The Creation of the National Vocational Guidance Association

By Fatima Wilson

For a movement to take root and be successful, several factors must converge: time, place, people and a crucial issue. Such factors were present to usher in the vocational guidance movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the United States. The vocational guidance movement emerged and was firmly established during a period of turmoil characterized by the irrevocable change of the American economic, social and political landscape. The industrial revolution transformed the United States from an agrarian to an industrial economy; bringing newcomers from all parts of the country as well as a large number of immigrants from Europe to the cities. (Brewer 1942, Herr 2001; Baker 2009; Savickas 2009; Zytowski 2001). This new population converged towards the big cities where manufacturing and industrial jobs were available. Due to the influx of the newcomers to the cities, “social reformers began to call for vocational guidance” (Savickas, 2009, p. 194; Brewer 1942; Herr 2001). More specifically, there was a need to have trained professionals do the work that was traditionally done by charity workers. In “Vocophy: the New Profession”, published in 1881, Lysander Richards had advocated for the need for a new profession to provide vocational assistance. However, no concrete plan of action was implemented by Richards (Brewer, 1942; Savickas, 2009). On the other hand, in his seminal work, History of Vocational Guidance, John M. Brewer credited George Merrill from San Francisco, Eli W. Weaver from New York, and Jesse B. Davis from Grand Rapids, Michigan to have, each in his own way, made an attempt at implementing some form of vocational guidance in an educational setting before Parsons started his work in the field.


The place was the Vocation Bureau, created as a new department in the Civic Service House in Boston, Massachusetts in 1908. The main protagonists included the philanthropist Pauline Agassiz Shaw who had founded the Civic Service House in 1901 to provide educational opportunities for immigrants and poor people to help them find work; Meyer Bloomfield, a social worker and graduate from Harvard University, who had been appointed to head the Civic Service House; Frank Parsons a trained civil engineer and lawyer, was a social activist advocating for the rights of the under-privileged who were being exploited by the new industries. His passion for improving the lives of the working poor led Parsons to focus on vocational guidance. He often gave lectures about vocational choices to young people at the Civic House. In 1905, Frank Parsons and Ralph Albertson, his close friend and colleague, founded the Breadwinner’s Institute at the Civic Service House to offer courses for the working poor. The courses led to a two-year diploma (Parsons, 1909; Brewer, 1942; Zytowski 2001; Baker, 2009; Savickas, 2009).


Bloomfield was instrumental in convincing Parsons to draw up a plan to create an organization that would provide vocational guidance to young people. Once the plan was completed, Bloomfield was able to secure funding from his patron Pauline Agassiz Shaw. The Vocation Bureau opened its doors on January 13, 1908with Frank Parsons as its Director. The mission of the Vocation Bureau was to educate the under-privileged and immigrants on the importance of making good vocational choices so that they could improve their lives and create a better future for themselves, their families and their communities; thus escaping the vicious circle of poverty (Parsons, 1909; Brewer, 1942, Baker, 2009; Savickas, 2009). The motto of the Vocation Bureau was: “Light, Information, Inspiration, Cooperation” (Parsons, 1909, p. 92). In addition to Ralph Albertson, two other vocational guidance pioneers worked along side Parsons: Lucinda Wyman Prince and Philip Davis. Known as “the first counseling staff” of the Vocation Bureau, all three carried the title of “Associate Counsellor” (Parsons, 1909; Sensory-Briddick, 2009, p. 215; Brewer 1942). Sensory-Briddick wrote a fascinating biography of each pioneer with the following subtitles: “Lucinda Wyman Prince: the Educator”, “Ralph Albertson: The Dreamer” and “Philip Davis: The Immigrant” (Sensory-Briddick, 2009).


Frank Parsons, considered the founder of vocational guidance, provided the vision for the movement. As mentioned earlier, other like-minded people including educators, economists, lawyers, ministers, psychologists, and social workers were ready to advance the cause of vocational guidance as a means to effect social justice. This broad coalition of pioneers coalesced around the pursuit of shared interests encapsulated by the progressive era. While believing in “progress, precision, and efficiency” through the use of science and technology, “those identified as progressives” advocated for the intervention of governmental agencies to regulate industry (Baker, 2009 p. 201). The main purpose was to improve the lives of the most vulnerable members of society: children, women, unskilled workers and immigrants while honoring their human dignity by providing them with the tools to improve themselves. As a result, “(c)hildren’s aid societies flourished, juvenile courts were created, child labor laws were enacted, educational reforms were instituted, and the vocational guidance movement was born” (Baker, 2009 p. 201). It is clear that our forefathers and foremothers were helping to create, if not the “ideal city” that Parsons had envisioned, at least a better community for all to live in. (Parsons 1909; Brewer 1942; Herr 2001; Baker 2009; Savickas, 2009; Zytowsky 2001).


Parsons clearly states the importance of selecting a vocation in a scientific manner in the first paragraph of his book “Choosing A Vocation”:


No step in life, unless it be the choice of a husband or wife, is more important than the choice of a vocation. The wise selection of the business, profession, trade, or occupation to which one's life is to be devoted and the development of full efficiency in the chosen field are matters of the deepest moment to young men and to the public. These vital problems should be solved in a careful, scientific way, with due regard to each person's aptitudes, abilities, ambitions, resources, and limitations, and the relations of these elements to the conditions of success in different industries.


If a boy takes up a line of work to which he is adapted, he will achieve far greater success than if he drifts into an industry for which he is not fitted. An occupation out of harmony with the worker's aptitudes and capacities means inefficiency, unenthusiastic and perhaps distasteful labor, and low pay; while an occupation in harmony with the nature of the man means enthusiasm, love of work, and high economic values, superior product, efficient service, and good pay. (p. 3)


From the very beginning, vocational guidance was “(g)rounded in the concept of fit between individual and environment” thus earning Frank Parsons the title of the first counselor who applied a scientific method to the process of vocational guidance (Baker, 2009, p. 205). Vocational guidance “later evolved into the field of counseling” (Savickas, 2009, p. 195).


Parsons’ definition of vocational guidance was “(to assist young people) through expert counsel and guidance, in the selection of a vocation, the preparation for it, and the transition from school to work” (Parsons, 1909, p. 4). The main focus was choosing a vocation as too many students between the ages of 14 and 16 were leaving school to go to work without any knowledge of the world of work. The goal was to assist these young people in making sound vocational choices that would lead them to have a productive and successful life. To counsel them, Parsons created a three-step model that was implemented at the Vocation Bureau:


  1. a clear understanding of yourself: aptitude, abilities, interests, ambitions, resources, limitations, and their causes;
  2. A knowledge of the requirements and conditions of success, advantages and disadvantages, compensation, opportunities and prospects in different lines of work;
  3. true reasoning on the relations of these two groups of factors. (Parson, 1909 p.5)


In his first and only report, dated May 1, 1908, published in Brewer’s seminal work, Parsons evaluated the work of the previous three months at the Vocation Bureau. Organizing the bureau took priority so that he and his colleagues could start the actual work of vocational guidance. Parsons and his Associate Counselors interviewed eighty (80) young men and women from the ages of 15 to 39. All but two declared that the interview with the Counselor was “the most important hour of their lives” (Cited in Brewer, 1942, p. 303). This was indeed exciting news. As a result of this work, Parsons was able to identify the most crucial issues facing counselors at the time. In the last paragraph of the report, he concluded:


The work (of vocational guidance) is in its infancy as yet but is growing in volume and importance. The Director and those associated with him are enthusiastic over the results that have been achieved even in the few weeks since the Bureau was established, but they believe that in order to cover the field in the most complete and adequate manner the work should become a part of the public school system in every community, with experts trained as carefully in the art of vocational guidance as men are trained today for medicine or the law, and supplied with every facility that science can devise for testing the senses and capacities and the whole physical, intellectual and emotional makeup of the child” (Cited in Brewer, 1942, p. 308).


The most critical issue was the need to implement some form of vocational guidance within the school system itself. It is clear that Parsons believed that vocational guidance should be grounded in a scientific method by advocating the use of a variety of physical and psychological tests in order to obtain a holistic and accurate understanding of who the child really was. At the time, the availability of psychological tests was limited. He also advocated that practitioners should undergo professional training as doctors and lawyers did; thus anticipating the creation of the counseling profession with its own credentials.


Parsons had intended to teach vocational guidance courses to train counselors in October 1908, however, due to his untimely death on September 26, 1908, Ralph Albertson took over the teaching (Brewer, 1942). The board of the Vocation Bureau selected David Stone Wheeler to succeed Parsons. Wheeler served as director for a short period before leaving to become a minister. Bloomfield succeeded him in November 1909. That same year, Ralph Albertson, dear friend and colleague of Parsons, made sure that Parsons’ book “Choosing a Vocation” was published posthumously.


In Parsons’ own words, the “aim of (his) book (was) to point out practical steps” for the process of vocational choice. Divided into three parts: (1) The Personal Investigation, (2) The Industrial Investigation and (3) The Organization and the Work,Parsons’ blue book served as the catalyst for propelling the vocational guidance movement forward (Parsons, 1909 p. 4; Brewer, 1942; Savickas, 2009).



The rise of the vocational guidance movement leading up to the creation of the National Vocational Guidance Association in 1913 in Grand Rapids, Michigan


If Frank Parsons is considered the founder of the vocational guidance movement, Meyer Bloomfield is declared to be its “preeminent leader” during the first 20 years of the 20th century. (Savickas, 2009, p. 259). Bloomfield took over the leadership of the Vocation Bureau. He was determined to advance the cause of vocational guidance by creating alliances with practitioners in the field as well as with other stakeholders. The Commissioner of Education for Massachusetts, Dr. David Snedden, suggested that a committee be formed to plan the First National Conference on Vocational Guidance. Eight months later, in November 1910, educators and social workers as well as business people from thirty-five cities were invited to participate in the conference that took place in Boston under the auspices of the Boston Vocation Bureau and the Boston Chamber of Commerce. The conference was held in conjunction with The National Society for the Promotion of Industrial Education over a two-day period: November 15 and 16, 1910. (Brewer 142; Pope 2009, Savickas 2009)


As stipulated by Parsons, the most critical issue discussed at the first convention was the need to implement some form of vocational guidance within the school system itself. A large number of young people between the ages of 14 and 16 continued to leave school to go to work without knowing anything about the world of work (Brewer 1942). As Bloomfield put it, they were “unguided, unprepared, and uninformed” (cited in Savickas 2009, p. 263). The goal, also advocated by Parsons, was to help the young people acquire some knowledge of the occupations that they were going to enter and to guide them in selecting an appropriate occupation: “a vocation” rather than “a job.” In his book, Parsons has identified a number of occupations including occupations for women and the skills and knowledge needed for the positions – the precursor of “The Dictionary of Occupational Titles”.


The Creation of the NVGA: Issues Facing Vocational Counselors


Other topics discussed at the conference included:


No conference was held in 1911. However, in 1910, Frederick J. Allen had been appointed Assistant Director of the Vocation Bureau in order to start a publication to disseminate information primarily to school counselors in the Boston School system. Thus, the Vocational Guidance-News Letter was created in 1911 (Brewer, 1942).


The Second National Conference on Vocational Guidance took place on October 23 - 26, 1912 in New York City under the auspices of Teachers College, Columbia University. At the conference, a special committee was charged to investigate the possibility of creating a national organization for vocational guidance. After resolving some initial disagreement, a plan to create a national organization was approved. Forty speakers presented papers at the conference. Again, the main focus was on the welfare of the same group of children and the need to create some form of vocational guidance within the school system itself. It was reported that 132,000 children were working in unskilled jobs, so-called dead-end jobs in New York City (Brewer, 1942).


Other topics included:


At the third national conference, held in conjunction with the National Society for the Promotion of Industrial Education in Grand Rapids, Michigan from October 21 - 24, 1913, the National Vocational Guidance Association (NVGA) was founded five years after the death of Frank Parsons. The conference was attended by 274 participants from 26 states; the District of Columbia; Ontario, Canada; Puerto Rico; and the Institute of Sociology in Brussels Belgium. The first NVGA officers were selected: Frank Leavitt as President; Alice M. Barrows as Vice-President; Jesse B. Davis as Secretary; James S. Hiatt, as Treasurer; an Executive Council was also selected: Meyer Bloomfield, M. Edith Campbell, Gorge P. Knox, O. W. Burroughs, and E, M. Robinson (Brewer, 1942, p. 144; Davis, 1956b, Pope, 2009).


NVGA conventions continued to be held annually until the U.S. got involved in the First World War in 1917. Jesse B. Davis served as the second NVGA president during 1914 -1916 and Bloomfield as its third during 1916 – 1918. The NVGA may have “died” if it were not for the dedication and tireless work of John Brewer from Harvard and Katherine E. Ball from the University of Minnesota. Fortunately for us, the NVGA was saved and was “revived” in 1920 with its original name preserved thanks to the efforts of Jesse B. Davis; John Brewer served as its fifth President in 1920 –1921 (Brewer 1942, Davis 1956b, Pope, 2009). In 1985, the NVGA was renamed the National Career Development Association (NCDA).


In 1915, the Vocational Guidance Bulletin was created to replace the Vocational Guidance-News Letter and became the new organ for the new association. Two years later, Bloomfield was invited to work for the Emergency Fleet Corporation as part of the war effort. The Vocation Bureau and its Associate Director, Fredrick J. Allen, were transferred to the Division of Education at Harvard University. The bureau was renamed the Bureau of Vocational Guidance with Roy W. Kelly as its new Director (Brewer 1942).


Review of the papers presented at the 1913 convention outlining the

most crucial issues facing vocational guidance counselors at the time


The papers, presented at the 1913 NVGA convention, were published by the United States Bureau of Education in 1914 in Bulletin No 14. Organized in four categories with a preface by Professor Frank Leavitt of the University of Chicago and two appendices, they were presented by preeminent leaders from different professional fields and different parts of the country: Professor Frank Leavitt of the University of Chicago, Chairman of the organization committee, Owen R. Lovejoy, General Secretary, National Child-Labor Committee, New York; Dr. Leonard P. Ayres, Director of Education, Sage Foundation; Meyer Bloomfied, Director of the Vocation Bureau, Boston; Helen T. Woolley, Director Child Labor Division, Cincinnati Public Schools; Jesse B. Davis, Vocational Director, Grand Rapids, Michigan; to name a few.


In the opening address, Professor Leavitt provided a rationale for the creation of the National Vocational Guidance Association in Grand Rapids. Three factors made it imperative for the association to be created: (1) the new industrial economy required “a better and more efficiently chosen body of employees”; (2) the educational system needed to include some form of vocational guidance to assist students in selecting occupations; (3) “the social demand for the guidance of youth (was necessary) for the very preservation of society itself” (Leavitt, 1913, pp. 5-6).


The original documents were transcribed in the manner in which they had been presented at the conference. Thus giving authenticity to the powerful voices that still resonate 100 years later as well as giving one the uncanny impression of being one of the attendees. One could imagine the gestures, the various intonations of the voice, the laughter generated by amusing and ironic comments. The speakers engaged the audience by asking theoretical questions. They were fearless: speaking the truth as they saw it, not mincing their words, asking difficult questions, searching for answers, some of which, they knew they could not find in the immediate future; projecting their aspirations into the future and reaching out to all of humanity: those present in the audience as well as the future generations of career professionals who would proudly stand on the shoulders of these giants and diligently commit themselves to addressing the questions that they had asked so many years ago.


These fearless pioneers were strongly committed to advocate for the most vulnerable members of society: children, women, unskilled workers and immigrants in order to improve their lives through vocational guidance and bring about social justice.


The papers provide insight regarding the most critical issues that vocational guidance counselors were facing at the time of the creation of the National Vocational Guidance Association. These critical issues can be summarized as follows:







However, new issues were brought forward:









At the end of the conference, a round-table discussion followed. Jesse B. Davis, considered to be “the first school guidance counselor”, discussed his vocational guidance program through the use of English composition in the Grand Rapids High School Public System. He is credited for being the first person to implement a systematic guidance program in the public schools (Pope 2009, p. 257; Davis 1956b; Brewer 1942).


The third conference was declared to be the most successful so far. It remained so until 1920 (Brewer 1942). There is little doubt that by the time the National Vocational Guidance Association was created in 1913, everything was in place for the counseling profession to flourish.


In a relatively short period of time, twelve years after the submission of his report, Parsons’ vision was implemented as most schools had some form of vocational guidance program by 1920. Jesse B. Davis is credited for helping achieve this goal. The publication of his book Vocational and Moral Guidance in 1914 soon became the model to be used for implementing vocational guidance in public schools in the U.S. From 1914 to 1916, Davis traveled tirelessly throughout the country “as lecturer and promoter of vocational guidance in secondary schools.” As he commented, “It was missionary work (…)” (Davis 1956b p.195; Brewer 1942; Pope 2009).


In the last one hundred years, much has been accomplished and yet much remains to be done. As mentioned earlier, the vocational guidance movement emerged and was firmly established during a period of turmoil characterized by the irrevocable change of the American economic, social and political landscape. Today’s career development professionals are facing challenges that are similar to the ones that their predecessors faced when they started this work in the beginning of the 20th century. As a result of a combination of factors, including the globalization of the economy, the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, the information technology revolution, the current economic crisis, the high rate of students dropping out school, to name a few, today’s unemployment is close to 10%, with some areas of the country being more affected than others. Hence, a growing number of dislocated and under -employed workers from diverse backgrounds are seeking the help of career development professionals.


For the first fifty years of the 20th century, Parsons’ three-step model: (1) self- assessment (2) information gathering (3) decision –making; served as the theoretical framework used by vocational counselors to provide vocational guidance and it “continues to be a remarkable milestone in the evolution of career development practices” (Herr, March 2001). However, Parsons himself was aware of the limitations of his model as he supplemented it with various techniques and called for the need to develop new psychological tests to improve the counseling process. In the last fifty years, career development has been revolutionized by the creativity and innovation brought about by John Holland, Donald Super, John Krumboltz, Sunny Hansen, JoAnn Harris-Bowlsbey as well as numerous other scholars. Being a dynamic field, career development continues to evolve as society changes. As a result, today’s career professionals are better equipped than their predecessors to assist their clients.


Another similarity pertains to the role of advocacy in the profession. From the very beginning, advocacy was an integral part of vocational guidance to affect social justice. In fact, it can be said that it was its “raison d’être”. This tradition of advocacy has recently been rediscovered by NCDA through the hiring of the Chairperson of the NCDA Government Relations Committee to advocate directly to the U. S. Congress in Washington D.C. on behalf of the organization, its members and its constituents.


The newly revised Mission Statement of the organization: “NCDA inspires and empowers the achievement of career and life goals by providing professional development, resources, standards, scientific research, and advocacy” encapsulates all that the pioneers of vocational guidance had dedicated their life work to achieve (NCDA website, October 2010). Parsons, in particular, would be very proud of the new mission statement as he had advocated for the same things in his 1908 report and his book, “Choosing A Vocation.


Equally important is the choice of Texas State Senator Leticia Van de Putte, one of the Keynote Speakers at the 2011 NCDA Conference. Senator Van de Putte is “a strong advocate for children, veterans, improved access to health care, quality education, and economic development issues” (Registration Brochure, 2011, p. 3).




For almost 100 years, the organization has endured many trials and tribulations to finally emerge in the 21st century as a strong and vital organization with international chapters in Japan and Egypt. The organization is still committed to its original goal of helping people from diverse backgrounds and over the life span find their “vocation” so that each individual can achieve her / his dream and live in harmony with himself / herself and with other members of the human family. As career counseling and career development are becoming worldwide phenomena, the organization continues to address issues related to race, ethnicity, gender, multiculturalism, class, and sexual orientation through the use of scientific research, career counseling / career development theories, technology, best practices, professional development and advocacy. Thus, impacting positively the lives of millions of people nationally and globally as well as continuing the tradition started by our pioneers of effecting social justice through career counseling and career development.




Baker, D. (2009). Choosing a Vocation at 100: Time, Change, and Context. The Career Development Quarterly: Special Section: The 100th Anniversary of Vocational Guidance, 57(3), 199-206. 


Brewer, J. M. (1942). History of Vocational Guidance: Origins and Early Development. New York: Harper & Brothers.


Briddick, W. C. (2009). Frank Findings: Frank Parsons and the Parson Family. The Career Development Quarterly: Special Section: The 100th Anniversary of Vocational Guidance, 57(3), 207-214.


Burns, S. T. (2009). Legacy of the Vocational Bureau of Cincinnati: Research Advances Social Justice.” The CDQ:  Special Section: The 100th Anniversary of Vocational Guidance, 57(3), 237-247. 


Davis, J. B. (1956b) The Saga of a Schoolmaster: An Autobiography. Boston: Boston University Press.


Feller, R. W., Honaker, S. L., & Zagzebski, L. M. (2001). Theoretical Voices Directing the Career Development Journey: Holland, Harris-Bowlsbey, and Krumboltz. Career Development Quarterly: Special Millennium Issue, 49(3), 212-224.  Retrieved from ABI/INFORM Global. (Document ID: 69742178).


Goodman, J. (2009). CDQ Spotlight. Career Developments, 25(2), 23.


Herr, E. L (2001). Career Development and Its Practice: A Historical Perspective. The CDQ: Special Millennium Issue49(3), 196 -211. Retrieved from ABI/INFORM Global. (Document ID: 69742177).


Herr, E. L., & Shahnasarian, M. (2001). Selected Milestones in the Evolution of Career Development Practices in the Twentieth Century. The CDQ: Special Millennium Issue, 49(3), 225-237. Retrieved from ABI/INFORM Global. (Document ID: 69742179).


NCDA Annual Report – FY 2009-2010.


NCDA website: www.ncda.org


Papers presented at the Organization Meeting of the Vocational Guidance Association,1914, United States Bureau of Education, Bulletin No14.

Parsons, F. (1909). Choosing a Vocation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.


Pope, M. (2008). Reclaiming Our History: The National Career Development Association Journal Editors (1911- 2011). The Career Development Quarterly, 56(4), 291-293. 


Pope, M. (2009). Jesse Buttrick Davis (1871-1955): Pioneer of Vocational Guidance in the Schools. The Career Development Quarterly: Special Section: The 100th Anniversary of Vocational Guidance57(3), 248-258. 


Savickas, M. L. (2009). Pioneers of the Vocational Guidance Movement: A Centennial Celebration. The CDQ: Special Section: The 100th Anniversary of Vocational Guidance57(3), 194-198


Savickas, M. L. (2009). Meyer Bloomfield: Organizer of the Vocational Guidance Movement (1907-1917). The CDQ: Special Section: The 100th Anniversary of Vocational  Guidance57(3), 259-273. 


Sensory-Briddick, H. (2009). The Boston Vocation Bureau’s First Counseling Staff. The CDQ: Special Section: The 100th Anniversary of Vocational Guidance, 57(3), 215-224.


Zytowski, D. G. (2001). Frank Parsons and the Progressive Movement. Career Development Quarterly, 50, 57-65.


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Lauren Cook   on Tuesday 08/22/2017 at 05:27 PM

Read it!

Sarah Patterson   on Friday 04/09/2021 at 01:38 AM

I love your article. I am adding you as a reference to a second career convergence article series that features early women vocophers, maybe in May 2021? Thank you for your work on this.

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.