaborated on various techniques that he found useful in ending child labor (e.g., children of 8 or 9 years often worked in the mines, on farms, or in other dangerous activities) and in helping adolescents and adults identify their capabilities and choose jobs with reasonable expectations of reaching their goals. In this book, Parsons developed techniques for both boys and girls.

A Comprehensive Model of Vocational Guidance

Parsons was not simply a critic; he also proposed action that included his work on a comprehensive model for vocational guidance. Parsons (1909) offered a three-step approach to vocational guidance:
 (1) a clear understanding of yourself, your aptitudes, abilities,
 interests, ambitions, resources, limitations, and their causes; (2) a
 knowledge of the requirements and conditions of success, advantages
 and disadvantages, compensation, opportunities, and prospects in
 different lines of work; (3) true reasoning on the relations of
 these two groups of facts. (p. 5)

Parsons's three-step procedure stimulated research focused on better and fuller information about individual differences and methods of assessment (first step), occupations (second step), and the decision-making prospect itself (third step).

Thus, at the beginning of the 20th century, vocational education was seen as complementary to vocational guidance. Vocational guidance was increasingly acquiring new interventions, some new teaching models, and a national occupation structure. Various theories taught that it was natural that individuals were destined to work at different occupational levels. For the curriculum of the high school to be efficient, it needed to be differentiated by adding a new program of study called vocational education. Simultaneously, the vocational movement began with the role of a new type of educator/counselor who would help students to interpret the new testing data in order to make an occupational choice. The original role of school counselors was to guide students in making decisions about which curriculum--academic or vocational--they would select. Counselors were taught that vocational education was for those who were to enter the working class, not college. Many of the same ideologies influenced the directions of human resource development in business and, particularly, in management attitudes regarding where training dollars should be spent.

The Industrial Revolution

For several decades, many immigrants came to the United States for economic opportunities. The people of the industrial revolution were frequently on the move, going beyond the port of entry and moving inland. In the early 1900s, there also was much migration from the country to the city in the United States and from nations abroad to this country. Immigrants to New York City and other ports of entry were examined physically to determine their health. Within the medical and other clinics on Ellis Island, many of the immigrants were afraid they would be sent back to their country of origin if they were carrying disease or experiencing other health problems. The larger point was that the United States wanted to build a physically healthy workforce so that people would be able to work long hours (sometimes 12 hours per day) with stamina. In sum, the United States did not want immigrants with poor health or blindness or persons who could not contribute as new entries in the labor force. The lobby of the medical building on Ellis Island carried such expression.


Early in the current 100 years, policy became the substance and the shape of vocational guidance. In large measure, the policies provided the resources, the outcomes, the activism, and the goals to focus on particular national needs. Vocational guidance practitioners and scholars could evaluate and help Congress to implement policies as they were approved. The policies from the Smith--Hughes Act of 1917 (the first national approval of vocational education in the public schools and also known as the Vocational Education Act of 1917) onward increased legislation addressing vocational guidance or other relevant terms (e.g., vocational education, workforce education, vocational guidance, employment counseling, and career guidance). Some examples of legislation that have relevance to vocational guidance and related vocational issues include the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act of 1984, the School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994, and the Workforce Investment Act of 1998. The U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Labor (1988) also published a booklet addressing basic skills in the workplace.

The Decades of the 100th Anniversary

Each decade of the 100 years of vocational guidance and vocational education tended to focus on the major themes and the specific issues that became the content and the conditions by which to transfer funds and resources to states and schools. New economic and financial crises emerged, as did the expectations that vocational guidance could help with solving problems for people in different types of need. During each decade, techniques, practices, programs, and other important policy issues included a wide range of topics dealing with defense, the changing economy, medical care, jobs, scientific research, differences in occupational content and activity, and clarifying the elements of the decision-making process. Beyond that effort, however, there were many procedures occurring in different decades. For example, the counseling techniques that Parsons (1909) proposed in Choosing a Vocation were creative and conceptual but not scientifically based, although each decade tended to move closer to an evidence- or results-based understanding of vocational guidance.

As the definitions of vocational guidance became identified with theories, the professional perspectives of faculty and administrators emerged to discuss new transitions in the fields of vocational guidance, vocational education, and other processes. For example, a major definition of vocational guidance, one that had stood since 1937, was subsequently revised in 1957 per Donald Super's recommendation. He stated it as follows: "the process of helping a person to develop and accept an integrated and adequate picture of himself and of his role in the world of work, to test this concept against reality, with satisfaction to himself and to society" (Herr, Cramer, & Niles, 2004, p. 23). This new definition of vocational guidance--more specifically, career guidance--stimulated a number of new models of career guidance and a self-concept orientation.

The Unfinished Agenda

From a different perspective, the National Commission on Secondary Vocational Education published its 1984 report, "The Unfinished Agenda" (Lotto, 1985). This was a response to correct the stereotyped images of vocational education and vocational guidance and to propose a series of recommendations that would strengthen vocational education in American schools. There were a variety of responses to the proposals in speeches, journal articles, books, and so forth. Some faculty members suggested that students in vocational areas were not college material or not capable of scientific courses or tasks. In 1985, vocational education was seen by many faculty of high schools and community or technical colleges as focused only on training for entry-level occupations, because students were thought not to have the capability or motivation to attend college. This is not an accurate view of vocational students. Many vocational education students do attend college. Furthermore, vocational education and academic education are not competitive but complementary. Like vocational education, academic education must rest on a firm foundation, basic academic skills, and technical education that incorporate these principles depending on the occupations that students are trained to enter.

The history of vocational guidance or vocational education originally meant working with one's hands. That notion is still held as valid by some educators even though many of these students do not work with their hands, but with their expertise on computers, with technical skills, and with other sophisticated techniques. In 1984, "The Unfinished Agenda" (Lotto, 1985) advocated that comprehensive career guidance programs be available to all students, and it reaffirmed the importance of strong career guidance programs in vocational education. The Commission indicated that vocational education should be and generally is concerned with the development of vocational students in five areas: (a) personal skills and attitudes, (b) communications and computational skills and technological literacy, (c) employability skills, (d) broad and specific occupational skills, and (e) knowledge and foundations for planning and lifelong learning.

There have been many important contributions of vocational education and vocational guidance in the United States in response to particular issues or themes that have occurred at major crisis points. One is the National Defense Education Act of 1958 (NDEA) and, more recently, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs. The NDEA was a response to the belief that the United States was significantly behind the Soviet Union in science, mathematics, and technology because these disciplines were critical to producing armaments, communications, and other military procedures. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched a small satellite called Sputnik. Late in the 1950s, the United States was close behind the Soviets in launching a satellite, but the Soviets entered orbit first. Although it was in the middle of the Cold War, an all-out effort to bolster America's science, mathematics, and technology began in 1958 and completed much of the NDEA's mission by 1968. Related disciplines, recruitment of science- and math-oriented students, and individual career planning became federal priorities.

A second response to school counselors also occurred in the United States some 50 years after the NDEA. Observers, scholars, and others believed that other countries were again "beating" the American educational system, particularly in STEM disciplines. The STEM disciplines in many universities and other schools are currently being promoted to advance knowledge in these areas.

As the evolution of vocational guidance to career guidance suggests, earlier forms of vocational guidance focused on adolescents and were delivered within schools. Increasingly, however, career guidance programs, career counseling, and career services are being addressed to the total spectrum of children and adult populations, including retirees. These programs occur in community centers, institutions for postsecondary education, governmental agencies, business and industry, and comprehensive career guidance programs in schools. The terms that began to gain considerable favor were career development, career model, career guidance, career assessment, career counseling, and career interventions. By 1964 and later, the term career had increasingly become embedded in the training and the practice of counselors and counselor educators.


This article is a brief effort to look at the evolution of vocational guidance and vocational education during the 100 years now being celebrated by NCDA. Each of the decades responded to major themes that sharpen the article and its origin. In conclusion, the article sketches some of the dynamics within vocational education; vocational guidance; and its contemporary, workforce education.

Received 08/12/12

Revised 01/12/13

Accepted 01/14/13

DOI: 10.10021j.2161-0045.2013.00056.x


Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act of 1984, Pub. L. No. 98-254 (1984).

Cornish, E. (2004). Futuring the exploration of the future. Bethesda, MD: World Future Society.

Gimpel, J. (1976). The medieval machine: The industrial revolution of the Middle Ages. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Herr, E. L., Cramer, S. H., & Niles, S. G. (2004). Career guidance and counseling through the lifespan: Systematic approaches. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Lotto, L. S. (1985). The unfinished agenda: Report from the National Commission on Secondary Vocational Education. The Phi Delta Kappan, 66, 568-573.

National Defense Education Act of 1958, Pub. L. No. 85-864 (1958).

Parsons, F. (1909). Choosing a vocation. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994, Pub. L. No. 103-239 (1994).

Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, Pub. L. No. 64-347 (1917).

Stephens, W. R. (1970). Social reform and the origins of vocational guidance. Washington, DC: National Vocational Guidance Association.

Super, D. E. (1957). The psychology of careers. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Labor. (1988). The bottom line: Basic skills in the workplace. Washington, DC: Author.

Workforce Investment Act of 1998, Pub. L. No. 105-220 (1998).

Edwin L. Herr, Department of Educational Psychology, Counseling, and Special Education, Pennsylvania State University. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Edwin L. Herr, Department of Educational Psychology, Counseling, and Special Education, Pennsylvania State University, 125 CEDAR Building, University Park, PA 16802 (e-mail:
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Author:Herr, Edwin L.
Publication:Career Development Quarterly
Date:Sep 1, 2013
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