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What it's like to be a virtual career counselor

June 25, 2014, 10:51 pm | This story has an Influence Score of 1073

By riazhussain

If we divide our life as adults into time spent at work and time spent at home, then, we may say that we, the grown-ups, normally spend nearly half of our life at work.Thus, it is natural for us to think and worry about our livelihood. Even in our school days we begin to hear discourses about jobs and professions. Later on, our guardians, keeping in view our likes and dislikes, interests, inclinations, preferences and existing job market conditions, try to choose or help us select the disciplines related to the profession we may take up. Thus, informal vocational guidance is part of our everyday life. It exists at home and at work place in the form of career advice and tips given by friends, co-workers, peers, seniors and superiors. But, informal career guidance, by its nature, has its limitations. As our lifestyle changed due to economic shifts in the 19th century, the job market has expanded. The new multi-dimensional, diverse and turbulent job market has given rise to the field of formal career counseling.  

The 19th century witnessed a transition in the ways humans produced things. Laborious hand production methods became outdated.  Man developed metal tools and these new machines then gradually ushered in what we call the Industrial Revolution.  Thus,  the production of chemicals, yarn or textiles, glass and paper was steadily mechanized . Similar changes have occurred in agriculture, mining, construction , warfare and other fields.  In addition, the revolution has improved means and channels of transportation. The new manufacturing ways have broadened our vocational prospects. 

At the turn of the second decade of the 20th century, the world saw the First World War which was followed by the Great Depression which was a time of unemployment, poverty, hardships, despair and social unrest in Europe and the North American continent.  Unemployment increased and production decreased. The rate of the former, however, dropped during the Second World War when the governments gambled their resources in the deadliest war of human history and recruited people for different assignments. When the war veterans returned, they needed support and assistance to adjust themselves vocationally in civilian spheres. This challenge of addressing their career questions has enhanced the importance of formal career counseling. Career guides then propounded methods, devised instruments and designed devices for career testing and gauging people’s professional attributes, aptitudes, values, skills and interests against available jobs in the market. Recent digital and technological advancements have furthered the importance of the field.  

One evidence of this emergence is the availability of extensive literature on various issues related to employment .  We see a lot of books written on effective resume writing, job interviews, professional development and how to secure better positions . 

But books are static media and cannot replace knowledgeable men and women. As of themselves, they may not provide career solutions to every single person. Therefore, consulting a career counselor may yield better results than merely reading the books.

In the beginning, clients used to visit career counselors in person in their brick-and-mortar offices. But commuting in traffic jams during working hours to have a face-to-face counseling session entailed a lot of time and absence of privacy. Our hectic life spares little time for such appointments. This has created room for flexible, virtual counseling hours and services. Career coaching and career counseling has shifted to online channels. So, now your career guide is a few clicks away. This story features an interview with such an online counselor.

Tara Orchard, our interviewee for this story, was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the coldest major city in North America and the geographic center of Canada.  While living in Winnipeg, she completed an undergraduate degree in psychology and then relocated to Ontario to obtain a Master of Arts in Psychology from the University of Guelph.  Telling us why she went for this particular degree, she said, ‘I obtained my MA in Applied Psychology because I was always interested in and had a knack for the process of understanding people and communities of people. I found I was able to objectively analyze and strategize practical solutions to real world problems. I understood that a professional career in a consulting role would require advanced training and the MA was a good option to pursue’.  We began our interview  by asking her to describe what it is like to be a career counselor. She replied, ' Career coaching is an interesting, challenging and stimulating career that has the potential to make tangible and valuable contributions to many people, organizations and communities'.

We were curious about how she actually embraced the field of career counseling. She recounted, ‘I entered career counseling originally during the 1990’s recession in Canada when, upon graduation from my MA I found the opportunities I was pursuing as a consultant were limited due to funding cuts for many organizations. I had an opportunity to take a position managing an employment counseling program and I found that was a good match with my skills and background’. She was interested in understanding human behvior and by an amazing stroke of luck , our 'princess of Serendip', so to speak since it was some sort of ‘Planned Happenstance,  entered the field. She says, 'I believe that whenever possible your career should be about the journey and not reaching one destination. A career in career consulting requires constant exploration and adaptation. I have the opportunity to stay aware of the trends in careers, education, technology, the economy, HR, Organizational development, psychology. Learning and be challenged are keys to continuing my pursuit of this career path. The flexibility allows me to pursue other interests such as writing. I recently finished writing the first draft of a book on the topic of psychology and successful social networking activities. In the book my co-author and I explore how important it is to understand yourself and other people if you want to effectively maintain social network relationships for career or business purposes'.

In her professional career, she has worked as a coach, advisor, consultant and trainer. She has 18 years of experience as a career counselor and performance coach. She has helped individuals, teams, entrepreneurs and business owners in making complex decisions. She says, ‘I help people gain insights to better understand what they want and need to achieve their personal, professional and business actualization goals'. Her work has been featured in two business magazines.   

In addition, she has also been carrying out her services as social network coach. This is how she told us about this role she has been playing, ‘I was one of the first social network coaches in Canada helping people and organizations understand how social networks can work for them. Currently I manage my own coaching business providing career and business coaching and social network training and community management to individuals and small and medium sized organizations'.

Now our career strategist is 47-year-old and is based in Kitchener, a city in the  province Ontario. She is available on Linkedin and provides online career guidance and counseling sessions to her clients about career options or choices, career change, career development, resume writing, handling interviews, online vocational assessments after receiving their resumes and statements of needs  through email. The focus of her work is to support people. Her clients include students, parents, experienced professionals and business owners.

Our virtual counselor is actually a working mom who has to strike a balance between her day-to-day familial engagements and her business. She explains, ‘I have created for myself a flexible work environment that allows me to prioritize my family and children. The majority of my work today is a virtual business which affords me the autonomy and flexibility I prefer. The amount of hours varies depending on my family situation. A person could work many hours, but I choose to balance work with family.  I work fewer hours in the summer or holidays when my children are out of school’.

About her work routine, our career educator says, ‘On a typical working day, I may work until 2:00 am to provide information to my clients or conduct research due the next day. On a Saturday I may receive a request for assistance from an individual client and have to schedule a phone conference within a few minutes. In a given day I will often spend time directly consulting with clients via the phone or in emails and working on materials for them including research and writing. Much of my work involves finding, writing and analyzing information and interpreting it for others'.

She has to attend webinars and read a lot of relevant books in order to be innovative and stay well-informed. During her counseling sessions, she frequently alludes to insights given by great authors in the field. But, reading books and gleaning knowledge from libraries is not sufficient. The job requires some other skills as well. This is what our Canadian consultant believes, 'There are too many skills to mention. Some key ones include research and analysis skills. In particular, I employ psychometric assessments and use the data to help people make decisions and plans for their future or organization's hire, train and manage employees. It is also valuable to have strong writing and social networking skills'.

Though she conducts her business from her home office, it is not a cozy and comfy job. It involves certain challenges. Talking about the demanding aspects of her own career, she says, 'Juggling many moving pieces can be challenging. Staying up-to-date on trends, technology and information remains a challenge for many people in today’s rapidly evolving market place. In particular, however, balancing generating new business, including marketing while meeting clients’ needs and finding new opportunities makes life interesting'.  Despite these challenges, her job gives her satisfaction. Our career educationist becomes happy when she is able to address the needs of her clients. Her thorough commitment and genuine dedication are reflected in the following words: 'My work is most enjoyable when I can find a creative and innovative way to meet clients’ needs and help a client solve a problem. I really enjoy helping a client see things about a situation or themselves that they may have missed without my input. And then finding practical ways to use this information to move forward and solve a problem or make things better'.

It seems to be a great personality trait to link your happiness with the dissemination of solutions in society. Career decisions are some of the most important decisions one makes in his or her life. A person’s material well-being depends on these crucial decisions. Therefore, by making concrete contributions to people’s career choices, our interviewee is working to bring ease and comfort in other people’s lives. As we've said in the beginning, it is natural for us to think about our employment, as it can prove worrisome at times. Keeping in mind the modern competitive job market, we may say that this source of anxiety permeates all our life and Tara Orchard is one of those people who provide solutions.

Our interview with her continued.  She went on giving exact answers of our questions. These days, she is working on a book about career counseling ,she made this  revelation in one of her answers. Some questions and answers in the interview are being quoted verbatim : 

Preacquaint: 'If you won the lottery tonight, would you still keep at it, and why?'

Tara Orchard: 'If I won the lottery I would hope to be able to expand my business and create more resources to reach more people. There is a lot of bad coaching out there and people receiving bad advice or getting ripped off. It is important to me that I contribute to developing opportunities for people to receive high quality coaching. Your career or business is such an integral part of your life, the life of your family and your community and so often people do not know how to make career and business choices that get them on the journey they want to be on . I would also be able to develop resources to support sharing the content I am writing about in my book, the purpose of which includes helping people balance their social networking activities by understanding how to maintain composure and build resilience'. 

Preacquaint: 'Are there difficult challenges to be overcome in order to be successful at career counseling?'

Tara Orchard: 'The difficult challenges include balancing everything. Because I need to be aware of so many changes: changes in education, demands in the workforce, changes in technology and business. It is very difficult to balance doing the work, raising a family and learning all the time'.

Preacquaint: 'What joys and disappointments does being a career counselor bring you?'

Tara Orchard: 'It is always enjoyable to provide a new insight to a person or organization that contributes to their ability to move forward.  When you see you have provided someone with an ‘aha’ moment that turns something around for them that balances out the hard work'.

The disappointments are tied to the fact that sometimes people struggle and you do not have an opportunity to help them move forward. It is also disappointing when you learn about how prejudices and stereotypes, including unconscious ones, take a toll on people. 

 Preacquaint: 'What's the absolute best thing about it?'

Preacquaint: 'The best thing about being a virtual coach is the autonomy and flexibility in combination with the ability to contribute to the career or business success of others'.

Preacquaint: 'What's the absolute worst thing about it?'

Tara Orchard: 'Lack of security and stability can be a challenge as a self-employed virtual coach'.

The interview rounded off with Tara Orchard's suggestions and tips which she extended to people planning to become career counselor.  She said, 'For others interested in pursuing a career in virtual coaching it is important to balance working independently with connecting with other people.  It is also important to constantly embrace learning and challenging yourself including embracing technology'.  We asked her about her message for those who want to become career counselor solely for the remuneration. She brought down the curtain by saying, 'It is possible to make a very good living as a virtual coach and there is nothing wrong with seeking to make money.  If someone wanted to pursue a career as a career coach with a focus on making money, I would say to them that in the long run they need to ensure that they are delivering quality services because they are impacting people’s lives. We owe it to our clients and our communities to provide quality services, even if the primary purpose is to make a good living'.

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