Want to Teach a Social Justice Course? Teach Career Counseling

By Melissa Fickling

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2022), record numbers of workers are quitting their jobs and seeking better opportunities as part of what many are calling The Great Resignation or The Great Reshuffle. The changing contexts of work and workers over time needs to be understood by counselors-in-training in addition to the content and process of career development. Evans and Sejuit (2021) emphasized the centrality of competence and ethical practice in multicultural and social justice career counseling work. In addition to this foundation, counselor educators can bring in the context of career development to make the career counseling course undeniably a social justice course. Indeed, it is not just attitudes, knowledge, and skills that matter in this work, but social action (Ratts et al., 2016).

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Infusion or Stand-Alone Course?

Much has been said about the merit of stand-alone multicultural and social justice courses versus infusion of multicultural and social justice content across counseling curriculum (Decker et al., 2016; Pitner et al., 2017). The consensus on including multicultural and social justice content is clear, though the limited available evidence on how best to impact counselor outcomes is mixed (Decker et al., 2016; Pitner et al., 2017). Thus, the recommendations shared below can be adapted as either an infusion of social justice into the career counseling course or, more preferably, framing the career course as a social justice course in its own right. Below are six broad social justice themes that could be explored in a career counseling course.

If there is one theme across social justice oriented counseling practice that ought to be emphasized, it may be that of power (McWhirter, 1997; Singh et al., 2020). Including the history of worker power in a career counseling course could help educators avoid a deficit perspective, which might simply tally the ways in which workers are exploited or treated poorly. Although there is a lot of disheartening inequity present, there is even more worker organizing and resistance to exploitation, unsafe conditions, and mistreatment. Educating future counselors about workers’ rights and prior organizing successes can provide them with the context needed to serve all their clients with career concerns in a holistic way.

Recognition of the changes in the ways that different cultures have thought about work over time can open up meaningful dialogue between counselor and client about values, needs, and priorities on a greater scale than viewing only one’s personal or familial beliefs. The current emphasis on personal meaning making in and through work (a) has never been universal and (b) will likely shift across time (Svendsen, 2008). Therefore, a counselor needs to be trained to be open to hearing, exploring, and affirming numerous worldviews about the salience of work and career in their clients’ lives, including if that worldview sees work as necessary and not inherently meaningful.

Systemic Discrimination
Reviewing easily accessible data through the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics during a career counseling course can be a simple yet effective way for counselors-in-training to see disparities in employment, pay, and other outcomes for workers along racial, gender, age, disability, and educational lines. The persistence of equity gaps over time can spark dialogue about systemic considerations in work and career, as well as short- and long-term impacts on mental health and wellness, family dynamics, and other domains of professional counselor practice.

This theme can apply broadly whether considering access to education, quality jobs, childcare, affordable health care, and even access to work itself for workers with disabilities. Being able to serve clients with disabilities ought to be considered basic competencies of professional counselors (Oksuz & Brubaker, 2020), including issues of reasonable accommodation, legal rights in the job search process, and specifics of disclosing a disability at work. Noting the much higher unemployment rates among workers with disability – despite similar rates of wanting to work as peers without disabilities – can highlight the compounding inequities faced by some of the most marginalized workers. Further, counselors can educate employers about the benefits of creating a more inclusive workplace. Counselor educators may need to encourage this form of advocacy, however, since it extends beyond the dyadic, clinical context.

Livable Wages & Income Inequality
For many, access to paid employment is the only means by which to meet one’s basic needs. In 2019, 6.3 million individuals participated in the labor force but had incomes below the poverty level with women, people of color, and families with children are much more likely to be among these numbers (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021). Future counselors could explore, in their career course, local wages and cost of living as a way to understand the holistic needs of the immediate client communities they will serve. For workers with higher incomes, inequitable pay gaps exist, which have large cumulative effects on the lifetime earnings of workers (National Committee on Pay Equity, 2020). Counselor educators could invite students to reflect on their own experiences with precarity, financial stability or instability, and how these lived experiences affect well-being in their family systems. Since more than one-third of college students in the United States report lacking enough to eat and having stable housing (Goldrick-Rab et al., 2018), there is a good chance that many counselors-in-training live the consequences of low wages and/or pay inequality on a daily basis, making the pursuit of social justice both a professional concern as well as a personal one.

Health & Safety
Autin and colleagues (2020) outlined practice and policy needs for workers in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, covering sick leave, physical and mental health care, COVID-19 testing and treatment, and better protections for essential workers. Counselors-in-training ought to consider how to support clients for whom going to work might include risk of illness or injury, and what advocacy efforts might be needed to ensure that workers can be as safe as possible. Without the social justice frame, career counseling outcomes may be difficult to maintain in the larger picture of health and wellness.


The Interconnectivity of Social Justice and Career Counseling

If adopted in the career course, the themes discussed in this article require not just knowledge, but skills and action (Ratts et al., 2016). With intentionality, counselor educators can facilitate advocacy behaviors among counselors-in-training who promote more just work lives for clients. Evans and Sejuit (2021) concluded that career counseling is incomplete “until society is confronted with changing its oppressive policies so that someday any child can be told truthfully, ‘You can be anything you want to be when you grow up’” (p. 206). Framing career counseling as a social justice course could be an important step in fulfilling our ethical obligations as counselors, educators, and career development practitioners (ACA, 2014; NCDA, 2015).



American Counseling Association. (2014). Code of ethics. Author. https://www.counseling.org/resources/aca-code-of-ethics.pdf

Autin, K. L., Blustein, D. L., Ali, S. R., & Garriott, P. O. (2020). Career development impacts of COVID-19: Practice and policy recommendations. Journal of Career Development, 47(5), 487-494. https://doi.org/10.1177/0894845320944486

Decker, K. M., Manis, A. A., & Paylo, M. J. (2016). Infusing social justice advocacy into counselor education: Strategies and recommendations. The Journal of Counselor Preparation and Supervision, 8(3). http://dx.doi.org/10.7729/83.1092

Evans, K. M., & Sejuit, A. L. (2021). Gaining cultural competence in career counseling (2nd ed.). National Career Development Association.

Goldrick-Rab, S., Richardson, J., Schneider, J., Hernandez, A., & Cady, C. (2018). Still hungry and homeless in college. https://hope4college.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Wisconsin-HOPE-Lab-Still-Hungry-and-Homeless.pdf

McWhirter, E. H. (1997). Empowerment, social activism, and counseling. Counseling and Human Development, 29(8), 1-14.

National Career Development Association. (2015). Code of ethics. Author. https://www.ncda.org/aws/NCDA/asset_manager/get_file/3395?ver=738702

National Committee on Pay Equity. (2020). The wage gap over time: In real dollars, women see a continuing gap. https://www.pay-equity.org/info-time.html

Oksuz, E. E., & Brubaker, M. D. (2020). Deconstructing disability training in counseling: A critical examination and call to the profession. Journal of Counselor Leadership and Advocacy. https://doi.org/10.1080/2326716X.2020.1820407

Pitner, R. O., Priester, M. A., Lackey, R., & Duvall, D. (2017). A dedicated diversity course or an infusion model? Exploring which strategy is more effective in social work pedagogy. Journal of Social Work Education, 54(1), 49-60. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10437797.2017.1314839

Ratts, M. J., Singh, A. A., Nassar-McMillan, S., Butler, S. K., & McCullough, J. R. (2016). Multicultural and social justice counseling competencies: Guidelines for the counseling profession. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 44, 28-48. https://doi/org0.1002/jmcd.1203

Singh, A. A., Appling, B., & Trepal, H. (2020). Using the multicultural and social justice counseling competencies to decolonize counseling practice: The important roles of theory, power, and action. Journal of Counseling & Development, 98, 261-271. https://doi.org/10.1002/jcad.12321

Svendsen, L. F. (2008). Work. Routledge.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021). A profile of the working poor. https://www.bls.gov/opub/reports/working-poor/2019/home.htm

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2022). Job openings and labor turnover summary. https://www.bls.gov/news.release/jolts.nr0.htm



Melissa FicklingMelissa J. Fickling, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor and Program Coordinator in the Department of Counseling and Higher Education at Northern Illinois University. Her primary research interests include work, clinical supervision, and career counseling. Fickling is a Co-Associate Editor for Career Convergence, and the 2020 recipient of the NCDA’s Diversity Initiatives Award. She can be reached at mfickling@niu.edu. For more information about NIU’s Counseling and Higher Education programs, please visit https://www.cedu.niu.edu/cahe/. You can also find Melissa on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/melissafickling.

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1 Comment

Alan Rider, Ohio   on Thursday 06/02/2022 at 10:24 AM

Dr. Fickling,
Well said, and a splendid suggestion. I'm retired now, but in fact, while I was in my active career counseling practice, and while training other Career Development Specialists for NCDA, I used to emphasize our role in empowering clients of potential to envision more for themselves, and to give them the tools to get out there and accomplish their personal and social goals. But you have said it better: Our discipline is actually a social justice profession, working from the ground level up. Thanks for this piece today, and please say more. This concept should be developed into a book, into training modules and workshops for continuing ed. It's an idea worth promoting broadly within the trade.
Best wishes,
Columbus, OH

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