Ready for Your Next Step? How to Switch Careers Successfully

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Jean Chatzky explores three smart ways to find success in a new field

My friend Diane has gone back to school. Her goal? To get a degree in nutrition – just one step, for this former sales and marketing exec, as she plans her second act.

My cousin Ilene, over dinner, unveiled her idea of a fab business to take her through the next stage of her life: Open a restaurant that would be open only weekdays and only for breakfast and lunch. (She noted she had yet to figure out if such a restaurant could be profitable, but it sure would be nice to have free nights and weekends!)

I have often spoken about the fact that if I weren’t writing about money, I’d like to open a bakery. More recently, though, I’ve been thinking that I’d enjoy a second career in the classroom, teaching high school or college.

For all the time we spend envisioning the next phase, reinvention, second act – whatever you want to call it – it’s good to know that 8.4 million Americans have actually taken the leap. Journalist Kerry Hannon spent three years traveling the country to profile these people for U.S. News. Now she’s put the best of those stories – along with some valuable how-to advice – into a smart book called What’s Next? Follow Your Passion and Find Your Dream Job.

Particularly now, with unemployment at almost nine percent, the idea of leaving even a job you hate to try something new can be downright frightening, a fact Hannon acknowledges. “When I started the column, I was looking at boomers who had done something for 20 years, spurred by a crisis – in many cases 9/11 – to find more meaning. As I moved forward, the economy made it a whole other situation. Often people needed to make a change, because they lost their jobs or were asked to take early retirement.” Whether you’re transitioning by choice or because you have to, I spoke with Hannon last week about what you need to know to transition successfully.

Practice impulse control. “The people I profile in the book are winners, in part because they didn’t try to do anything impulsively,” says Hannon. “They took the time to plan so that nothing was rash.” Taking the time, she notes, doesn’t just mean thinking about it. It means doing research into the skills or certifications required for your new career. It may also mean apprenticing, like the former Merrill Lynch banker who dreamed of opening an Italian restaurant. He didn’t just raid his 401(k) and do it. He apprenticed at another red-sauce joint where he did everything from waiting tables to learning to sauté – in part just to see if he liked it as much as he thought he would.

Find a mentor. Any time you’re shifting gears to a completely new field, you’ll need contacts in that new area to help you along. A key ingredient is reaching out, networking, finding a mentor or two working in that field. And yes, that means meeting people – not just talking to them on Facebook or Linked In – and then asking them for advice rather than help. It’s preferable for two reasons. First, asking someone for advice is flattering because you show them you value their knowledge. Tell them you see they’ve had this incredible career or success and you’d like to know more about it. Second, advice doesn’t require the person you’re connecting with to ask anything of someone else. It’s easier to offer and doesn’t require the expenditure of any of that person’s social capital. That means, particularly if you’re a new acquaintance, it’s lower risk, and for that reason alone you’re more likely to get what you’re asking for. Don’t be surprised if, in the course of that conversation, the person offers help as well. And if they do, follow the breadcrumbs to take them up on it rather than dropping the ball.

Say a new connection offers to introduce you to Fred, his next-door neighbor, who just happens to hire people with your skills. The fact that they made the offer does not mean that they’re going to chase you down and schedule that meeting. The very next day, place a call or send an e-mail expressing your gratitude and asking for the phone number so you can follow up yourself. That will insure that your new connection does as promised and, again, by rounding back so quickly, you’re signaling how much you value his or her advice.

Get your finances in order. Making a job or career change, in many cases, involves starting on a lower salary, notes Hannon, so give yourself a chance to succeed by downsizing in advance. Hannon profiled a former (unhappy) mortgage banker who is now a (happy) high school social studies teacher. Before making the switch, this educator ditched the big house for a condo, traded two cars for one and made an effort to bank some cash.

Finally, understand that this period of transition you’re about to enter into will likely be unsettling until you get, well, settled. It’s tough to cope with being a beginner again, with losing your base of support. Some people grow wistful for their own careers and many people end up going back. And sometimes you need a career counselor or other helping hand to get you on the right path, says Hannon, who says she emerged from the writing with an admiration for her subjects and their spirit. And what would she do with a next act of her own? “I could be a chocolatier, I suppose,” she laughs. “I left every interview going, ‘I wish I could do that.’”

3 comments so far.

  1. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    Jean, I have found out that soon after we enter college, we are asked to select a major.  We’re kids, for gosh sake, and usually have had little direction and never are truly imformed of all the choices we may have — but more than that, what kind of jobs these major will lead us to.  In essence, we are babes in the woods. 

    By age 40 or thereabouts, in good times and the present BAD TIMES, we know ourselves better.  We are unhappy, unsatisfied, whatever, in what we are doing — and then, surprise of surprises, we are being laid off. 

    When the tears have dried, when laying on the sofa watching inane TV has affected our sanity, some of us decide to step outside, often surprised that the sun is still shining because our lives lie in darkness still.  I know go-getters who leave no stone unturned in addressing a return of some sort to the working world.  But there are a world of others . . .

    I love the role of mentor, but it means a great deal of inspiration on our parts to get the person moving at times.  You must be a listener, a close listener, looking for clues on the part of the dejected one.  If you like libraries – my field – if no starting jobs are available, volunteer.  Your potential is noticed, you are hired, and move up.  I see it daily.  But what you need to do is get that MA lin library science — but you can do this quickly and still retain your part-time job.  And then the sky is the limit.  Right now in my suburbs, they are interviewing for top librarian/administrator and they salaries run from $80,000 to over $140,000.  Bet you never thought of this field – and it is a wonderful one for a lover of business and one that wants to be surrounded by books.

    But for those newly unemployed over 40 who are open to suggestions, I tend to suggest anything in the health field for those who are out-going and like the idea of helping others.
    We go through the possibilities — it takes days to do — and they narrow the choices down.
    Sometimes, your degree is enough.  Most of the time, the field within the health field you have have chosen requires 2 more years of college at the least.  Again, you can do part-time work and go to gather another degree after the long-ago college degree you already have.  In the meantime, you are out with people – new people who have a potential of becoming best friends or mentors themselves – and you don’t have time any more to feel sorry for yourself. 

    Healthcare, I believe, is always going to be there and going gangbusters as the population grows older and older, and you will be at the heart of it all.  So far (!) those who I have started on this course have not only prospered but – I notice – seem to have a love for the job in a way that – my son, the former mycologist never did before.

    I guess the point is: ” never say never” and don’t indulge in the “poor me” as you will find your friends disappear along with the old job.  These are very bad times — but there ARE directions where the sunshine still glimmers and your smile actually can return.

  2. avatar Mary says:

    I think that being succesful in today’s employment industry realy breaks down to one basic idea and that is being willing to step out of your comfort zone and stepping out of the box.  Rethinking what we have been told and being willing to change our ideas of what we are and examining our values.  Identify the times you are happiest and looking at those times as to what you were doing that made you happy.  Success is not about money to me, it is about how happy I am .  Be that as it may you also have to look at what the bottom line is as far as what you need and everyone will be different on that .   I strongly believe that Healthcare is now and will always be the biggest industry one can participate in.  Healthcare is a always changing field and is not limited to those who practice the many roles within the system of healing, diagnosing etc.  It is about managing money, learning codes, learning regulations, computer techs and programmers, Social sciences, office management, information and research on many levels.  Nutrition in healthcare alone is a huge field with many diversities within that field alone.  Nursing is no longer the picture of Florence Nightingdale sitting and comforting.  There are so many different ways a nurse can practice within nursing.   Stepping outside the box I am sure is how those who elect healthcare will survive and thrive.  If one takes that broad field into consideration there are limitless possibilities than can only grow and expand beyond that and it will all go back to health.   Everything we do in life affects our health and health is the most important issue we all face and we all turn to.

    • avatar Joan Larsen says:

      Mary . . . loved your writing and how you pulled that topic all together as you did . . . and you know I agree heartily.  Maybe you have opened some people’s eyes to this world of possibilities that will continue to be GREAT forever.!  Joan