Career counseling in Hong Kong: Meeting the social challenges

Career counseling in Hong Kong: Meeting the social challenges

S. Alvin Leung

The article describes and examines the recent development of career development and counseling in Hong Kong in 3 major settings: school, university, and community. Convergence and divergence in career counseling between Hong Kong and the United States are discussed, in reference to a number of areas, including the freedom to choose and compromise, collectivism and individualism, school-to-work transition, use of tests, and types of career intervention. Areas of collaboration between the 2 regions are identified and discussed.


In the latter part of the twentieth century, counseling as an academic and applied discipline has enjoyed a period of growth and development in many countries in Asia (e.g., Leung, 1999b; Leung, Guo, & Lam, 2000). Hong Kong is a case in point. Hong Kong had been a British colony for most of the twentieth century until it was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. The development of social services and education in Hong Kong had been relatively slow until after the social riots in 1967 (Leung, 1999c). These social riots were triggered by the Cultural Revolution in China during the 1960s, and the colonial government realized that maintaining social stability and cohesion was vital to the development of Hong Kong. Since then, more efforts and resources were directed toward upgrading social services and education, including career guidance and counseling.

In this article, I describe and analyze the development of career counseling in Hong Kong in three settings: school, university, and community. A second objective of this article is to discuss similarities and differences in the practice of career counseling in the United States and Hong Kong. Finally, I also offer some suggestions on how researchers and practitioners in both regions could collaborate to advance the development of career counseling. To accomplish these objectives, I review relevant career development and counseling literature in Hong Kong, which at this point is still limited both in terms of quality and quantity.

Career Counseling in Hong Kong: A Descriptive Overview

Educational System and Career Interventions

Understanding the status of career counseling in Hong Kong requires some background knowledge about the educational system. In Hong Kong, elementary school, high school, and colleges are called primary school, secondary school, and university, respectively. To be consistent, I use terms used in Hong Kong as I refer to different levels of the schooling system.

The Hong Kong educational system was modeled after the British system. Students in Hong Kong have to take many school and public examinations before they can secure a place at a university. The layers of schooling resemble that of a pyramid structure. After 9 years of compulsory education (6 years of primary school and 3 years of junior secondary school), about 80% of students continue into senior secondary schools (2 years). At the end of 2 years, students have to sit for a public examination. The results from this public examination are used to select students for the 2-year preuniversity course, and only about 20% of senior secondary school students f urther their education in a preuniversity course (Zhang, 1998). Only half of the preuniversity students successfully gain university admission (Zhang, 1998), with the remaining students either choosing to attempt the entrance examination again, going abroad to study, or seeking entrance into vocational oriented diploma programs.

The Hong Kong educational system practices tracking and streaming (Leung, 1999d). Many primary schools group students into classes based on abilities (i.e., test scores). Primary school students are assigned to junior secondary schools through a centralized allocation system based mostly on test scores. Secondary schools are divided into five categories based on student abilities. Schools with a high concentration of students with low learning abilities often have to deal with an array of problems, including students’ lack of motivation to learn, student discipline problems, and the effects of labeling (Leung, 1999d).

At the end of junior secondary school, students have to choose between a science and an arts track as they make a transition into senior secondary school. Whereas all students have to take basic Chinese and English courses, students in a science track take mostly subjects related to sciences and mathematics, such as physics, biology, chemistry, and advanced mathematics. Students in an arts track take mostly subjects in humanities and social science, such as Chinese history, world history, economics, geography, Chinese literature, and English literature. Most secondary schools only allow students to enter a science track if they have adequate mathematics and science test scores. At the same time, many students are attracted to a science track because of the belief that it will lead to a brighter career future than studying in an arts track. This mechanism results in a scenario in which students with stronger academic abilities are more likely to be channeled into a science track (Leung, 1999d).

Following a British system, the length of study for university students is 3 years. University applicants have to declare their choice of majors (i.e., a prioritized list) before they sit for the entrance examination. Students are admitted into an academic major and a structured program, and they are not allowed to “shop around” for a major. Switching academic majors is uncommon, mainly because the system does not allow students to freely transfer from one academic major to another, and academic departments do not have the flexibility to admit additional students once their slots are filled at the beginning of an academic year.

Career Interventions in Secondary Schools

In 1949, many Chinese fled across the border to Hong Kong to seek refuge from the communist regime. The sudden increase in population created a host of education and employment problems. At that time, there was one university and only a small fraction of high school graduates could receive university education; most secondary graduates had to go directly to employment. In 1958, the director of education in Hong Kong approved the establishment of a career guidance teacher position in high school (this position was officially called “career master/mistress” within the school system). The career guidance teacher was a full-time teacher (who had to teach classes too) who was given the additional responsibility to coordinate efforts to help students seek employment or further education upon graduation. Career guidance services in secondary schools expanded steadily in the 1970s and 1980s. Most secondary schools now have a career guidance team of about three to four teachers (hereafter referred to as “career guidan ce teachers”) who are also carrying a full teaching load. The team is lead by a senior teacher, who holds the title of career master/mistress. The Education Department in Hong Kong provides support services and initial training for career guidance teachers (Leung, 1999d; Zhang, 1998).

Unfortunately, career guidance activities in secondary schools tend to be fragmented and superficial (Gysbers, 2000). In a survey of career services in high schools (N = 38) using both qualitative and quantitative strategies, Leung (1999a) found that most schools relied on large scale programs such as career-talks (e.g., inviting a speaker to talk about a specific career) and visits (e.g., visit a local university, visit a specific business office). Due to the packed school curriculum, most secondary schools do not have the option of integrating career guidance materials into a formal guidance curriculum. Individually tailored career interventions such as career guidance groups and individual counseling were uncommon. Leung (1999a) also found that most of the career guidance programs focused narrowly on information dissemination (e.g., knowledge about educational opportunities and career) and very little on self-exploration. In addition, extensive effort was directed toward helping students to know about dif ferent educational opportunities and to assist students to complete their applications. There was comparatively less effort directed toward helping students to know more about different career opportunities.

Furthermore, career guidance in secondary school suffers from a host of other limitations. Career guidance teachers are not trained sufficiently in career guidance and counseling, both in terms of theory and practice. Teachers and school administrators might not understand the real functions of career guidance and thus do not provide the kind of support that career guidance teachers need. Most important, career guidance teachers are full-time teaching staff and they are often overstretched in terms of time (Leung, 1999a). It seems that these systemic problems have to be resolved before career guidance in secondary schools can move forward.

Career Interventions in Universities

In the 1960s, Hong Kong had only two recognized universities (i.e., the University of Hong Kong and The Chinese University of Hong Kong).

As in the case of counseling and guidance services in secondary schools, university student counseling services started to develop in the 1970s, including career guidance and counseling services. Career guidance services in universities were never a frontline initiative in the early days mainly because the economic acceleration in Hong Kong had resulted in a large demand for university graduates in the labor market. Career-related services were coordinated through a unit called “Appointment Services” at both universities, whose charge was to help students obtain employment through disseminating information regarding job openings and through arranging job interviews with potential employers. General student counseling services, including career-related psychological counseling, were offered through a separate student counseling unit.

In the early 1990s, the Hong Kong government increased the total number of subsidized universities from two to eight in anticipation of a heavy loss of trained professionals to immigration due to the fear of the 1997 transfer of sovereignty to China. Accordingly, the percentage of the university-aged population who could attend university changed from 8 to 18 in a short time (Chan & Yue, 1997). The increase in the number of university graduates, coupled with the economic downturn in the latter part of the 1990s, has drastically altered the landscape of career service in universities. University students no longer have good jobs waiting for them when they graduate, and career counseling services have become a more vital link.

Amidst the development in higher education and the changing economic structure, career services in universities are embracing a developmental perspective. For example, Chan and Yue (1997) discussed several key characteristics of a “new paradigm.” First, career service should move from being a job placement and career information center to being a career education and life skills training center so as to equip students with skills necessary for the whole life span. Second, career-related programs should be viewed as compulsory and necessary rather than as optional, adjunct, or marginal services. Third, career service providers should take on the role as “change agent” through working with students and university staff directly.

Looking to the future, career services at universities have at least two major hurdles to overcome. The first is related to cultural and contextual integration. For example, a life span developmental perspective (e.g., Super, 1990) might not fit with the practical mentality of students who see career more as a means for economic return and social prestige than for personal fulfillment (Leung, 1999d). Second, a developmental perspective requires more skills from career service providers than a traditional paradigm focusing mostly on career information and placement service. It requires counselors to use a range of career intervention skills, from assessment to individual counseling techniques. Some career counselors might not have the skills and competence to take on these counseling responsibilities.

Career Intervention in the Community

The Hong Kong Labour Department plays an important role in coordinating career-related services in the community. The Hong Kong Labour Department is an administrative arm of the Hong Kong Government responsible for improving human resources utilization, monitoring occupational safety, and promoting the industrial–labor relationship. The economic growth and development in Hong Kong during the 1970s and 1980s had resulted in a rather low unemployment rate during that period. Consequently, the Employment Services Division of the Labour Department had kept its focus mainly on helping young job seekers to gain employment, providing them with occupational information and other assistance so as to gain employment (Zhang, 1998). There was not much going on in terms of organized career counseling.

However, the demand for services has increased significantly in the past decade. First, the eventual decline of manufacturing industries in Hong Kong had resulted in a large group of displaced workers. To cope with this problem, the Labour Department offered a variety of vocational retraining programs for displaced workers of all ages through a number of social service agencies (Fong & Yuen-Tsang, 1996). The goal of these retraining programs was to help displaced workers expand their repertoire of vocational skills so as to locate new employment. Second, the economic depression since the late 1990s has increased the unemployment rate, especially among youth and young adults who are not pursuing higher education. Recently, the Labor Department initiated a series of youth pre-employment training programs (e.g., Labour Department, 2000) focusing on career skills, life skills (e.g., interpersonal, self-management), and job search skills. Overall, these preemployment training programs seemed to be more comprehensi ve than earlier programs offered by the Labour Department. Many of these preemployment programs are still ongoing, and it remains to be seen whether they could accomplish the intended objectives for the participants.

Other than services offered by the Hong Kong Government, there is not much organized career intervention at the community level. Individuals with career concerns could seek counseling from a number of community counseling agencies (e.g., nongovernment sponsored counseling centers) or private counseling practitioners (Leung, 1999d). Whereas changing occupations among adults is still uncommon in Hong Kong, it is very likely that the Hong Kong economy will continue to change due to challenges and competition from other Asian cities. Consequently, there should be a greater demand for career counseling for working adults.

Training in Career Counseling and Development

As mentioned earlier, the Education Department of Hong Kong, in collaboration with some local universities, provides initial training for career guidance teachers in secondary schools. Counselor training in Hong Kong is still at an early stage of development, and training programs do not offer a specialization in career counseling beyond an introductory course in career development and counseling (Leung, 1999d).

Divergence and Convergence

Career counseling and development in Hong Kong has yet to develop a guiding framework that is consistent with the local context. Theories and approaches from the Western world, especially from the United States, have strongly influenced the development of career counseling in Hong Kong. Ideally, these theories and approaches have to be adapted culturally in order to be useful. As a first step toward a long process of determining the cultural relevance of different career counseling frameworks, I have highlighted several areas of differences and similarities in career counseling and development in Hong Kong and the United States.

Freedom to Choose and Compromise

Career development theories have emphasized two inevitable polarities in the career choice process. First, there is the belief that a good career choice is one that is chosen from alternatives. However, it has been recognized that the freedom to choose is restricted by many social, economic, and political realities that are often beyond the control of the individual (e.g., Hotchkiss & Borow, 1996). In both the United States and Hong Kong, individuals have to struggle between the desire to choose freely and the need to compromise. Within this convergence also lies a major point of divergence. In the United States, career choices and changes are often viewed as a part of the normal developmental process. For instance, high school students are given room to choose their own classes, university students can change their majors, and adults can change careers. In Hong Kong, individuals have also enjoyed freedom to choose occupations. However, there are a host of social and environmental barriers preventing individu als from changing their educational and career choices, including choice of academic track, university major, and career (some of these barriers have been discussed in previous sections). Hence, career counselors in Hong Kong have to face more restrictions (that are somewhat unchangeable) than their counterparts in the United States, as they try to help clients who are dissatisfied with their educational and career realities.

Collectivism Versus Individualism

Of the psychological dimensions that differentiate between individuals from different cultures, Hesketh and Rounds (1995) argued that the individualism-collectivism dimension is most relevant to vocational psychology. In the United States, work values that are individualistic in orientation, such as achievement, power, and self-direction, are often considered important. In Chinese communities, such as in China and Hong Kong, people tend to adopt work values that are more collectivistic in orientation, such as altruism, tradition, and conformity (e.g., Bond, 1994). Parental and family expectations have always been salient factors in the career choice process. In this lies another point of divergence in career development between the United States and Hong Kong. In the United States, self-actualization is a valued objective in career intervention. However, career counselors in Hong Kong have to help their clients to achieve a delicate balance between personal goals and family or social loyalties. Counselors hav e to respect the collectivistic orientation that clients might use to assess their career concerns.

School-to-Work Transition

In the last decade, career counseling and development in the United States has been closely associated with the school-to-work transition movement (e.g., Worthington & Juntunen, 1997). The school-to-work transition movement is a partnership between the government sector and the educational sector to make the educational process more relevant to students’ career future, especially for students who are not university bound. In Hong Kong, work and education have been quite disjointed over the years due to a mechanical educational system that places a strong emphasis on public examination and academic achievement. Even though there have been some calls to tighten the gap between work and education (e.g., Leung, 1999d; Levin, 1997), an organized school-to-work transition movement does not exist. The lack of correspondence between work and education has led some to question the viability of the current and future Hong Kong workforce (Levin, 1997). Consequently, career counselors in Hong Kong, especially counselors who work within the educational system, have to assist many students who are not clear on how their educational experience is connected to the world of work. The process to “enlighten” students so they are able to make this connection through on-target career intervention has been a major challenge and source of frustration for these counselors.

Use of Tests

In Hong Kong, both the Self-Directed Search (SDS) and the Strong Interest Inventory (SII) as well as the Skill Confidence Inventory have been used in high school and university settings (Leung & Harmon, 1999; Leung & Hou, 2001). At least four reasons have prevented career assessment instruments developed in the Western world from being used more extensively. First, in the test publishing enterprise, there is so far no official Chinese translation of popular career assessment instruments such as the SDS and the SII. Many potential test takers, such as secondary students, might not have the English ability to comprehend these tests. Second, even if language is not a problem, these career tests are too expensive to be widely used. Third, there is not enough research evidence to support the reliability and validity of these career assessment instruments for Chinese people in different communities. Fourth, and last, career assessment tools developed in the United States are often based on the North American occupa tional structure or classification system (e.g., the Holland occupational classification system; Holland, 1997), which is different from the occupational structure of a different cultural context such as Hong Kong. In view of these limitations, developing culturally appropriate assessment instruments for clients in Hong Kong seems to be a logical direction to take. In the absence of locally developed assessment instruments, career counselors in Hong Kong, unlike their counterparts in the United States, have very few assessment tools to use in their counseling interventions.

Types of Career Intervention

Spokane (1991) categorized career intervention into five types: information giving, self-directed activities, workshops or classes, group counseling, and individual counseling. Given the limited training among career service and counseling practitioners (Leung, 1999c), career counselors in Hong Kong are limited in their repertoire. They are likely to focus more on information giving and self-directed activities than on the other three types of intervention. In addition, because of the social and environmental realities mentioned in an earlier part of this article, career counselors often have to work with individuals in the intervention process to change their feelings and reactions toward their available choices, because changing the environment or the system is often impossible. In contrast, I think that career counselors in the United States have more room to use diverse intervention strategies and to help individuals actualize themselves through educational and career choices, even if that involves modify ing the environment.

Collaboration to Advance Cross-Cultural Career Development and Counseling

I propose three areas of collaboration that would benefit the practice of career counseling in Hong Kong and the United States. First, I think researchers in both countries should collaborate and conduct cross-cultural research on theories of career development and determine aspects of these theories that are universal and aspects that are specific to a particular culture or a group of cultures. Cross-cultural research studies involving participants from both countries would allow us to compare and contrast variables in terms of their relevance across cultures.

Second, there is a need for career assessment tools to facilitate the practice of career counseling. I believe that career assessment tools, including interests, skills, values, personality, and career decision measures, are needed in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, many of these assessment tools are in English, and their validity and reliability in a Chinese culture have not been examined (e.g., Leung, 1996). If these tests have to be used widely in Hong Kong, valid Chinese translations are needed. Clearly, developing career assessment tools that are consistent with the occupational and opportunity structure of Hong Kong is one major area on which researchers and practitioners in the United States and Hong Kong could collaborate.

Third, practitioners in the United States have years of experience to share with their counterparts in Hong Kong. If the opportunity arises, practitioners in Hong Kong would benefit from participating in training courses and workshops organized by professionals in the U.S. The entire counseling profession in Hong Kong is at a beginning stage of development and both general and specific counseling skills training are in great demand (Leung, 1999c). For professionals in the U.S. to engage in this kind of training, knowledge of the educational and occupational systems in Hong Kong as well as the cultural characteristics of the Chinese people is essential. After all, simply transferring theories and practices developed in the U.S. to a different culture is not likely to be helpful. Some forms of cultural adaptation and integration have to occur for any cross-cultural training in career development and counseling to have a lasting effect.


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S. Alvin Leung is a professor in the Department of Psychology at The Chinese University of Hong Kong in Hong Kong, China. Correspondence regarding this article should be sent to S. Alvin Leung, Department of Educational Psychology, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shatin, N.T., Hong Kong, China (e-mail:

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