According to Harvard Business Review, coaching is a $1-billion-a-year industry, though it’s not regulated. Anyone can call himself or herself a coach.

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As a single mother of three, Deborah Gaines was working long hours at corporate jobs, and she was having a hard time balancing her limited home life with her career.

“As the family breadwinner, I needed that corporate salary, but I also needed more flexibility than most corporate jobs allow,” the New Jersey woman says. So she turned to a life coach billed as a career transitions coach.

“My life coach led me to a very successful career as a consultant during those transitional years, and then helped me repurpose my skill set for my current field — higher education,” Gaines says. “I work hard now, but I don’t travel 60 percent of the time, and the environment is much more collegial and flexible.”

According to Harvard Business Review, coaching is a $1-billion-a-year industry, though it’s not regulated. While the International Coach Federation offers an independent coaching certificate, and various schools offer credentials, anyone can call himself or herself a coach — and lots of people and organizations are using their services.

A 2009 study by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that 90 percent of organizations use coaching in some form. That’s because it could be a good financial investment, says Kathy Hankard, a Wisconsin-based certified financial planner.

“I feel that a career/life coach is worthwhile, especially if you find a good coach,” Hankard says. “What is the point of being unhappy in your job, where you presumably spend much of your time?”

What does it cost?

The cost varies greatly by location and by the coaching structure, says Julie Melillo, a life coach in New York. She says that most coaches offer sessions that range in price from $100 to $300 per hour; new coaches who are trying to build their portfolio or gain experience may charge less, while experienced coaches may charge more.

Some have packages for which clients pay one price for a number of sessions, with specific activities per session, while others charge per hour and individualize everything, she says. The key is to find the right one.

“A good coach is always worth the investment, because they can help you move past roadblocks to faster success, which will pay off,” Melillo says. “Otherwise, it’s easy to let months and years pass by, idling away and lacking clarity on what you should do next. A not-so-good coach will be a waste of money and could also set a client back.”

Gerry Fisher, a Baltimore-based life and career coach, agrees. He says that those looking for career counseling need to find a life coach who specializes in that field.

Fisher says that while any certified coach would be able to help someone through a career transition, it would be more difficult for a general life coach to help if that person was unhappy in his or her career but didn’t know what to do instead.

“Unless the life coach has actually undergone a career transition, or specializes in helping people with this particular problem, then [his or her] ability to guide them in the visioning exercise is limited,” says Fisher, who went through his own career transition.

He says that investing in a life coach who helps clients through a career change is worth it for those who aren’t naturally inclined to tackle such a project on their own.

“Many people often find that they spend years thinking about making a change and never make it,” Fisher says. “I can’t tell you how many people I’ve worked with who never deal with this issue until they’ve been laid off, until their hand has been forced and they are thrown into crisis mode.”

First a vision, then a plan

Most of the people who come to Fisher have no idea of a future career, and he helps them figure out how to combine what they love with skills they may have developed. He also offers tools to research potential careers, with a strong emphasis on informational interviews.

Fisher works with his clients to develop specific visions of their lives in the near future (six months, one year and five years out). He then helps them develop a plan for getting to that vision, and works with them to prioritize their goals.

Some people may have deeper issues, such as constantly feeling inadequate. These people would be better off seeing a psychologist than meeting with a life coach, says Lani Chin, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles.

“A life coach would be better suited for immediate help and would help someone be accountable for their daily job efforts,” Chin says. “In comparison, a psychologist would help to address deeper issues, such as chronic feelings of dissatisfaction or inadequacy. Often, feeling unhappy in a career could indicate deeper unhappiness in other parts of someone’s life.”

She also warns that it can be easy to get stuck in the fantasy that once you have your dream job, everything else in your life will fall into place.

“There is no one thing that is going to make anyone happy,” Chin says. “However, work is a large part of most lives, so it’s easy to think that if the job changes, everything will change.”