Counseling Career Drifters. ERIC Digest.
by Cahill, Mildred - Martland, Sandra
Persistent career change is generally seen as negative. However, today's
economic reality may force counselors to look differently at clients who
move from job to job. Our study of self-acknowledged career drifters in
Newfoundland and Labrador suggests that some people have good reasons for
making frequent job changes. It also tells us that there are different
types of drifters. This paper summarizes our 3-year study of career drifters
and it explores the implications for career counseling.
Although business and government promote flexibility and adaptability
for employees, career counselors often aim to place a person in a single
occupation. Frequent occupational change is considered by many to be undesirable
(Jarvis, 1990). At the same time, economic change has prompted a shift
to less secure working arrangements (Krahn, 1991) and an environment where
career change is the norm rather than the exception (Ross & Shillington,
Our work has defined drifters as individuals who have
*completed high school
*been out of secondary school for a minimum of 4 years
*made at least 3 voluntary changes in either post-secondary courses,
jobs, or a combination of the two, within a maximum of 10 years after graduating
from high school.
The literature suggests there are five types of career drifters:
1. Personal/Psychological Drifters. Hartman, Fuqua, and Jenkins (1986)
identify three subgroups:
--Chronically indecisive people with underlying psychological problems
that inhibit their ability to make life decisions or persevere in a chosen
--Developmentally undecided individuals who have little knowledge of
self or low self-esteem.
--Career-undecided people who have had no opportunity to develop the
skills needed to make career decisions.
2. Drifters by Necessity. This group of people include those who have
made a career choice, but are prevented from implementing it due to economic
circumstances. They may live in areas of high unemployment and often travel
to more lucrative job markets elsewhere, but return to work at home or
to receive unemployment benefits (House, White, & Ripley, 1989). They
may also stay in their home community working at temporary jobs or in the
informal labor market (e.g., building one's home, gathering and producing
food, or working for barter).
3. Drifters by Occupation. This group includes people working in unstable
occupations, including cyclical sectors such as construction and mining,
or occupations with high turnover, including self-employment.
4. Multipotentialed Drifters. These people remain indecisive about their
careers because they are unwilling to sacrifice any viable option (Pask-McCartney
& Salamone, 1988). Having too many options may seem a minor problem,
but to some the idea of committing to a narrow path provokes great anxiety.
5. Questers. Questers take social risks in order to achieve success
as defined by themselves rather than society. Rather than following a linear
career path, these people make frequent changes in various directions.
Driven mainly by intrinsic rewards, they often make as many lateral moves
as upward ones, and sometime change to jobs that would be considered less
prestigious or lower-paying than those they have held earlier (Kanchier
& Unruh, 1988).
DRIFTERS IN CANADA
Our work explored personal aspirations, meaning of work, influence of
community and family, level of dependency, quester characteristics, person/
environment congruency, experience with work, and self-efficacy. There
were 85 self-acknowledged drifters, more than half from rural communities.
Their drifting patterns revolved around three prominent themes:
1. Meaning of Work. A large majority felt anxious about making career
decisions and seeking a job. Although many admitted they sometimes worried
about making decisions in general, the incidence and level of anxiety was
higher for career decision. The high levels of anxiety, especially about
finding a job, may reflect high unemployment rates and unstable working
2. Personal Aspirations. People falling into this category were more
career undecided than indecisive. While more than three-quarters of respondents
felt it was important to have decided on a career path upon high school
graduation, slightly more than half felt no personal failure for not completing
post-secondary courses. This suggests that many people may be using college
and university programs for career exploration.
3. Quester Characteristics. Many of our drifters were risk-takers who
felt self-confident. They were willing to leave a job for further education
without having assurance of employment afterward.
Community and family influences (including educational level of parents),
work experiences of the subjects, level of dependency, self-efficacy, and
person-environment congruence did not prove to be as useful in explaining
the drifting patterns. Instead, drifting seemed to be related either to
the lack of stable occupational opportunities, to inadequate exposure of
the individual to a wide range of educational and occupational options,
or to a personal desire for a more satisfying career.
IMPLICATIONS FOR COUNSELORS
The transition to an information-based global economy produces more
occupational variables than were found in the industrial era. This has
several implications for career counseling:
1. There is no assurance that an occupation will continue to exist throughout
one's working life or that it will not radically change. Counseling must
prepare clients for the likelihood of multiple occupational moves and help
clients to accept the legitimacy of lateral and even downward occupational
changes, as well as transitions into and out of the labor market.
2. As low-skilled service and technical jobs make up a growing proportion
of employment opportunities, it is likely that paid work will not be the
principal way in which many people achieve their life goals. This will
require a shift in emphasis for career counseling towards recognizing that
various life roles provide career anchors (Schein, 1978).
3. Rational decision-making skills are likely to be less effective and
less important in the more complex global environment. Counselors will
have to emphasize skills that are more appropriate - flexibility, adaptability,
opportunity identification, and management of change. They must help people
prepare to act on unforeseen opportunities and cope with unforeseen disruptions.
It is clear from our work that people who make frequent career changes
are not psychologically unbalanced or are lacking career maturity. Some
may have high levels of career and job anxiety suggesting the need for
counseling services that address both of these personal factors. However,
many drifters change courses for positive reasons or as an adaptive strategy
to cope with harsh economic conditions. The incorporation of such environmental
factors into counseling will require greater attention to economic and
Hartman, B. W., Fuqua, D. R., & Jenkins, C. J. (1986). "The reliability/generalizability
of the construct of career indecision." Journal of Vocational Behaviour,
House, J. D., White, S., & Ripley, P. (1989). "Going away and coming
back: Economic life and migration in small Canadian communities." St. John's,
NF: Memorial University of Newfoundland.
Jarvis, P. S. (1990). "A nation at risk: The economic consequences of
neglecting career development." Journal of Career Development, 16, 151-171.
Kanchier, C., & Unruh, W. R. (1988). "The career cycle meets the
life cycle." Career Development Quarterly, 37, 127-137.
Krahn, H. (1991). "Non-standard work arrangements." Perspectives on
Labour and Income, 3, 35-45.
Pask-McCartney, C., & Salamone, P. (1988). "Difficult cases in career
counseling: III--The multipotentialed client." Career Development Quarterly,
Ross, D., & Shillington, R. (1991). "FLUX: Two years in the life
of the Canadian labour market." Ottawa: Minister of Industry, Science and
Schein, E. (1978). "Career dynamica: Matching individual and organizational
needs." Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.