Vocational Psychology: Realising Its True Potential

By Athanasou, James A. | Australian Journal of Career Development, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Vocational Psychology: Realising Its True Potential


Athanasou, James A., Australian Journal of Career Development


For almost 50 years from 1926 to 1976, applied psychology provided the cornerstone of career services in this country. Psychology was a key component of career guidance services and it spawned a range of activities including career counselling, vocational assessment, vocational rehabilitation, career education, occupational information, occupational research and computerised guidance. Yet in the last 30 years, the influence of vocational psychology has waned and faded officially from the scene in Australia.

Homeless in Australia

At one time, career guidance through the Institute of Industrial Psychology, the historic Vocational Guidance Bureau in New South Wales or the former Commonwealth Employment Service was offered mainly by those with a background in psychology. They were trained to understand occupations, to explore individual differences and provide the desired 'true reasoning'--albeit in a directive and stereotyped fashion.

This changed somewhat with the move away from standardised testing and with the adoption of a counselling approach in career services. It was diluted further by the introduction of full-time career advisers into schools, colleges and universities. This moved career development away from psychology and closer to education.

The development of private practice in career counselling services brought a range of new faces--mainly education, welfare and human resource practitioners--into the field. The problems of high unemployment in the 1980s also posed new challenges for the community and altered the focus of the dwindling government services, which were restructured and eventually closed. As a result, vocational psychologists were largely homeless in Australia.

Professional refugees

Moreover, the Australian Psychological Society seemed to have lost interest in vocational psychology as a field. Possibly this is because vocational guidance was dominated at that time by three-year trained graduates in psychology rather than the desired four-year trained honours graduates. Indeed, in one report on the employment of psychologists in Australia (1), vocational guidance was considered a last resort. This is despite the fact that it was an excellent training ground for any practitioner.

Alongside this development, the College of Occupational Psychology was renamed Organisational Psychology to reflect the interest of industrial and organisational psychologists. This is understandable but as a consequence, it estranged vocational psychology from its original academic home.

Ostensibly, there is still a place for vocational psychology within the profession. Nowadays you will find formal references to career guidance scattered throughout the publicity of the Australian Psychological Society. It is mentioned as career development in the Society's College of Counselling Psychologists (2), as career guidance in the College of Educational and Developmental Psychologists (3), or as career development and coaching by the College of Organisational Psychologists (4). This fragmentation is not helpful.

The Australian Psychological Society could resolve this fragmentation by locating vocational psychology within one of the Colleges. For instance, the Society for Vocational Psychology (5) is located within Division 17 (Counselling Psychology) of the American Psychological Association. It is of strategic importance to the Australian community that vocational psychology is more than an interest group and is located within a specific College, given the importance of employment, education and training in people's lives.

On the one hand, the Australian Psychological Society endorses vocational guidance as a psychological activity, but on the other hand, it has not been involved with significant developments in the field. A practical measure of the extent to which vocational psychology has achieved endangered status is that the Australian Psychological Society is not even represented on the Commonwealth Government sponsored Career Industry Council of Australia (6).

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