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Employment Counselling for People With Low Income

In working with people who have low incomes, start where the client is and help them go from there. For many clients, this will mean identifying and addressing present challenges before, or while, considering future employment options. Doing so helps clients lay a firm base for gaining and maintaining employment.

Unemployment in a low-income context

Individual baselines for success—“Every person has an individual baseline to judge success from. We have to see every individual as unique and we can’t have blanket expectations for everyone.”

Unemployment in a low-income context is often complex. It has cyclical patterns and long-term or seemingly chronic periods of unemployment and underemployment, with many factors at play. You can help clients with low income who are underemployed or unemployed to:

  • Understand the psychology of unemployment
  • Use community resources
  • Address the challenges of unemployment

Understanding the psychology of unemployment

Help clients understand and expect the psychological effects of unemployment, particularly the relationship with mental health. Literature exists on the relationship between unemployment and health problems, low self-esteem, mental illness, family discord, and domestic abuse.

Clients need help to:

  • See that some mental health problems are internal but that many result from external causes, such as unemployment
  • Avoid blaming themselves for circumstances they can’t control
  • Confront and cope with external factors

Using community resources

Direct clients toward community resources and supports available to them. These may be able to help clients during employment or help them avoid unemployment.

Clients need help to:

  • See themselves as part of a social system, rather than isolated from it
  • Find the services and groups that can offer experience, skill development, a livelihood, and well-being
  • Become active, rather than reactive

Addressing multiple barriers

A focus on listening—“Try asking, ‘What else is going on in your life right now?’ or ‘Is there anything else limiting your ability to follow through with this plan? What might that be?’ It may be that child care or bus fare is getting in the way. They may be embarrassed about their lack of resources. Counsellors can help with their willingness to listen.”

Recognize that those who experience unemployment are likely to need more than employment support. They may face:

  • A lack of access to transportation
  • Racial discrimination
  • A lack of basic skills
  • Family discord
  • Drug or alcohol dependence or addiction

In counselling these clients, you can:

  • Help them understand the additive, interactive effects of these problems
  • Help them gain access to information about skills training in these problem areas
  • Act as an advocate for them with employers, community groups, and government bodies

Encourage clients to participate in informational interviews, job shadowing opportunities, and volunteering. These activities will be of particular value to clients with low literacy levels.

Helping clients with work search

As with all clients, people with low income will benefit from information about specific work search skills.


An effective strategy for work search is to use personal networks to access the hidden job market for positions that are open but not advertised. However, clients with low income may not have access to a broad variety and quality of work through their own personal networks. Networks of people with low income may be limited by factors such as the stigma of family poverty and segregation into poor neighbourhoods. So relying solely on existing social contacts may limit the job opportunities available within that network.

Mothers of young children, whose networks are often built of people in a similar situation, may face further challenges in sourcing opportunities that may lead to better jobs. For this reason, people with low income, particularly mothers of young children, often benefit from more formal work search methods that help them reach beyond the limits of their established networks.

Given the possible limitations of clients’ personal networks, you can help clients find ways to expand their networks and also access work opportunities through other means.

Alternatives to full-time employment

Help clients become creative in their work search by combining different jobs or types of work to achieve full-time work. For example, if clients enjoy seasonal work, help them look into ways to continue seasonal work as year-round work. Explore training for complementary seasonal employment, such as:


Consider helping clients prepare their resumés:

  • Help them build resumés reflecting identified skills and strengths.
  • Use resumé building as a self-esteem and confidence-building experience.
  • Help them identify transferable skills based on previous experiences, including both life and work experiences.
  • Help them access computers so that they can independently adapt resumés and cover letters for specific jobs.
  • Provide referrals for clients with low literacy skills who may need help in preparing their work search materials.

Providing employment supports

Clients may need ongoing support as they adjust to employment. Self-esteem, self-confidence, and, in some cases, anxiety related to moving away from income support may lead to challenges in the workplace.

Clients may benefit from help with problem solving, decision making, and other workplace challenges.

Needs that often affect employment include:

  • Child care
  • Transportation
  • Appropriate clothing for work environments
  • Warm clothing in cold climates
  • Nutrition, including food for lunch at work

Help clients maintain employment by anticipating challenges and planning accordingly.

Workplace skills

Help clients manage challenges and know the importance of the following in the workplace:

  • Grooming, cleanliness, and appearance
  • Being on time for shifts and meetings
  • Basic worker rights and responsibilities, which may be laid out in procedure manuals for specific jobs
  • Respect for co-workers
  • Respect for their employer
  • Appreciation of the benefits of employment

Job advancement and career laddering

It is helpful for clients with low income to look at employment not as a destination but a journey. A career laddering approach can help them develop a plan for moving in stages from where they are now to higher-skilled and better-paid jobs.

If clients are considering or are employed in entry-level jobs, encourage them to find out more about how they might move up in their current organization:

  • Ask questions about the possibility of moving up.
  • Ask about on-the-job training provided by the organization.
  • Consider the characteristics of the organization.

This approach has historically been highly structured and available primarily through the collaborative efforts of employers, training institutions, and unions. But new labour market information tools, available freely online, are turning career laddering into a more self-directed process.

You and your clients can use tools like the Conference Board of Canada’s OpportuNext, Payscale’s Career Path Planner, or LinkedIn’s Career Explorer. These help visualize and explore common career laddering paths in the labour market. With this more self-directed approach, clients can use on-the-job experience, develop transferable skills, and pursue formal or onsite training.

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