Deidra Jackson was doing fine as a quality control manager for Avon Products. But fine wasn't good enough. She saw little room for upward mobility, and she was interested in expanding her responsibilities as an industrial engineer. "I wanted to take more control of my career and see what my brand was," she says.
So Jackson, 42, began meeting with Hallie Crawford, a certified career coach, whose services are included in the executive MBA program that Jackson is enrolled in at Mercer University in Atlanta. With Crawford's assistance, Jackson explored the things that provide her fulfillment at work and learned how to identify those characteristics before applying for her next job.
Jackson's efforts paid off. In January, she became a senior supply chain engineer for trucking-giant Ryder System.
Perhaps, like Jackson, you’d like to stay in your field but feel as if you could be doing more. Or maybe you're mulling over shifting to a new field. Or maybe you’ve been unemployed for some time and feel stymied. Career counseling can help match you to your ideal job, and then help you find—and land—the job itself.
Hire a career adviser. Most career development professionals will meet with you one-on-one and ask you to fill out worksheets designed to gauge your skills, values and interests. You may also be asked to fill out one of several commonly used inventories to assess personality and preferences. The adviser can then help determine the type of work that would be most rewarding and best aligned with your talents and temperament.
Career advisers come in two varieties. Career counselors usually have a master's degree in counseling, social work or a similar field. A trained counselor may be helpful if, say, you're dealing with depression related to a job loss. Career coaches and consultants are essentially self-described.
A coach or counselor who works mostly with people in your field may be in the best position to help you change direction. For example, Kate Neville, principal of Neville Career Consulting, in Washington, D.C., used to be in practice at a big law firm. She shifted to the public sector, then worked in management consulting and policy analysis before moving into career consulting. "My experiences have given me valuable perspective on what you can do with a law degree," says Neville.
Ask the adviser you're thinking of hiring for references from clients, and find out whether he or she has worked with people in situations similar to yours. Don't agree to a hefty upfront fee without having at least one session with the coach to gauge your comfort level with him or her. And don't confuse a coach or counselor with a recruiter, who focuses on job placement.
Expect to work with a coach or counselor for at least two to three months; the time will vary depending on your goals and how much you know about your preferences before you start. Depending on your area, you may pay $70 to $150 an hour. Crawford charges private clients $345 a month for group coaching, and $199 to $795 a month for coaching one-on-one, depending on the number of sessions.
Laid off? Accept your former boss's help. When corporate restructuring eliminated marketing manager Anup Samanta’s job at Navistar in Chicago, his severance package included six months of job-transition classes. The lessons the classes offered—such as how to network, identify good job prospects and negotiate for salary and benefits—helped him focus. "You get a better sense of how you want to proceed with your job search," Samanta says. "I wouldn't have learned that on my own." Today, he's working as a management consultant for an information-technology company in Great Falls, Va.
Go back to college. Most community colleges and adult-education centers provide counseling services or classes to adult non-students who are looking to change careers, says Ray Davis, of the Association of Career and Technical Education. Schools often allow community members to drop in during designated hours to meet with a counselor. Or you may be able to enroll in a job-search class, says Davis. Such guidance may be free, or you'll pay a small fee—say, $40 to $60 for a six-week course.
To find out whether schools in your area offer career-guidance services, go to the American Association of Community Colleges. The college where you earned your undergraduate degree may offer free or low-cost counseling to alumni. If you’re studying for an advanced degree, see whether your program includes an option similar to the free coaching Jackson received.
Be your own coach. Some of the standard tools that advisers use to assess clients are available to individuals online. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator lets you take the assessment for $60 and have the results interpreted online as well. (You may want to book a session with a counselor or coach to further interpret your assessment.) Through Pathfinders, you can take an aptitude test at home, get a kit with your results, and have a session with a career coach in person or via phone or Skype. To explore occupations based on skills and interests, check out the tool at O*Net OnLine.
A few books on career development, such as the classic What Color Is Your Parachute? and Do What You Are, may help get you started. And keep in mind that you should balance what a career assessment says about you and what you know to be true about yourself.
Deidra Jackson says she plans to continue working with Crawford after she gets her degree, even though she’ll have to pony up. "For me, this is just the beginning," she says. "I plan to continue on to the director and vice-president level, and I think that my coach can help me grow."
This article first appeared in Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. For more help with your personal finances and investments, please subscribe to the magazine. It might be the best investment you ever make.