Hard to serve. Hard to place. Lacks soft skills. Sense of entitlement.

During my career in Workforce Development I have heard it all – the challenges of working with special populations. Years ago as a new career professional employed by the State of California, I dreaded working with special populations. I felt people with barriers needed special coaching – that they would be hard to work with – and I wasn’t skilled to do so.

Then the recession hit and all of sudden everyone unemployed and job searching was considered part of a special population. I had to face my fear and find a way to provide career services to the so-called “hard to serve”. It was a mental challenge I had to overcome, but I am now proud that I faced my fears, gained the necessary skills and have – to date – worked with hundreds of clients to help them achieve their career goals.

Working with special populations has proven to be more rewarding than I could ever have imagined. In fact, it is now my preferred population. This blog is intended to share my tips and strategies with career professionals who may be struggling to serve special populations. It is my hope these tips will make it easier and more enjoyable.

Here are my tried-and-true best practices:

career coaching strategies and maslow's hierarchy of needs

Know Your Community Resources

According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1943), people are motivated to meet certain needs, and that some needs take precedence over others. Our most basic need is for physical survival: our physiological needs, and this will be the first thing that motivates our behavior. Once that level is fulfilled the next level up is what motivates us, and so on. A typical job search lives somewhere between belonging and esteem, and occasionally self-actualization. In order for career professionals to effectively work with clients, their physiological and safety needs must be met.

Special populations have needs – many physiological and safety – that unless met, prevent them from being successful in a job search or career transition.

Fortunately, there are many resources career professionals can tap into to support our clients. Check with your local One-Stop Career Center for supportive services such as gas cards, rent/mortgage assistance and financial counseling. Find centers or non-profits that offer crisis counseling for those that may be dealing with depression after losing their job or as they transition into a new career.

Find Support in Other Professionals

Attend conference as often as possible for networking and to learn more about the resource opportunities available. If you can’t make it to a conference reach out to a colleague who is attending for resource share. Check association websites for post-conference publications from keynotes or breakout sessions. For example, the National Career Development Association offers a free newsletter – Career Convergence – that has value add articles monthly. It is never a waste of time or a bad idea to devour information and implement best practices as appropriate.

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Be Open and Honest

If your client is lacking the skills or education needed to progress with their career aspirations you’re not doing them a favor by not speaking up. I recently worked with a client who speaks English as fourth language – which is impressive – but her command of English isn’t as mature as needed to qualify for many job opportunities. She is very bright and has great skills as a Mechanical Engineer, and can contribute professionally. After working with her, I observed that ESL classes would benefit greatly; however, she initially refused. I worked diligently to help her realize the benefits of ESL classes to her growth and development. She agreed her language skills were a barrier in the interview process and decided to pursue classes.

Provide Supportive Groups

Many job seekers go through the search process alone. They may be the only one seeking a job or a new job in their household, and lack a supportive network of friends and family who can motivate and encourage when needed. I’ve had clients that avoid networking and family gatherings because they are embarrassed to be unemployed. They dread the question “so, what have you been up to?” If there is a lack of support from the client’s family, I’ve found that small group activities or accountability partners can be a very effective strategy.  Clients are more committed to their goals and follow through if they have support from peers or a trusted colleague. If possible, create an environment that is welcoming, supportive and encouraging.

Find a Mentor or Community of Professionals

When I started my career there was no specific training on how to help clients find a job or transition into a new career. I took a long time for me to learn best practices and meet other individuals who were successful in their roles. Take advantage of LinkedIn and professional organization such as the International Association of Workforce Professionals or National Career Development Association. If you are trying to help a client overcome a barrier and you haven’t made progress it may be time to go to your mentor or community of professional and ask their advice. I had a mentor that suggested I find an acting coach to help a client work on his accent. Did it work? Yes!  The client got through the interview and got a job!

I hope that any anxiety you may have has been quelled. Working with special populations is truly rewarding, not only for you, but for your clients.


Ashley Phillips has worked in Career Development for the State of California, non-profit agencies and most recently De Anza College. When not speaking, consulting or coaching job seekers she enjoys the weather in sunny California. She can be reached at aphillips0785@gmail.com.