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Help for the sidelined career

When it comes to career navigation, some people seem to cruise on autopilot while others flounder, jumping from job to job or getting stuck in a professional rut.

For those in the latter category, do-it-yourself job listings may not be enough to land them work that fits well with their skills and personal goals.

Whether they're looking to change fields or aren't sure which direction to go, such people may be candidates for a career coach to help them get back on track, job experts said.

But how do you know when it's time to seek outside advice?

"When you feel so stuck and don't know what to do next," said Andrea Kay, a career coach in Cincinnati. "Or if you're employed and can't stand the thought of going to work every day but don't have a clue as to what to do differently."

Whether these interventionists call themselves coach, counselor or consultant often varies with the credentials and depth of service they offer, but the average hourly rate is between $100 and $200 for any one of the three, said Wendy Enelow, president of the Career Masters Institute, a trade group representing 550 career counselors, coaches and resume writers.

"What they can do is help you identify your true career goals and expectations, develop a realistic course of action by which to attain those goals and help you move fluidly through the process," Enelow said.

Job seekers should start by playing counselor to themselves, taking free personality tests online and making use of other services like taxpayer-funded Career One-Stop centers that don't cost anything, said Kay Brawley, president of the National Employment Counseling Association, a trade group representing job counselors who mostly work at One-Stops.

"The job seeker should ask: "What's this going to cost me? How many sessions? What can I expect to get out of this?' " Brawley said. "If the issue of payment is a concern, the best option would be the local One-Stops."

There are more than 2,000 One-Stops across the country, with a Web site to direct consumers looking for counseling, resume services and information on local employers, Brawley said.

Job seekers need to remember that the job hunt is hard work, with most of the responsibility falling to them, whether they hire a coach or not, said Dick Bolles, author of What Color is Your Parachute?

"A counselor can only do a certain amount of work," Bolles said.

That's why effective coaches work with clients to make sure they agree about how to proceed, said Patrick Holwell, a career counselor at a One-Stop in Aurora, Colo., that serves 7,000 people a month.

"One of the things a credible career counselor will do is generate the proper expectations," Holwell said. "The further you get away from what you were doing, the lower you have to start in terms of pay and status."

To be sure, there are many different services available to job seekers, from professional resume writers to headhunters. But few are in the business of helping people make a career transition and determine how best to transfer their skills to something better suited to their needs, which is where coaches and counselors come in, Kay said.

"A lot of people don't have the ability to do the introspection in a meaningful way," Kay said. "They don't know how to take the data and move it to the next step."

A good coach also holds clients accountable when they start making excuses, she said. "I tell people I not only am supportive, but I give them a kick in the butt."

Fees and fee structures vary depending on the coach. For Kay, a one-time 90-minute consultation runs $250, and clients who continue her services pay an hourly rate instead of an upfront fee so they can monitor the value they're getting, she said.

Both Enelow and Bolles favor hourly payment as opposed to prepaid packages for the consumer protection it brings.

"The rule above all other rules is never, ever pay a large sum up front. Always pay by the hour," Bolles said, noting that some legitimate firms do want payment in advance. Still, "most of the abuses I run into are due to people paying a large sum up front and then trying to get their money's worth after the fact," he said.