E. Finding Supports

E4. Understanding the Career Development Big Picture

Big Picture View of Career Development Theory


Why is theory important? Theory helps us make sense of our experiences. A solid knowledge base in theory provides a meaningful framework and context for working with clients. It gives you a better understand of particular strategies, counselling approaches and tools; helping you determine how to use them, when to use them and why you use them. Finally, having the ability to use a number of theories and approaches better equips you to determine and meet the particular needs of each individual client.

What follows is a thumbnail sketch of each of the major human development and career development theories identified by the National Standard and Guidelines. The descriptions given below are meant to provide only a preliminary introduction to one or two of the central components of these important approaches to career development. They are intended to help you assess your own understanding of career development theory and identify potential areas for further learning and professional development.

Common Human Development Models

These include but are not limited to:

  1. Maslow (1908-1970): Abrahman Maslow is best known for his developmental theory of human motivation. As a humanistic psychologist, Maslow believed that actualization of one’s inherent potential was the driving force of human personality. Maslow placed self-actualization into a hierarchy of motivation or his famous “hierarchy of needs.” Self-actualization is identified as the highest drive but before a person can turn to it, he or she must satisfy other lower motivations like physiological, safety, social and esteem needs, respectively. For example: A homeless youth client will need assistance in finding secure housing before being referred to a career decision making program, in Maslow’s view.

See B1.3 the Basics of Motivation theory for a more in-depth look at Maslow’s theory of motivation and its relationship to Herzberg’s work on job satisfaction.

  1. Skinner (1904-1990): B.F. Skinner is recognized as a leader in the field of behaviourist theory. Very simply put, Skinner believed that changes in behaviour are the result of an individual’s response to events (stimuli) that occur in the environment. The response or behaviour produces a consequence and the nature of the consequence either reinforces or weakens the probability of the behaviour occurring again. So if you wish to alter someone’s behaviour, you reinforce the behaviour you want people to do again and ignore or punish the behaviour you want people to stop doing. Example: Using verbal praise and other forms of recognition to encourage youth to continue their job search.

  2. Erikson (1902-1994): Erik Erikson developed the psychosocial theory of social development. The theory describes the eight stages of human development (infancy to late adulthood), through which every person passes. At each stage of development the person is confronted with and hopefully resolves a new psycho-social issue. Each developmental stage builds on the successful completion of the earlier stages. If the issues of the earlier stages are not successfully resolved they are expected to reappear as problems in the later stages. Example: Youth clients working on establishing their own identity may be struggling with settling on a career path because they don’t really know who they are yet.

  3. Frankl (1905-1997); Victor Frankl belongs to the school of existential theory and was the founder of logotherapy. He regarded the search for meaning and an authentic life as the primary human motivation. This “will to meaning” is universal and common to all individuals. As free individuals we have a choice on how we will deal with inner conditions and outer circumstances. We are responsible for our own existence and for finding a purpose or meaning to our lives. Frankl asserted that one can discover meaning through purposeful work, creative pursuits and suffering. Example: It is important for youth to take responsibility for making their own career choices and to be encouraged to consider careers that will be personally meaningful and fulfilling.

Major Career Development Theories: Again these include but are not limited to:

  1. Trait-Factor Theory: The Trait-Factor theory of career development goes as far back as the early 1900’s and is associated mostly strongly with vocational theorists Frank Parsons and E.G. Williamson. Some of the basic assumptions that underlie this theory are:

Trait-factor theory has been around for a long time and is still being used by many career practitioners in one form or another. Many of the aptitude, personality and interest tests and occupational information materials that emerged from this approach have evolved and remain in use today (e.g.,True Colors, General Aptitude Test Battery, Data-People-Things Interest Test, occupational profiles and the ever expanding computer-based career guidance programs).


Blue Idealist
Orange Artisan
Green Rational
  1. Holland’s Career Typology Theory: An off-shoot of the trait-factor theory can be seen in the work of John Holland. Like the trait-factor approach, Holland’s Career Typology focuses on individual characteristics and occupational task. Holland’s theory expanded the concept of personality types and posited that:

Holland’s Career Typology takes a cognitive, problem solving approach to career planning and this model has been extremely influential in vocational counselling. It has been employed by popular assessment tools such as the Self-Directed Search, Vocational Preference Inventory and the Strong Interest Inventory. It has also resulted in practical resources like the Dictionary of Holland Occupational Codes which applies Holland’s codes to major occupations.

  1. Super’s Life-Span/ Life-Space Theory: Donald Super believed that humans are anything but static and that personal change is continuous. Super’s Life-Span/Life Space is a very comprehensive developmental model that attempts to account for the various important influences on a person as they experience different life roles and various life stages. Here are some of Super’s main tenets:

Super’s theory has greatly influenced how we look at career practices. Understanding the ages and related stages of career development assists practitioners to identify where clients are in the career development continuum and suggest appropriate career related goals and activities. It also underscores the necessity to examine career development within the larger context of an individual’s roles and life style and how to achieve a life/work balance.

  1. Krumboltz’s Social Learning Theory of Career Choice: John D. Krumboltz developed a theory of career decision making and development based on social learning. Career decisions are the product of an uncountable number of learning experiences made possible by encounters with the people, institutions and events in a person's particular environment. In other words people choose their careers based on what they have learned. Krumboltz proposed that:

Krumboltz saw his theory as (1) a way of explaining the origin of career choice and (2) a guide to how career practitioners might tackle career related problems. The practitioner starts with understanding how a client came to their career related view of themselves and the world and what is limiting or problematic about this view. Once this has been established, the practitioner and client identify what career relevant learning experiences, modeling or skill building will help them reframe their view. Using Krumboltz’s approach a practitioner plays a major role in dealing with all career problems, not just occupational selection.

  1. Constructivist Theory/Models of Career Development: Constructivist Theory of Career Development is related to existential theory and is more a philosophical framework within which career counselling can be done. Two thinkers associated with this approach are M.L. Savickas and Vance Peavy. Constructivist career development is based on the concepts of “constructivism” which include the following:

The constructivist career counselling approach is generally about life planning. The search for meaningful work is connected to constuctivism’s emphasis on deriving meaning from personal experience. To have meaningful careers, individuals need to reflect on their life experiences and the resulting “constructs” they may hold about life/work/self. The client and practitioner work towards an awareness and openness of new constructs of one’s life/work/self that can provide the basis for meaning. Interventions include working directly with the client’s life experience and the use of meaning making processes such as narrative, metaphor, mapping and critical reflection.

Note: No single theory of Career Development is comprehensive. As career practitioners, we need to recognize and be aware of any theory’s strengths, weaknesses and inherent biases. Theory works best when it’s integrated into our personal style and in accordance with a client’s unique situation and needs. Using a holistic approach to clients means pulling from a combination of career development theories and strategies.

If you are interested in self-directed study of career development theory numerous resources including full text articles and publications can be found on the web. Here are just a few good sites.

The HCT Electronic Library at http://imtcsamba.hct.ac.ae/sjw/Career&Training/Theorists.htm

ERIC at:

International Career Development Library at

Maryland’s CareerNet: Career Planning –Theory http://www.careernet.state.md.us/careertheory.htm
If you would like to pursue more in-depth study look for colleges and universities in your area offering certificate or diploma programs in Career Development. Or contact your local professional association to ask about training and professional development opportunities in your community.

Contact Point’sLearning” pages offer an extensive listing of courses, programs, workshops, colleges, universities and other recognized training designed for career service professionals. The Networking and Support pages provide links to career development professional associations. A great feature of both databases is that all of this information is searchable by geographical region.

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