Q. After several years, I finally left middle school teaching, a career I had come to hate. Now I feel like a failure. My skills mean nothing to the business world. I have considered becoming a librarian, journalist or social worker, but I can’t afford to return to school. And I need a job immediately.
A. The skills to change careers are not the same as the skills to manage a career. Many of my clients feel a little uncomfortable when they ask questions about the job hunt.
“I should know how to change careers, shouldn’t I? It’s not rocket science. And I have a graduate degree.”
But why should they know this? And why should you?
Maybe the last time you job-hunted, you were in your twenties, right out of college, bright-eyed and eager. You probably had fewer responsibilities. Most certainly your identity wasn’t tied up in a profession.
But now you’re over thirty-five (probably over 40, if you’re reading this blog). You’ve gained some stature and status in your world. Calling strangers to ask for advice seems…well, inappropriate. You’re peers of those who are sitting across the desk, although you may come from a different field or industry.
You’ve got some obligations. Travel four days a week? Move a thousand miles? Your family – especially the children – may have some thoughts on the subject! And if you’re single, you still may want to live near friends and family, not to mention “make sure the dog will be welcome.”
So congratulations on beginning the career change journey. You can look forward to reaching your destination you’ll love — but expect a few intermediate stops along the way.
Your first stop: Career change takes time, energy and financial resources. So get what I call a perch job.
Think of birds perching on a wire when they migrate south for the winter: a place to rest till you can start moving to your real destination. Some organizations (such as Starbucks and Patagonia) offer benefits if you work as few as 20 hours a week.
Second stop: Once you’ve covered your basic needs, take time to explore each career option in greater depth. The fields you describe are very different from one another. Even within each field you’ll find major differences. A social worker can have a private practice, work in a hospital, or work for any one of hundreds of agencies, public and private.
Talk to at least six people who are employed (happily or otherwise) in each field. Ask how they started. Don’t ask for advice: ask for experience.
Generally, people who make successful career changes tend to make major leaps, not incremental baby steps. The reason is that skills and talents are not the same thing. Someone who’s a gifted teacher at a high school or university may not be a marketable trainer or speaker.
Third stop: Learn to speak the local language.
These days, when you take a job, you’re joining a tribe, with its own culture. Even if you’ve been in the field ten years, your next company’s culture may differ dramatically. As a newcomer, you’ll have to earn what consultants call “idiosyncrasy credits,” the right to break rules and defy norms without getting penalized, formally or informally.
When you try to sell yourself to a new world, you need to talk, walk and look like a native. When you communicate in the language of your target career – whether it’s business, nonprofit, education or legal – you’ll be taken more seriously.
People sometimes change careers because they dislike the work, but often they’re really focused on working conditions. They usually reject the culture they’re required to assimilate in order to do their work and use their skills.
Finally, if finances are tight, investigate low-cost career change resources in your area. Some nonprofit agencies offer counseling. And if you find yourself getting seriously depressed, your first priority should be a visit to a qualified, licensed mental health provider.
Going back to school may seem completely impossible, but don’t rule it out. You may be able to find a way to fund your move sooner than you realize. My ebook on returning to school has some tips:
Yes, you can find a new, satisfying career – not overnight, but sooner than you anticipate. Good luck with the journey.
And you may also like my newly revised ebook –
Your 21-Day Extreme Career Makeover