23 September 2005

Role* and Career Counselling Tests

I have the proverbial friend-of-a-friend who is contemplating a job change. The person is a long-time airline employee, who apparently worked as a reservations agent. This person knew the old-fashioned airline reservations system, complete with its arcane codes and complex database pathways inside out and backwards, able to work wonders for passengers with complex itineraries, challenging connections and unique needs.

Turns out that the person went to one of those career testing centres – the ones that test for aptitude and skill – with the hope of being given some guidance as to what would be the right career move to make. (Given the turmoil in airlines like Air Canada, and the challenges facing the industry in general, any move might indeed be the right move.) The testing showed that the person had an aptitude for the sort of logic that such a mentally-demanding job of juggling a reservations system would demand. From the testing, a number of possibilities that would capitalize on those learned skills were suggested.

What’s wrong with this rather simplistic, linear and deterministic picture? (Oops! Gave it away…)

Over the many years that the person has been an employee of the airline, the tasks of the job would have undoubtedly had an effect on the person’s cognitive abilities that would give preference to jobs that were analogous to reservations agent, at least with respect to skills. Hence, the “career testing” – usually skills and attributes based – would have given high marks for the sort of instrumental tasks that a job of, say, billing coder, would demand. This means that the person may be skilled for that job; it does not necessarily suggest that the person is suited for that job.

Suppose the person is motivated by such technical intricacies that a coding system demands. A job of billing coder, among many others, might well be a viable, satisfying alternative. If, on the other hand, the person is motivated by a type of “heroics” in response to confused or distraught passengers, the ability to work the magic of the reservation systems via the intricate codes is simply a means to an end, and would not be motivating in and of itself. Remember, by taking a “Role* view” of the employment world, it isn’t what you do that counts as much as the interactions and dynamics you create while doing it.

One of the risks of conventional career (job) counselling is that the client becomes “labelled” with an apparent skill aptitude relative to tasks. And in a sense, jobs are a collection of tasks. But roles and careers are made of much more than mere tasks. I could go so far as to say that the specific tasks of any white-collar worker (and many others, as well) are the least important aspects of one’s involvement in the workplace from the point of view of the person themselves. (The company is another matter altogether; to them, the workers are often no better than interchangeable parts in a corporate machine.) The danger of labelling is captured in McLuhan’s aphoristic warning: Love thy label as thy self. By “putting on” and wearing the assigned label, we run the risk of suppressing personal agency in favour of adopting tacitly-imposed behaviours.
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