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Vocational psychology: realising its true potential.

For almost 50 years from 1926 to 1976, applied psychology provided the cornerstone of career services in this country. Psychology was a key component of career guidance services and it spawned a range of activities including career counselling, vocational assessment, vocational rehabilitation, career education, occupational information, occupational research and computerised guidance. Yet in the last 30 years, the influence of vocational psychology has waned and faded officially from the scene in Australia.

Homeless in Australia

At one time, career guidance through the Institute of Industrial Psychology, the historic Vocational Guidance Bureau in New South Wales or the former Commonwealth Employment Service was offered mainly by those with a background in psychology. They were trained to understand occupations, to explore individual differences and provide the desired 'true reasoning'--albeit in a directive and stereotyped fashion.

This changed somewhat with the move away from standardised testing and with the adoption of a counselling approach in career services. It was diluted further by the introduction of full-time career advisers into schools, colleges and universities. This moved career development away from psychology and closer to education.

The development of private practice in career counselling services brought a range of new faces--mainly education, welfare and human resource practitioners--into the field. The problems of high unemployment in the 1980s also posed new challenges for the community and altered the focus of the dwindling government services, which were restructured and eventually closed. As a result, vocational psychologists were largely homeless in Australia.

Professional refugees

Moreover, the Australian Psychological Society seemed to have lost interest in vocational psychology as a field. Possibly this is because vocational guidance was dominated at that time by three-year trained graduates in psychology rather than the desired four-year trained honours graduates. Indeed, in one report on the employment of psychologists in Australia (1), vocational guidance was considered a last resort. This is despite the fact that it was an excellent training ground for any practitioner.

Alongside this development, the College of Occupational Psychology was renamed Organisational Psychology to reflect the interest of industrial and organisational psychologists. This is understandable but as a consequence, it estranged vocational psychology from its original academic home.

Ostensibly, there is still a place for vocational psychology within the profession. Nowadays you will find formal references to career guidance scattered throughout the publicity of the Australian Psychological Society. It is mentioned as career development in the Society's College of Counselling Psychologists (2), as career guidance in the College of Educational and Developmental Psychologists (3), or as career development and coaching by the College of Organisational Psychologists (4). This fragmentation is not helpful.

The Australian Psychological Society could resolve this fragmentation by locating vocational psychology within one of the Colleges. For instance, the Society for Vocational Psychology (5) is located within Division 17 (Counselling Psychology) of the American Psychological Association. It is of strategic importance to the Australian community that vocational psychology is more than an interest group and is located within a specific College, given the importance of employment, education and training in people's lives.

On the one hand, the Australian Psychological Society endorses vocational guidance as a psychological activity, but on the other hand, it has not been involved with significant developments in the field. A practical measure of the extent to which vocational psychology has achieved endangered status is that the Australian Psychological Society is not even represented on the Commonwealth Government sponsored Career Industry Council of Australia (6).

This state of affairs is a pity because (to the best of my knowledge) all the leading Australian researchers with an international reputation in career development had a background in psychology: Bright, Creed, Earl, Fogarty, Hesketh, Lokan, McMahon, Naylor, Patton, Power, Pryor, Sweet, Taylor, Trang (to name but a few, and my apologies to any colleagues that I might have missed). Coincidentally most of these vocational psychologists--both in Australia and overseas--are now located in faculties of education.

More likely than not, the few remaining vocational psychologists in Australia are also refugees seeking political asylum in other disciplines such as faculties of business, human resource management or education. As a consequence, career guidance is moving away from its behavioural science origins.

Theoretical input

For most of its early history, career guidance was dependent upon vocational psychology for its content, research and practice. For instance, the Dictionary of Occupational Titles and its successor O*NET are psychologically inspired. Psychological testing in Australia was closely related to vocational psychology. In my field, vocational interest assessment far exceeds the uses of any clinical psychology tests in terms of quantity. The numbers are astounding. Just a few examples may suffice. As far back as 1974 more than 50 million copies of the Kuder Preference Record had been used; in 1998, the publisher of the Self-Directed Search announced that more than 21 million copies had been used; and the Strong Interest Inventory which in its various forms is more widely used than most intelligence tests, is around 80 years old. In Australia, vocational self-assessment is used extensively. In 2006 the Career Interest Test on the Federal Government's had been used by over 350,000 people. All these instruments have a psychological pedigree.

The major theories of career development (person- environment fit, social learning, developmental theory) have a solid background in the behavioural sciences. Some, such as the Theory of Work Adjustment, bridge the chasm between vocational and occupational psychology. Newer approaches, such as the Systems Theory Framework, Gottfredson's Theory of Circumscription and Compromise, Critical Theory, Chaos Theory, Constructivist or Narrative approaches share a broader but still social science orientation. Vocational counselling, assessment and work behaviour are inherently psychological in nature and scope.

Call for reflection

Accordingly, this article calls for a reflection of the status of vocational psychology within the profession of psychology and within career guidance. This is because the set of dynamics described above has altered the historical position of vocational psychology.

Notwithstanding that: (a) career development is now a broader field with many new faces; (b) the earlier psychological theories of career development are being challenged as static, outdated, positivist or reductionist; and (c) psychology no longer has a monopoly of influence, there is still a role for vocational psychology to provide the academic and professional research engine that drives career development in Australia.

Indeed, failure to provide a substantive academic and research basis for career development will mean that career guidance could return to a time of so-called commonsense, do-gooder myth, or superstition. It is not proposed that vocational psychologists should have exclusive rights over career guidance, but my emphasis is that they have a unique scientific contribution to make to this field. It may well be an opportune moment for the leadership of the Career Industry Council of Australia to reflect on the potential contribution of vocational psychology within the fields of employment, education and training and for the Australian Psychological Society to be encouraged to participate.

In particular, I am concerned that we will not produce the next generation of career researchers and vocational psychologists in Australia. Despite the fact that there are now endorsed national competencies for career practitioners, there is a very real danger that newcomers to the field of career development will not have the professional training and research background in the social and behavioural sciences to equip them in their jobs or to advance the field. From the literature on expertise it is estimated that it would take around 5000 hours to be minimally competent just as a practitioner in the careers field and definitely longer still to achieve research expertise.

As a further point, those remaining vocational psych ologists might now reflect upon issues related to greater recognition for psychology within the field of career development. At the same time, they might wish to increase their own contribution as psychologists to the career industry as a whole. We do not have the right to abrogate that historic role and responsibility through apathy or neglect.

James A Athanasou (7)

University of Technology, Sydney


(1) Kidd, G. A. (1971). The employment of psychologists in Australia. Sydney University Appointments Board.

(2) counselling/ All web references retrieved June, 2008


(4) organisational/



(7) James Athanasou declares an editorial interest as a member of the Australian Psychological Society, the American Psychological Association, the Society for Vocational Psychology and as a Fellow of the Career Development Association of Australia. An earlier version of this editorial appeared in InPsych.
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Article Details
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Author:Athanasou, James A.
Publication:Australian Journal of Career Development
Article Type:Editorial
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Mar 22, 2008
Previous Article:The Revised Professional Standards for Australian Career Development Practitioners. Ensuring quality of career development practice and services.
Next Article:At my desk.

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