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Chris Targett
19 April 2016

A trait and factor approach is typified by tools which measure an individual’s skills or personality and matches them to those required in specific occupations. Benefits of this approach include bringing focus to decision making, generating career ideas and finding a direction to head for. However, there are pitfalls to this approach which we must be mindful of.

The trait and factor approach assumes we can accurately measure an individual’s qualities, as well as what is needed in the way of skills, for all of the jobs that are available. This is questionable, partly due to the speed at which jobs change and develop but, also due to the speed at which we as human beings change. Many of the popular assessments found online don’t assess for how a person may grow in the future- they make the assumption that a Year 8 or Year 11 student’s ideas will always stay the same and won’t modify as they develop. The list of jobs within the tools is finite, without any way of providing a list of “future jobs” as there is no crystal ball function which provides this (yet). Apart from a few exceptions, labour market information is often static or limited.

From experience and developmental psychology we know that people change, along with their circumstances. This is why any use of trait and factor assessments must always be set in a wider context of careers guidance to extract meaning and base the results within the specific situation of the client. Otherwise these assessments should really only be viewed as a game as they are based on too many unquantifiable variables, not as a certainty. On their own assessments such as these are not a suitable substitute for in depth careers guidance and shouldn’t be relied on to provide reliable answers. However, these assessments have their place as useful tools to aid and initiate career based conversations and to expand student’s career ideas.

Additional variables which professional careers guidance advisers will consider include factors of change and vocational maturity. The former will encompass to what extent a client’s ideas are still in flux (which can provide differing results in trait and factor assessments, from one date to the next) and the latter will tackle the extent to which a client is able to decide realistically on a path for themselves. Other factors which, from personal experience are often missed from assessments, are those of disability, learning or medical needs, as well as experience and understanding.

Reflecting on the increasing pollen count as we move into spring and the hay fever now assaulting my senses, I am thankful to find myself not working outside. However, there are many outdoor jobs which I would enjoy or be suitable for according to some trait and factor assessments. These, however, would in reality be very challenging for me. For example, working as an ‘Educational Guide’ at the ruins of a castle in the countryside is probably not the best idea for me with my hay fever but, would be a good match for my skills and interests. Working on a building site long term is something which is a match for my more practical skill set (and something I have done) but, unrealistic in the longer term due to my eczema which is chronically affected by the dust. For some people with these conditions, these occupations are possible due to the differing nature of the conditions. For others, like myself, short exposure to these environments is ok but longer durations are harmful. Guidance helps clients reflect on what may or may not be realistically possible for them.   

As for experience and understanding, trait and factor assessments provide a glib and often brief exploration of various roles but, fail to necessarily help a client understand what a role is actually like. This is where discussions around the importance of gaining experience is vital in helping clients understand what they are heading for, whether through open days or actual work experience in the job they wish to do. Unpicking the salient facts of how to progress towards a role is another crucial function of careers guidance; as there may be a myriad of different ways it is important clients receive guidance on all of the routes to get there so they can identify the best route for them. It is akin to climbing Everest-there is plenty of information online and several books on the subject but, what you really need is a guide to help talk you through the options and weigh them up.

It is these finer details; how each person is different in what they can and can’t cope with and understand, that is missed by blanket coverage of trait and factor assessments. Without a deeper exploration of the possible careers generated by these tools, it is a potentially alienating approach and introduction to careers unless there is the guidance to sit alongside. Professional careers guidance can look at barriers or hurdles with the client, as well as identify possible solutions with them in partnership, which cannot be completed by online tools. It is this which is important in helping our students develop their onward directions. 

Article first published on the CXK blog, Friday 15th April 2016

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