Duane Hoffmann / msnbc.com
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/7/2009 7:30:52 PM ET 2009-06-07T23:30:52

Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone tell you what to do with your career? Someone who can make job-hunting decisions for you when you are laid off or looking to switch your line of work?

Unfortunately, this person does not exist.

I’m telling you this because lately some of you have been hiring or looking to hire so-called career coaches with the idea that they can help you find career nirvana.

Such coaches can be helpful in offering career guidance, but you need to beware of scammers and individuals promising you a quick path to the perfect job. And keep in mind that pretty much anyone can become a career coach since there is no mandatory credentialing or governing body keeping tabs on these people.

Lack of oversight and the tough job market seem to be fueling a coaching explosion. The International Coach Federation — based in Lexington, Ky., and one of the largest coaching associations — has seen its membership skyrocket in the last 10 years, from 2,100 in 1999 to 17,700 today. Membership last year was 15,800, up from 13,400 in 2007.

With the jobless rate at a 26-year high, many workers in today's economy are looking for a little hand-holding, and some career coaches are capitalizing on that, says Ben Dattner, a New York-based management consultant and adjunct professor at New York University.

“They represent themselves as empathetic listeners, the cure-all panacea,” he says. “But it’s a little bit of a bait and switch."

To get hired, he says, coaches represent themselves as having the ability to find answers. “But when they’re in the room with you, you realize they can only help generally by asking questions.”

Buyer’s remorse
Given the elusive nature of the industry, there are few if any numbers on how many individuals are working with career coaches today. But the number of inquiries at the Better Business Bureau into firms that come under the self-improvement training and career-counseling umbrella jumped 10.5 percent in 2008 to 48,842, according to Alison Southwick, a spokeswoman for the agency. Total number of complaints filed against companies in these categories was 431 last year.

“We have some concerns with this type of company, but for the most part the complaints are buyer’s remorse,” says Jane Driggs, president of the BBB in Utah. “The consumer pays thousands of dollars and then realizes that it isn’t as easy as they thought it looked.”

One particular firm, the Coaching Institute Inc. based in Draper, Utah, had more than 80 complaints alone, including everything from service to billing to contract issues. (The company’s Web site, www.coaching-institute.com, is not working and the phone number for the firm is perpetually busy.)

Terry Anderson, a real estate agent in St. Petersburg, Fla., went to a free coaching seminar sponsored by the Coaching Institute and felt pressured to sign up for $3,000 worth of coaching services.

“They said I’d have two weeks to decide if I wanted to go ahead with it, but they debited my credit card $1,000 anyway and then came after me for the remaining $2,000,” she says.

She refused to pay, and as a result, her credit rating suffered.

While there are pitfalls to look out for, there are also many satisfied coaching customers.

Figuring out a path
Take Bill Glynn, who lost his job as a product manager for a high-tech firm last year. He was very happy with the six months he spent talking to career coach John Bates — aka the “Job-Guy” — based out of Mansfield, Mass.

“He helped me explore myself,” Glynn says. Bates asked Glynn probing questions and had him take personality tests to figure out what careers would be best for him. “We sat down and chatted and asked ‘Who is Bill?’ and he took notes.”

Glynn paid a fixed fee of $1,000 and spoke with his coach face to face several times over the six months.

As far as figuring out what he wants to do with his career now, Glynn doesn’t have an answer. “I’m still evaluating that,” he says. But the coach helped him narrow his interests, and he’s now leaning toward becoming a mediator, arbitrator or possibly doing something in government.

Despite not having a definitive direction, he’s satisfied with his career-coaching experience. “It’s like getting a massage,” he says. “It’s definitely worth getting, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be getting some back pain later on.”

If you think a career coach may be something your career needs right about now, there are a few things to keep in mind.

First, you may be able to get free career coaching through your employer after a layoff. Some career-transition companies, such as outplacement firm Lee Hecht Harrison, offer the service to workers who have been downsized — and the company doing the downsizing picks up the tab, says Rob Saam, the firm’s chief career officer.

He’s seeing a growing desire among displaced workers to want to connect with a career coach. “When the job market is hard like this, it’s only natural for people to want to reach out and get as much help as they can,” he adds.

Check out prospective coach
Also, since there is no governing body for coaches, you’ll have to do a lot of legwork before you sign up.

“There is one thing and only one thing people should consider in hiring a coach. Do they get results for their clients?” says Linda Henman, president of consulting firm Henman Performance Group.

A good career coach should be more than willing to give you a list of clients they’ve worked with. It’s also a good idea to check the BBB to see if the individual or company has any complaints filed against them.

You also can check out social networking sites like LinkedIn to find out more about a coach’s network, advises coaching veteran Laurence J. Stybel. If they’re not part of any networks, that’s probably a bad sign, he says.

And beware of big promises.

“No career coach can turn a mediocre career into a meteoric career,” he says. “And anyone who says so lies.”

“If you are satisfied in paying good money to improve your game by 3 percent, then a competent career coach might be a worthwhile investment,” he adds.

You also want to steer clear of developing a dependency on your career coach because you could end up with a lot of bad advice and out a lot of money, maintains NYU’s Dattner.

“You have to own it yourself, not have them answer questions for you,” he says. “We all try to free ourselves from our parents’ backseat driving and break out on our own. Having a surrogate parent telling you what to do is not helpful.”

Eve Tahmincioglu writes the weekly "Your Career" column for msnbc.com and chronicles workplace issues in her blog, CareerDiva.net.

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