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How to pull off a career change (when everything around you is changing)

Understanding why people change careers

A career change can be daunting even in the best of times, but pulling one off in an increasingly uncertain world can be especially challenging. However, with the right strategy and preparation, it can be done and is quite common. 

When reviewing data from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey and the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS), various studies indicate that people change jobs on average between 5 and 12+ times during their working life, with that trend on the upswing especially for younger workers.

While many of these shifts are changes within one’s field, some represent a bigger career change. 


Let's look at some common reasons why people want to change careers:

  • You started a career 10 years ago that fit who you were at that time, but it no longer fulfills you in the same way.
  • Your wages are stagnant, and you lack upward mobility in your current position.
  • You need to move to a new city for personal reasons and are moving away from a hub for your industry (ex. Biotech or research heavy areas).
  • Your new boss makes your current work situation untenable, but you cannot merely switch jobs in your field due to a non-disclosure agreement.
  • You love what your job, but have suddenly found your industry completely upended by world events like Covid-19 and subsequent financial shocks that have the potential to change the future of work.
  • You find yourself in the unfortunate position of job loss or a potential layoff, and you’d like to not only find a new job, but find one that you truly enjoy.

Regardless of your current circumstances, I will outline below the steps I recommend to my corporate and Ivy League clients that you should find helpful in your own career transition.

Evaluate why you want to make a career change.

  • Do you plan to perform the same function as your old job, but in a different industry? For example, if you are a business analyst in hospitality, you may be able to shift into a data analyst role in healthcare.
  • Are you trying to make a complete 180 pivot? 
  • Are you forced to change jobs given massive industry shifts/layoffs?
  • Are you driving this change from your own desires? I’ve had entrepreneurs who decided they wanted to work at a Fortune 500 company after 20 years of working for themselves. After selling their companies, they needed a break to reassess and wanted to try something new.

Consider what you want to do (dream scenario vs. realistic must-haves)

When determining why you want to change, it's important to get specific. You don’t want to make a knee jerk reaction running away from something and inadvertently set yourself up for more of the same issues that prompted you to seek change in the first place. Once you realize what you want to avoid, it can help you be more purposeful in figuring out next steps. 

I like to start with a list of Must Haves/Must Avoid to ensure the next step will position my executive clients for long- term career growth. Think in terms of factors dictating this particular search (this could be very different than your last job search). For example, if you have a family and need to stay within a certain city or require a specific salary level, those are important search parameters to consider when seeking out opportunities. Try this Values Exercise to understand the things your next career and job must have at this point and time in your life.

F4S can provide essential insights as you contemplate your next career path. Reviewing the top talents and blind spots listed in your report will allow you to better understand your innate motivations and which careers best align with these. That way, you will feel energized and not drained by your work. 


Devise a career change strategy

When starting your career change journey, it’s critical to develop a strategic game plan in the beginning to ensure your efforts will be as efficient as possible.

Follow these 8 steps to devise your own career change strategy:

1 - List your transferable skills: 

These skills are the key to making a career change. You are not starting from scratch or in a bubble. While the world of work as we know it is rapidly shifting, there are core competencies that employers across the board need within their workforce. Even though you may be using these skills in a much different capacity, you have the core skills needed for a number of jobs across industries. 

For example, many soft skills fall into this category. Think of problem solving, communication, account management, negotiation, critical thinking, delivering presentations, adaptability, resiliency, emotional intelligence, and demonstrating initiative. Even hard skills such as math, programming and coding, data analysis, quantitative, and other tech skills will help your transition. 

Once you have identified these top talents from F4S and thought of your transferrable skills, check out O*NET OnLine, which provides detailed descriptions of the skills associated with various careers. The advanced search feature on the home page allows you to search potential careers by skill and gives you a snapshot of careers.

2 - Find target jobs: 

Take your list of transferable skills and go to LinkedIn (jobs tab) or Glassdoor (Jobs listing) and instead of putting a job title in the search box, list one of the skills above and limit it to 50 miles within your zip code. You make get a big list if you search for account management, but it may open your eyes to how many different directions you could go in for your next role. 

When advising clients, I recommend that they aim for search results in the 50-1000 range. While I know that sounds like a lot, you can scroll through those lists pretty quickly and start to see which jobs are intriguing to you. 

Consider which aspects of the job are standing out to you and write down some of those keywords to use as the basis for your future searches. 

3 - Identify skill gaps for your target career & build those areas: 

It's important to understand whether this process is going to be a sprint or a marathon. For some career transitions, it's just a matter of creatively marketing yourself and doing a lot of networking to get your foot in the door in a new field, while others are complete pivots and require additional education and training. 

The length of time it takes you to make the transition will depend on a variety of factors:

  • The skills gap for the jobs you want to transition to – what do you need to learn? 
  • Do you need additional formal education? For example, to become a nurse you need to go to nursing school. 
  • What’s the state of the current job market? Think in terms of the industry you are seeking and the specific location you want as well. While it's easier to do a more targeted and focused search, if you want something to happen faster you may have to keep an open mind and pursue a few possible avenues for exploration. 

4 - Volunteer to build kkills: 

Volunteering with community organizations can be a great way to build your circle of contacts, increase yourself skill set and help a worthy cause. 

For example, I had a client with a successful career in consulting, but she wanted to become a therapist. Before applying to graduate programs, she volunteered at a community counseling helpline. This provided her an introduction to the field through her volunteer training, contacts for networking and it reaffirmed that this new path was then right one for her. Plus, the experience was helpful to write about on her grad school applications.

5 - Navigating the transition: consider your financial runway for this transition. 

  • Do you have money to cover expenses for a few months while getting additional education? For some clients this means taking a data bootcamp on the side while still working. Others would have to start a 2- year MBA program or culinary school. If additional education is required, be sure to look at the student outcomes data for that specific program you are considering. Look for these on the Admissions or Career services websites for that school. Where do those students get jobs after graduation and what’s the salary range? It’s important to understand the ROI associated with that program and that it will position you for where you want to go.
  • Can you keep your day job and work towards the new one in the evenings and weekends? Making a career change can take a bit longer than finding a job that directly relates to your past experience. As the old saying goes, it's always better to look for a job when you have a job. Of course, that's not always realistic in the case of layoffs, so if you find yourself in this situation and needing to accept the first job that comes your way — don’t stress about it. Do what you need to do now and recognize that accepting a job that is less-than your dream job does not mean you need to stay there forever. You can continue your search in your spare time once things have stabilized
  • Are you financially sound enough to make the change now and leap into your new venture? For example, an entrepreneur quitting the day job and devoting all of her time and money to her new startup.

6 - Start an Excel or Google Sheets doc: 

Track which jobs are intriguing to you. Review the requirements for each job and identify the skill gaps for you at this time. For example, perhaps you have 75% of what's needed on the required part, but there's a software program you don't know. 

You can go on to LinkedIn Learning or Coursera and build your skills in that domain. Keep in mind that many of these job descriptions have an extensive list of requirements and preferences. 

You do not have to have everything for that job to apply. Instead, apply if you have the bulk of the required skills and be sure to diversify your search so you're applying to many different places. 

Keep track of where you applied, including the company name, job title, link to the job posting, and which resume version you sent. Also, indicate if you have any contacts that work at that company.

7 - Target a few industries: 

When contemplating a career change flexibility is key period you may narrow it down to a few potential pathways, but you have to keep an open mind about where you will be led throughout this process. 

8 - Research your new field: 

Before making the leap, be sure to fully explore the prospects for your new field. If you are transitioning into a field in the middle of a disruption (like streaming entertainment), you want to be on the side of innovation and not trying to break into the old standards for that field (like building movie theaters). 


You can also check out the Occupational Outlook Handbook on bls.gov for career data and projections.

Networking for a career change

Once you narrow it down to a few potential pathways for your new career, it's super important to connect with people in that field and do what's known as an informational interview, where you ask them questions about their professional life. 

We often have a tendency to take the grass is greener approach when contemplating getting out of a bad situation and may idealize the new career we desire. While that's natural, you don't want to end up in another situation that will make you unhappy. 

It’s helpful to talk to a few people so you have a realistic picture of what to expect, what a typical day is like, what are the challenges, what do they like about it, what do they dislike, and what advice do they have as you’re positioning yourself and reaching out to potential hiring managers. 

While I don't ask people I don’t know well to refer me, if you make a good impression and send thank you says you go and develop this relationship over a period of time, it could lead to someone offering to recommend you. 

I never put the pressure on any of my contacts or look at them as the person to get me the job. Rather, I look at every bit of information from these contacts like a piece of the puzzle that can help me get closer to my next step. 

Remember, people love talking about themselves. Asking someone about the culture of a company is another great ice breaker because it’s subjective and important info for you to have as you make your next steps.


Optimize your resume for a career change

While you always want to target your resume to the specific job to which you are applying, when making a career change it requires a bit more finesse to make sure your resume shows exactly why you have the skills better required for your new career path. 

I am a huge fan of the hybrid resume format. Basically, this looks like a typical resume, however, under the Career Summary section you add another section called Areas of Expertise

Then, select three to four of the top skills needed for your new path - for example, leadership, account management, problem solving, change management. For each of those areas, include three to four bullets which detail your achievements but demonstrate that skill. 

You can pull from all of your past jobs, although I like to focus on ones within the past five years if possible. You are basically telling your potential employers that this is the lens through which you want them to look at your experience. 

Finally, I recommend using sites such as Jobscan.co that mimic the applicant tracking databases used by so many employers and will help you optimize your resume for keywords to each specific job. 


Ways to pay the bills while between jobs

If staying in a current job while you're trying to make a transition to a new one is not realistic, there are options to make money on the side while you conduct a more permanent search or you're launching a business that has yet to yield revenue. 

One option is to look for sites such as Upwork where you can create a profile and market the skills that you have to potential clients. For example, say you're an attorney but you really enjoy writing, you can put up a profile on that site and start bidding on writing jobs. The first bids will probably be on the lower side, but as you start to win clients and generate positive reviews that will help you secure additional clients and build a portfolio of work you can leverage and list on a resume. That way you not only make money while you're building your skills, but you also start to create reputation and brand for yourself. 

There's also the site Flexjobs that is all remote work and can be done from anywhere. That may provide extra flexibility for you to balance jobs that pay money with your efforts to gain more experience in your field of choice. 


How to market yourself when changing careers

While preparing to make a career change can be very stressful, keep in mind that many of the soft and hard skills you have honed throughout your life will still be needed. As the future of work rapidly evolves in these uncertain times, there is much work to be done, although what that looks like is constantly shifting. 

With many companies relying on remote work during emergency circumstances, those same employers may see unexpected benefits from such work and allow a greater percentage of their employees to work remotely once the pandemic crisis has passed. This shift could make it easier for career changers who will no longer be bound by geography when making a career transition.

When it comes to making a career change the way you market yourself is one of the most important factors. As a former recruiter, I understand that hiring managers are overwhelmed and do not have the time to go searching for why you are a fit for their specific role. They have problems to solve today and need someone with the skills to ease their pain points. 

Through your networking, targeted resume, and a carefully thought out pitch, you will show employers how everything you've ever been doing has been leading you to this point to serve on their team. You will have several success stories (even if they are in a separate field) that will show how you can be the person to jump in and make substantial contributions in this new role.

Pivoting your career takes planning and sustained effort, but if you start today, think of how you are helping your future self get closer to a career that’s a better fit with your talent and motivations. One year from now you could be thanking yourself for taking that first step today.

Looking to make a career change? Take your F4S assessment for free to uncover your natural talents and what work you'd find most energizing.

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This article was written by Tiffany Franklin, who has been a career coach since 1998, guiding over 6,000 job seekers of all levels and industries through the finer points of a job search. She currently works as Associate Director for Career Services at an Ivy League university where she helps freshmen through Ph.Ds. and alumni with all aspects of their career search.

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