A Counselor’s Advice to Counselors: A Conversation with Marty Nemko, Part 2

By Maureen P. Nelson

This interview is a follow up to Part 1, Cool Careers in Any Economy, which was published in Career Convergence in September 2011.


MPN: If you were to write Career Counseling for Dummies for new counselors today, what would you say?


NEMKO: That the traditional process of assessing a client’s personality, values, skills and interests and matching them to an occupation is flawed. The process is too slow and results either in too many options or not enough. Much more important is a client’s “career non-negotiables” --either what they absolutely must have in a job (e.g., autonomy, part-time work, working outdoors or with people) or what they absolutely want to avoid (e.g., no long commute, no sales, no sitting at a computer for eight hours a day). By letting clients focus on the things they’re unwilling to compromise on, you free them to quickly identify a realistic career that fits.


MPN: Do you have any wisdom for high school guidance counselors?


NEMKO: Be honest. And be brave. Counselors are under incredible pressure to encourage all kids to go to college even if they’re seriously underprepared for college-level work. It’s easy to say to every student, “Sure, you can do it! Work hard and you can be anything you want!” but if they did poorly in high school, they’ll likely flunk out and that will do more harm than not going at all. Dispassionately look at that child as though he or she were your own and say, Where are they likely to grow the most? To be the most employable? Talk to them about their full range of options: apprenticeships, trade schools, the military, self-employment, learning at the elbow of an entrepreneur, short-term career training at community colleges, vocational schools. You may think college is right because it worked for you, but your job is not to impose your values; it’s to help each kid figure out what is right for them. Lay out the options and let them decide. And don’t let the student’s color dictate pressure in any direction. You’re dealing with a human being.


MPN: You’ve been extremely critical of college as career preparation because of the lack of effectiveness in teaching thinking skills, writing, reading, etc., lack of accountability and great expense. How did you come to that point of view?


NEMKO: I’ve been on the inside. I’ve been a professor at several universities and been a consultant to 15 college presidents. (My Ph.D. is in educational evaluation.) I’ve seen how poor the value-add is in critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, writing, and so on. For instance, at one California State University campus I taught at, only 24% of freshmen graduate in four years and only 40% graduate given six years. Among African Americans, it’s even worse: 6% or 10%. Colleges will admit a student, but they won’t tell them that if they come in with a 2.5 GPA and an 800 combined SAT score, their chances of graduating is only 10%. If a doctor prescribed a drug that took 6 years to be effective, had a 10% chance of working and it cost tens of thousands of dollars — without disclosing the risks — that doctor would be sued and lose in any court in the land. That’s why college alternatives must be presented to high school students. With many other of the options, the chances of success are far greater, at far lower cost and in far less time.


MPN: That aside, we know many career counselors make their living working at colleges. What advice do you have for them?


NEMKO: You can accomplish a tremendous amount in the one session that college-based career counselors typically get with a student. Here are a few techniques I frequently use:



Of course, identifying a handful of careers this way is just a starting point. Next, encourage the student to read about each career and interview someone who does it. In capable hands, these techniques can accomplish much in just one session.


MPN: Give us some idea of the jobs you’ve had.


NEMKO: At 12, I sent letters to people who didn’t pay their bills and began working as a professional pianist. Other jobs I had were cab driver, medical researcher, drug counselor, teacher, school psychologist, professor, educational consultant, rose hybridizer, newspaper columnist, contributing editor to US News, radio talk show host, theatre director, and speaker.



MPN: What’s the real value of career counseling today?


NEMKO: Here’s where career counselors can really make a difference:



All of these will empower clients and that’s what we’re here to do.


Maureen NelsonMaureen P. Nelson, M.A., GCDF, CPRW is Manager of Adult Career Services at the Oakland Private Industry Council, which runs Oakland's One Stop Career Center. She is an instructor in the Global Career Development Facilitator program and runs a private practice where she specializes in creatives and technologists. She can be reached at mpn@dorsey.org or at www.maureennelsoncareercoach.com.



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Mila Asperin   on Wednesday 02/08/2012 at 03:06 PM

Refreshing views and opinions on our counseling approaches, strategies, and the clients we serve(d) in college. Author presents down to earth- been there, done that- ideas on how to research outcomes, conduct interventions on limited time with the students, and best of all, how to remain passionate about our roles with this clientele. I often wanted to share these same insights with colleagues. Luckily I developed a niche by being very client centered- which is what her approach implies. Being no nonse keeps clients interested in the intervention. Working with a personal "bag of tricks" of sort makes for a very customized intervention that speaks volumes about her accumen without being too scholarly. Way to go!

Ann Spalding   on Tuesday 02/14/2012 at 11:26 AM

I developed my own values inventory and 1 section of it includes the things you call non-negotiables. I do think I get there with those things.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.