Friday, December 16, 2011

Changing Careers in Midlife and Beyond

This is my next column in Germany's Spotlight magazine. I thought you might enjoy an advance look.

It's not easy to change careers, especially if you're older and especially in this economy, but it can be done. These are the ways my career coaching clients have most often done it:

1. Ask all your relatives and friends, real-life and online, for example, on Facebook and LinkedIn. Unless it's a very low-level job, most often it's only a friend who will be willing to hire someone with no experience, which by definition, is what a career changer is. Tell your relatives and friends in ten words or less what you're looking for. Examples:
  • I'd like to combine my law degree with an interest in health care.
  • I'd love a job working with my hands, especially outdoors.
  • I'm not an artist but I like working with aesthetic products: fashion, decor, art.
  • I've very social so any professional job where I work on teams would be fine.
Note that you needn't be highly specific. If you're too specific, for example, "I'm looking for a job as a project manager in a fuel cell fabricator," the odds are too small that your friends will have leads for you. On the other hand, it's usually wise not to say "I'm open to anything." That makes you seem desperate and unskilled at anything.

2. Train with a short program. Most older people don't find it worth the time to complete a multi-year degree program. And remember that older people tend to take longer than the expected time to complete their degree. So look at short job training programs offered by your professional association, a community college, etc.

Examples of careers with relatively short training: fundraising, project management, sales, iPhone technician, piano tuner, home stager, bookkeeper/tax preparer, irrigation designer/installer, locksmith, auto body repairer, baker, bus or truck driver, massage therapist, nanny, and database administrator. Not only are such programs a source of fast training but often of job leads from your instructors and your fellow students.

3. Become self-employed. It's tough to convince an employer to hire an older person even if s/he has much experience. It's harder still if you're changing careers--no experience, no contact list, nothing. So, if you're a self-starter and cost-conscious, you may wish to start your own business. You instantly go from disgruntled employee to CEO, where you run things as you like.

Key to maximizing your chances of success is to copy an already successful simple business: Don't innovate; replicate. Rather than be a guinea pig for some untested idea, it's far safer to replicate someone else's successful business in a different location. For example, let's say you notice gourmet soup/sandwich/salad trucks have long lines. Visit the few busiest ones and incorporate their best features into your own, of course, in a busy location.

4. Decide you don't need a career change, just a career tweak. Might you be happy enough if you did the same work but for a different boss? Different work for your current employer? If the latter, give your boss a proposal for a revised job description that would emphasize your strengths and preferences while meeting your employer's needs.

I should warn you that many of my clients find themselves no happier in their new career in their old one. They bring their weaknesses or bad attitude with them to the new career. So look inward and ask yourself, "Honestly, am I likely to be so much happier and more successful in my new career that it's worth the time, money, and hassle of starting over?"

If so, great. I have indeed seen people become happier in both their professional and personal life from a career change--even if it means a decline in status. One person was a Ph.D. school psychologist but was frustrated at the slow progress of special needs children. She quit, became a pediatric nurse, and is ecstatic!

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