Career Changes: Redrawing Your Career Map

Even when you’ve advanced quite far down your career path, there are means by which you can change your future track.

Previously we talked about drawing our career maps like a river flowing from your first job to your last position before retirement. Doing this exercise gives you a base to work with when it comes to what you’ve acquired in terms of skills and experience, but more importantly a strong focus on what you’re going for in the long run.

Now we’re going to look into further detail how you can change the path your career can take, and where you will find the greatest challenges and opportunities.

Skills

The most obvious challenge when it comes to changing your career is whether you have, or can acquire, the skills you will need to start in it. Tracing back your career path back from your Seaside destination, you should be able to identify which job is the “entry” into your desired career branch, and the skills needed to perform that job are your primary concern.

A career switch can be very easy if many of the required skills overlap; from Electronics to Engineering perhaps, or from Military to Security. However, careers that require a lot of specialized skills you do not have may be nearly impossible to switch to (from Lawyer to Medicine, from Human Resources to Architect), not just because of the difficulty of acquiring the skills but also the enormous investments you may already have made in your current career.

What you will have to learn comes in three categories: Knowledge (Skills), Ability (Experience) and Insight (Talent). You will need to know the theoretical background of your new career, but it goes further than that. It also involves the “lingo”, the language spoken by people in the profession (which you will need to fit in). People in HR use very different lingo than IT Architects or people in the Military. Knowing the language they speak means you can fit in, but also understand the material presented to you. Language comes first, everything else flows from that understanding.

Acquiring skills

In most cases this knowledge can be self-taught, whether by reading literature made for and by the profession, browsing internet fora and blogs on the subjects involved, or following any number of free online courses. You could also look for people already involved with the profession to explain to you certain specific topics you might get stuck on. Professionals love to talk about the vagaries of their specializations, so this can be very helpful.

When looking for pure text and background material, you could browse the internet for repositories of free books, such as Scribd or Project Gutenberg. I would suggest creating a library structure on a USB drive where you separate out the books (whether PDF/Epub or using links to online resources) using the following style:

  • (profession) History
  • (profession) Biographies and Famous People
  • (Profession) Career
  • Major Skill 1 \ Subskill 1
  •                    \ Subskill 2
  • Major Skill 2 \ Subskill 1
  • Related Skill
  • Related Skill

This way you separate out the “woolly” bits such as famous people and history of the profession from the cold, hard skills you will need to learn. Related skills can be useful, but should be kept to the side to prevent you from focusing on them before you are ready. For example, if you want to become an IT engineer you might love Drones, but that topic is better set aside until you understand Drone Programming first. There’s no harm in collecting the knowledge, but keep it aside.

Structure of Learning

Associated with the topic of “Time” below, you need to structure the learning you do to make it as efficient as possible. Look at the lingo of the job and the minimum skills needed to perform the job, and learn those first. Then move on to learning about one or two people most influential in your job throughout history. This way it gives a good sense of the reason your job-to-be is structured as it is, and what caused it do develop in this manner. Then move on to related skills which will get you a job quicker or allow you to fit in as a professional.

Don’t try to learn any of the other topics unless you can see ahead of time you will need them at a crucial time. It’s fun to know all that, but it’s not relevant to changing your profession.

 

Opportunities and Threats

Learning things is a lot of fun, and can be a great way of making connections with others (see Network below). It will take time, and potentially money, so how good you are at learning new things will determine how quickly you are able to change careers.

If you are good at teaching yourself things then you might be able to acquire most, if not all, skills by yourself. However, if you’re struggling or if you know that you don’t have the required discipline, it might be a better idea to find a course or school to gain the skills you need. This will take more time and money in all likelihood, but your learning will be structured in a way that supports you better, and you receive a certification for it as a bonus.

Certification is also a potential threat to a career change; some professions are heavily regulated (such as lawyers and doctors) or are hard to get into without proper certification (accounting and IT architecture for example). If your target career falls into this category, you will almost certainly need to follow some form of accreditation and schooling. You will need to make allowances for this, and know when these courses or schools accept new students and be ready by then to join up and spend the required time.

Experience

Careers have a tendency to be structured in a pyramid, where there are a lot of base, entry-level jobs where people need minimum skills, and then progressively fewer spots as the jobs build in seniority and scope. You might join a company as a Marketing Trainee, then progress through Brand Manager and Senior Brand Manager into Marketing Manager or Chief Marketing Officer. Each step up requires greater knowledge and experience, more additional skills brought to the table to overcome the greater competition you will have from people trying into these spots.

One of the primary differentiators between people hopeful for a promotion is the amount of experience they have in the tasks that are required of the job. Most “straight promotions” (called Rapids in the career plan) build upon your job and add more responsibility.

This means that for further promotion Time passed (see below) is a hard line, but it also indicates periods of high performance to show your manager that you are ready to take on higher responsibility. Take this into account when you are considering your career path.

Gaining Experience

Experience is gained through action. To learn to do a task, you must first be aware of its fundamentals (through tuition or self-learning) and then perform that task. It does not matter whether the task is digital or physical, whether you’re learning as an apprentice or go at it alone. Practice makes perfect.

But beyond that, practice makes confident. Aside of being good at your job, forging ahead in your career requires you to be confident at your job. People can sense your confidence and expertise, the ease with which you explain things or the calm demeanor with which you tackle problems and unforeseen occurrences. This confidence impresses managers and makes your name known, and becomes a primary factor for being considered for seniority promotions and higher positions.

Opportunities and Threats

It’s always good to gain experience. This doesn’t have to be limited to your job; if you want to make inroads in your career you will need to apply your skills more often, in more places, and in a broader setting. You could use your skills for a charity, or get involved in a startup. You could give advice on a forum for people who aren’t as advanced in your career as you, or you could start a blog. Write an eBook, or speak in public, about your personal experiences as a career professional.

But be careful of being sidelined. It’s easy to overlook where you were originally headed and drift away from your career goals. Your blog could consume your days and your work might suffer. You might be known as a good writer or speaker, and your sidejob might become very profitable, shunting you into a new career path without you realizing. Your work for third parties might give your manager the idea you might not be fully committed to the company and this jeopardizes your promotion opportunities. Keep your eyes on the prize, and regularly review if you’re still on track.

Talent

Being good at your job can be as simple as learning the right things and putting them into practice rigorously. But to move up to the highest roles and positions, a certain amount of talent might be needed – and not necessarily in the primary tasks connected to the job itself.

For example, even jobs that aren’t directly people-related may benefit from having good social skills to make connections with people with influence. You might be ready for a promotion, but if you are not noticed, you might be overlooked. So being able to market yourself and support a personal brand image is also a good talent to have. Insight in people’s motives and some measure of ability to maneuver office politics might be required at higher level of management, even if just to not get tangled up in it.

Some personality traits also fall under this header, such as honesty, loyalty, diligence and foresight. Each of these can help and hinder you in different circumstances.

Describing the concept of “Talent” and its many effects and nuances would require another blog post, but the important lesson here is to take stock of which talents you have, which make you a prime candidate for being promoted or considered for a higher function. What makes you different from other hopefuls, and turns you from candidate to contender?

Time and Expectations

Time is a major factor in careers. Gaining skills takes time, gaining experience and showing your expertise (and thus promoting) takes time, as does growing connections and influence. Any move from one branch to another in a career takes time, and doubly so if you are making a career switch.

But time isn’t just a stretch of time, it’s also a point in time. In this case, where you are at in your current career before switching. The earlier you switch, the better, of course – as time progresses it’s harder to switch careers because you already have a name in your current career, investments in training and network, and likely are more grounded in your lifestyle. And changing careers will upset all of that.

  • It’s easier to switch careers while still in school than while working
  • It’s easier to switch careers before “Senior” levels or becoming management
  • It’s easier to switch if you have goodwill or control over your working hours
  • It’s easier (ironically) to switch high-level managerial careers between industries than any other job within that industry

So the first question you should answer is if it’s worth it to change careers. Why do you want to? If it’s about money and growth opportunities, put it against the expectations you have if you continue your career path as it is. Is the investment worth it? Or do you want to change careers because you don’t like your job? In that case, you might be better off evolving your job – such as becoming a consultant with your skills, or seeing if you can do the same job in a different industry.

Setting these expectations for yourself will help to determine if the time you must invest is going to pay itself off. And happiness is as good a reward as higher pay or better secondary benefits, believe that. But be careful that you don’t fall into the trap of changing jobs to be happier without knowing what it is in your current job that makes you unhappy. You might end up being equally unhappy in your new job.

At certain levels of accomplishment, switching careers can actually become easier. A high-functioning manager can get to work at any company, really, while anyone could become a consultant, author or public speaker using their acquired experience. You will have gained so many connections that switching careers becomes more a matter of influencing your network than learning skills from the ground up.

Money

Money is a major part of the reason to work in the first place. Changing careers might mean stepping down to a lower echelon of work, meaning less pay. Can your life handle that? Take stock of how much money you need for your daily life, pay off debts, save for later. Make sure that when you switch careers you can still cover this, because else you will be in trouble. You can start “downsizing” your life and spending to allow you to fit in a smaller salary model. It also helps if you have a partner who has a job themselves, for that extra security. It’s much easier to take a risk like a career switch when your lifestyle can already be covered by your partner’s job.

Money is also fuel. Your education might need payment, you may need to do unpaid internships or travel to get the education or experience you need. You may need to become a member of organizations, which can cost money. The profession might come with professional literature subscriptions or an investment in a practice or firm. All of these things you will need to put money towards, and that means you include this in your financial calculations as well. It might be you need to save up a bit to afford a career change, and do as much on the cheap as you can until you hit that magical “savings mark”.

Note that this is an investment, treat it as such. If your desired career makes much better money, then you can calculate how quickly you’d recoup the investment. If saving up means forgoing something (like a car, holiday or house) then make this a symbolic goal to reach in your new career.

For example, if my career change costs 15K euros, it prevents me from buying that electric car I wanted which would cut costs and be more environmentally friendly. Instead I saved this money for my career change. After 5 years however, I should have recouped this investments with the extra salary I should earn. I put this money aside every month, and once I hit the mark I buy the electric car as a celebration of my success. If I had not done this, I would have just the car but now I’ve a career I want plus that car.

Networking

Having help can make many things easier, and making a career switch is no exception. First off, having people who are active in your target profession can make it very clear what daily life looks like for them, and if this is what you really want. They will also be able to give you (somewhat subjective) look at what skills are vital to doing/getting that job.

Even further along in a career, having a good network can supply you with opportunities to find a job in that new career path, find a mentor to support and encourage you in your career, or find opportunities to gain more experience.

You don’t need to be a professional before you can start networking. You can always profile yourself as an “amateur” or a “new entry” in your field, and move on from there. Often people are more than willing to support new blood in their professions, and relish the chance of mentoring someone for mutual benefit (it also provides something for them to put on their resumes, after all).

Networking isn’t just limited to people. The companies that are in your prospective industry can be connected to much sooner than you would actually look for a job, and it gives you an insight in what kind of products, services or projects they run. Being familiar with a company greatly increases your chances of landing an entry-level job or internship with them.

Sometimes such connections also supply great direct benefits; being well connected can mean being alerted to opportunities, which recruiters are scouting for them, where they will have their next job fair or if there are any trainee positions. Companies sometimes also have work/learn programs where you can learn on the job, and not all of these are advertised.

Networking can also be done as a form of marketing. This works best in creative professions, but with a bit of ingenuity can be applied to most field. Architects, for example, showcase their work in a portfolio and often enter in online design contests. Aside of any prizes, this is also exposure for their design skills, and they might be hired based on the quality and innovation of their designs. Contests, portfolios, blogs, instagram reporting or facebook live streams can all showcase your practical ability to prospective employers, but can also be used as evidence if you are applying for a study grant or program, for example.

Conclusion

Determine the minimal skills you need to get into your career path and focus on getting the lingo and knowledge you need. If you want to stream in at a higher level than a starter level job, you need to acquire experience in the field before becoming a professional. You will need money to fuel your career change, but also consider your needs for keeping your normal life and the additional professional costs of your new career.

Find out if the career you chose to change into is what you want, and that you go for it for all the right reasons. Follow companies and network with professionals to learn what the industry and jobs are really like, and to become immersed in their business culture.

It takes time to make this change, so make sure you give yourself that time. Don’t get impatient and rush things, but also don’t think that you can’t change careers at all if you’re already a Senior. Just remember that career switches are easier at the early stages, but that you can still make a move and not lose “career time” if you make sure to switch to a career where many of your existing skills and experiences apply.

 

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