Leap Of Faith

27th March 2015

You’re a nurse… but you think you should have gone into teaching. Or you’re an office manager who wants to be working with animals. Or a garden designer who wants to be a computer programmer. What do you do? Stick with what you know, or take a giant leap of faith.

As we move away from an economy based on ‘jobs for life’, there’s a growing trend towards mid-career change. Jennifer Lipman talks to people who have done it, seeks advice from experts and discovers what employers might be looking for…

“I quit.” How pleasing it would be to spit out these two words. Or would it?

When you’re in a job you hate, or a career you aren’t suited to, it’s tempting to imagine strutting in on Monday morning and handing in your notice so that you can devote yourself to finding a role you don’t dread. But, as satisfying as resigning might be, the advice is to bite your tongue.

For one, hating your present job isn’t necessarily reason enough to make a move. Seriously. You’ve got to want a new opportunity, not just not want to do what you currently do. And, moreover, it’s generally better to be in a job when you’re looking for one; you don’t want the first interview question to be about why you left.

“The story you want to be telling is of a successful person doing well but looking to make a change,” says Hannah Hall of Harpenden Life Coaching, who herself switched professions from the civil service to start coaching.

In fact, the key is not to rush any of it, from resigning to bouncing into a new role. “I would never encourage people to take jumps,” says Evelyn Cotter, founder of SEVEN Career Coaching. “It’s a journey, it’s about really investing your time to look at your skills.”
Russell, 34, from London, took six months to get in the right mindset and find a communications role after he left a job in academia for financial reasons. “It was a real period of limbo,” he says. “I had a couple of disastrous interviews, because I hadn’t come to terms with changing career.”

Several years later, he is happy to have switched profession. Nor is he unique; the job market is far more fluid these days. As we contemplate ever-rising retirement ages and lengthier working weeks, changing career doesn’t have to be looked upon with horror, even if it is rarely easy to wave goodbye to a secure, familiar job, especially when you’ve got bills to pay.

Naturally, the risks are sometimes sharper for older career changers, but that doesn’t mean changing direction later in life is a no go. Evelyn, who regularly works with people in their thirties, says that older changers are better equipped to make conscious choices about what they want, and have more to lose “so they are more motivated”. Referencing a client in her forties who has secured a trainee accountant role with a leading firm, she points out that age is also becoming less of an issue to employers.

Unless you’re planning a major segue, it’s not necessarily about starting from scratch, since we tend to be attracted to roles that utilise our natural skillset. “People think ‘I’ve built up these skills but I’ll go into something different, so I’ve got to start at the bottom’,” says Simon Broomer, Managing Director of CareerBalance, “but I rarely advise that.” Instead, it’s about packaging your skills “in a way that a different employer in a different sector will understand”.

The first step is to identify your ideal working environment and look at where your existing skills could take you. “Do a proper stock take: what am I good at, what do I enjoy?” says Simon. “Nobody is going to tell you what you want, you’ve got to work it out yourself.”
Once you’ve figured out your ideal destination, it’s about presenting your skills as transferable. While specific industry knowledge can be learned, says Tracey Baum, Managing Director of Life Practice St Albans, prospective employers want to see what you can offer their company. You have to show you will be an asset – in the role itself, and indirectly, for example, by helping with social media.

Equally, employers want career-changers who show that they are willing to learn, so small things, like a part-time learning certificate, can give you the edge. After all, aside from your current job, these are the things employers see on your application and on which they base their decision. “It’s about looking at your personal life to see if there is any opportunity to show a skill that you might not be able to in your daily life,” explains Hannah. You might, for example, signal that you’re ‘board potential’ by taking on a school governorship, she suggests. The trick is to curate your professional and personal experience so that what is most relevant to the job you want shines through on your CV – and increasingly on your LinkedIn profile.

LinkedIn is just one thing that has likely changed since you last looked for a job, let alone considered a profession. Back in the day, you applied – maybe through a recruiter – and waited to be called to interview. That still happens but nowadays vacancies are also posted on LinkedIn, Twitter and newspaper job sites, companies advertise on their own websites, and speculative approaches pay off as companies create new positions for people they like.

The latter happened to one of Evelyn’s career-changing clients. “She said ‘this has come from nowhere’, but actually in taking ownership of the process it came about,” Evelyn points out. “You need an entrepreneurial mindset – it’s about creating opportunity.”
Of course, this new order brings its own challenges. “People waste a lot of time, applying for a hundred jobs online, and getting nowhere,” says Simon. “Don’t assume the internet is everything.” The key, he says, is to use a mix of methods, including networking, speculative approaches, and attending training events.

Others suggest going further, and stepping into the shoes of the professional you’re trying to become, via work shadowing or a short-term role. Firstly, this can act as a taster, providing a sense of what a certain industry is like. More importantly, you’ll acquire useful skills. “You may think, hang on I’m 40, I don’t want to do work experience,” says Hannah. But she stresses that it can be instrumental in making a CV make sense. And, of course, it shows a future employer that you’re serious about making a transition, and not applying on a whim.

For Russell, who used “absolutely every method”, from tapping contacts to door-knocking, an unpaid period was vital. He fell into his future career after offering his local MP a hand, and was soon asked to stay on in a paid role. Although he acknowledges that not everyone can (or wants) to do this, he thinks voluntary work was vital in successfully shifting careers. “Nothing helps a move into another potential career more than being in an office and a potential employer seeing what you’re good at.”

Work experience can be particularly valuable for those who necessarily have been out of the market for a while, whether on maternity leave or after being made redundant, and are looking to start afresh, “There’s always a little bit of explaining to do,” says Simon, admitting that some employers won’t be moved on recruiting someone after a break. But he stresses that plenty will; again, he says, it’s about self-marketing.

Self-marketing – and hard graft. Whether you’re in a job or coming off a career break, there will always be some resistance to career changers. “A lot of employers do ask for specific skills,” says Simon. “It’s so easy to apply online that they are frightened that they are going to get swamped.” As a result, it can be an uphill battle to convince them that you’re worth it.

Nor can you expect miracles. As much as a career change can transform your life, it can’t solve all your problems – and certainly not overnight. The new job may suit you better, but that doesn’t mean it will be smooth sailing. “Sometimes people don’t research enough what they’re going to,” says Tracey. “The lure of ‘the grass is greener’ takes over and they’re not prepared for the sacrifices that may need to be made.”

Yet in the end, work is a huge part of our lives; if you want to move, it’s worth it. Sometimes there isn’t a logical reason to change careers, there’s an emotional reason.” says Hannah. “You could sit listing the pros and cons, but you’ll never get the answer you want if there’s something inside you that says I need to change.”

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