Applying Career Development Theory


By Charmaine Johnson.

Career Development is the process by which a person’s career identity is formed from childhood through a lifetime.

There are a number of Career Development theories, but no one theory is comprehensive. As such, career practitioners need to be aware of each theory’s strengths, limitations, and biases. For instance, most theories are limited in that minorities, women, and socio-economic diversity are underrepresented in the research (most studies are based on middle class white males). Also, some theories may not translate across all cultures since the studies are based on the experience of specific cultures.

For these reasons, it is recommended that career counsellors employ a holistic approach by drawing from a combination of theories that best suit their personal style as well as the unique needs of their client.

Career development theory comes from four disciplines:

  • Differential Psychology is interested in work and occupations.
  • Personality Psychology views individuals as an organizer of their own experiences.
  • Developmental Psychology is concerned with the “life course.”
  • Sociology focuses on occupational mobility.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is important to career development theory. Work-related needs follow the basic physiological needs, begin at level 2, and continue as follows:

  • Level 2 – Safety Needs: Basic needs and security of employment, property, family, and resources.
  • Level 3 – Love & Belonging: Individuals start working and discovering/developing their career paths.
  • Level 4 – Esteem: Achieving career status.
  • Level 5 – Self-Actualization: This is where an individual feels comfortable relying on his or her own experiences and judgements. The person is comfortable with him or herself, sees problems as challenges, is creative, fair, and accepting of others’ skills. The person also may have a need to fulfill inner potential.

Understanding your clients’ work-related level can help you in determining the best theory to employ.

Popular Career Development Theories

Frank Parsons’ Trait and Factor Theory

Founder of the vocational guidance movement, in the early 1900s Parsons developed the talent-matching approach that later developed into the Trait and Factor Theory of Occupational Choice.

  • Individuals and occupations each have unique characteristics and traits. Individuals develop these traits over their lifetime.
  • The highest satisfaction comes when there is a good match between the characteristics of the individual and the occupation.
  • Many aptitude tests, such as True Colors, are based on Trait and Factor Theory.
  • One challenge of this theory is that it relies on the stability of the labour market, individuals’ values, interests, etc. over time. Individuals must be prepared to change and adapt to the circumstances.

Career Typology Theory of John Holland

Under this offshoot of Trait and Factor Theory, career choice is not random but an expression of our personality. The focus is on personal characteristics and occupational tasks.

  • Individuals possess a combination of two or more of six personality types: realistic, investigative, artistic, social, enterprising, and conventional. Occupational environments are also a combination of these six types.
  • Holland theorized that people in similar jobs have similar personality traits.
  • The highest career satisfaction comes when there is congruence between the individual’s type and that of the occupation.
  • Many career assessment tools are based on Holland’s theories.
  • Advantage: It helps the individual get oriented to varied work environments.
  • Limitation: There is no insight as to how type is developed or how to work with specific types.

Social Learning Theory of John Krumboltz

This theory focuses on heredity, environment, learning experiences and task approach, and how these factors influence behaviour and career choice.

  • The counsellor’s role is to help people create more satisfying lives for themselves.
  • The counsellor tries to understand how someone arrived at a career-related view of him or herself and the world, and helps the client reframe this view by identifying how it may be limiting or problematic.
  • Counsellors can help shape the environment, making it conducive to learning.
  • Pace and life uncertainties of the 21st century make it impossible to have plans laid out in advance, and research shows that most people are in their current careers as a result of a series of unplanned events.
  • The counsellor’s role is to encourage the client to actively engage in tasks that will help maintain an exploratory attitude and generate unplanned career opportunities when encountering unexpected events.
  • The focus is on the learning process and how it affects vocational choice and change.
  • Indecision should be labelled open-mindedness.

Career Development Theory of Donald E. Super

Super’s development self-concept theory focuses on how careers unfold over the life span. Career choice is affected by complex and multi-faceted biological, psychological, sociological, and cultural factors.

  • Self-concept, life stage, and life roles (e.g., student, worker, spouse, mother) are central to Super’s theory, as are developmental stages of work (growth, exploration, establishment, maintenance, and decline).
  • People choose careers that allow them to express their self-concept. As someone’s self-concept becomes more stable, so do career choices.
  • People have various abilities, personalities, and self-concepts, and are qualified for a variety of occupations based on these and other characteristics, which change with time and experience.
  • Multiple trial careers involve new growth, re-exploration, and re-establishment.
  • Career maturity is the agreement between vocation and current life stage.
  • Negative self-concept is related to less satisfying work choices. Work is seen as dissatisfying if it’s not an expression of an individual’s vocational abilities, interests, and values .

Constructive Narrative Approach

This theory focuses on the client’s narrative of past experiences, current meanings, and future actions, which reveals the client’s self-knowledge about interests, abilities, values, and motivations.

  • This approach is related to Existential Theory and is more philosophical in nature.
  • It states that there are no fixed realities but rather multiple meanings. Individuals create their own meaning and reality through their experiences.
  • These constructs and stories may be useful or misleading to an individual’s career moves.
  • The role of the counsellor is to engage clients in self-awareness, self-assessment, critical reflection, and exploration.  This will help guide the client in uncovering values upon which to build future goals.

Transition Theory of Nancy Schlossberg

Schlossberg’s theory focuses primarily on specific times in life when change is occurring rather than the total life span. Transition theory is the analysis of life changes and strategies to measure or control severity of the transitions.

  • This theory states that life is characterized by an ongoing series of transitions (changes in roles, relationships or routines) that have varying degrees of impact on different individuals.
  • Success is dependent on how well individuals are able to cope effectively with the change.

Bandura’s Social Cognitive Career Theory

Bandura stated that an individual’s confidence in her or his ability to succeed in specific situations or accomplish a task determines the willingness and motivation with which the client will pursue a career or educational path.

  • Career counsellors help clients with low self-esteem and inaccurate self-efficacy to overcome obstacles, giving encouragement and finding a career that matches their interests, values, and skills.
  • In essence, a person’s biology (e.g. gender, race) interacts with social factors (e.g. culture, family geography) and learning experiences to influence self-efficacy beliefs and outcome expectations.
  • Self-efficacy beliefs influence interests, goals, actions, and eventually attainments.
  • Clients are also influenced by the job opportunities, access to training, and financial resources to which they are exposed.
  • Providing opportunities, experiences, and significant adults to impact self-efficacy in all children becomes vital.
  • Strategic career development interventions will positively impact young people in the context of this theory.

Gottfredson’s Theory of Circumscription and Compromise

According to this theory, career choice is a process of elimination or circumscription in which a person eliminates certain occupational choices from further consideration.

  • This is influenced by self-concept development and various developmental life stages.
  • Compromise is a complex process in which compatibility with one’s interests is often compromised for options that are in line with the need for prestige or external realities such as the labour market, gender expectations, or cultural expectations.
  • Although hard to test, it can be a useful framework in understanding the influence of prestige and gender on career choice in diverse cultural contexts.
  • Gottfredson’s theory is seen as an attempt to study Super’s growth stage.

Strength-Based Approaches

These theories focus on strengths and successes. The career counsellor focuses on identifying strengths and resources, understanding client goals and aspirations, and supporting the individual in addressing barriers that may be stopping the client from moving forward.

  • This is a client-led approach with a focus on strengths and future outcomes.
  • The client is empowered by acknowledging her or his strengths.

Value-Based Career Decision Making

This approach revolves around the understanding that an individual’s values are important to helping attain job satisfaction.

  • Values are solidified in early adulthood and remain stable over time, although they can be modified by age, experience, and life events.
  • Values guide decision-making and actions and help an individual determine how they meet needs.

The Integrated Life Planning Theory of L. Sunny Hansen

This holistic view involves six critical tasks:

  • Generating an income through needed work
  • Connecting family and work
  • Valuing pluralism and diversity
  • Managing transitions
  • Exploring spirituality and life purpose
  • Attending to our health

Cognitive Information Processing Theory

This theory asserts that thought patterns influence career decision making. The key components are broken down into a seven-step service delivery model:

  1. Screen individuals for career decision-making readiness before delivering services.
  2. Match level of staff assistance to identified individual needs.
  3. Use career theory to help individuals understand and manage career decision making.
  4. Use print and online career resources within all levels of service delivery.
  5. Use career resources that are appropriate for diverse individual learners.
  6. Use staff teamwork in delivering services to individuals.
  7. Provide common staff training for delivering resources and services.

Additional Resources

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Thank you, Charmaine! Your article is clear and concise. It also presents a subtle challenge to the practitioner to ensure that we are using a holistic approach. When working with high volume clientele, there might be a tendency to use a tried and true ‘go-to’ process which might not necessarily cover all the bases. Now that you have raised awareness, it’s a good time to do a quality control check.

Hello Charmaine, thanks so much for this great summary! I was wondering if you could provide me with the date of publication of this article since I will like to cite it in a project I am working on.



This article was originally published on Oct 12, 2016.

Thanks so much!!

What a fantastic synopsis of CD theories! Thank you for providing such practical examples of how to use the theories to advance the goals of job seekers