Career Change
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It's Never Too Late to Make a Change
From the Rodale book, Age Erasers for Women

When you think of television news reporters, visions may come to mind of power parties, exotic overseas assignments and exclusive interviews with the rich, the famous and the criminal. But the reality is often different.

"I was a reporter for ten years and after covering the Christmas shopping story every December and the local Fourth of July parade every summer, I got bored," says Shirley Brice, former reporter for KTVK, the ABC affiliate in Phoenix.

If you look for Brice today, you won't find her in front of a camera. Instead, you'll probably spot her behind the counter at Cornlockie's cookies in Springfield, Virginia. "I always wanted to run a business that was innovative, had potential and afforded me a great deal of control," she says. "I got this idea of starting a low-fat gourmet cookie store and then used my reporting skills to research the possible competition. When I found out that no one else was doing anything like this, I jumped in with both feet. And I love it."

Yesterday's career woman often launched into a chosen profession and stuck with it through thick and thin. While this arrangement had something going for it in the way of security, it often became something of a straitjacket, never allowing for room to grow or change, never providing for new excitement.

Some women today find themselves in the same grind, sticking to careers they've outgrown, feeling trapped, bored, tired . . . and old.

"If you are stuck in a poorly fitting job and feel trapped there, it can have a tremendously negative impact on your spirit, motivation and health," says Beverly Potter, Ph.D., lecturer, consultant and author of Finding a Path with a Heart: How to Go from Burnout to Bliss. "You actually start feeling fatigued, heavy and down. Your immune system is affected. Your level of general interest is affected. Everything slides."

Luckily, there's a way out of this pit and many women today are taking it.

Moving On, Moving Up

It's quite normal today for a woman to have four or five separate careers in her lifetime, says Patti Hulvershorn, director of Ability Potentials, a career counseling and aptitude measurement service in Alexandria, Virginia. "I don't mean job changes; I mean complete changes of careers," she adds.

And why not? People change. People grow. "A job that made you quite happy eight years ago may no longer answer your needs," says Hulvershorn. "In fact, I see people getting the career-change itch about once every ten years. It first happens between the ages of 28 and 30, then again between 38 and 40 and again between 48 and 50. Careers are part of growth, and you occasionally have to shed one like a skin to grow another that's more accommodating."

For many women whose careers have always come second to a husband's, a change in later life might be a big one. You may have stayed for years at a low-paying and unchallenging position to make sure you could always be home by 5:30 p.m. to start dinner. Now you're ready for a change.

But before you rush out to trade in that tired old job for something new and invigorating, there's a lot of planning and self-examination that needs doing. After all, you don't want to give up the security of a steady paycheck before you have a solid game plan.

Change the Career or Just the Job?

Some women have made complete career changes when a better alternative may have been to keep the career but change the job. It's sort of like killing a fly by hitting it with the living room couch.

"It's classic," says Dr. Potter. "A schoolteacher stuck in a poor district becomes frustrated with the lack of educational funds, teaching materials and administrative support. So she quits and becomes a real estate agent. Fine, except that she loved teaching and the only real problem was the environment, not the career."

Before chucking your current career, make a list of everything you like and dislike about it. "If you find yourself writing down that you don't like your boss, hate the hours or can't stand the geographic location, you've got a situational problem, not a career problem," says Hulvershorn. "A change of job, not of career, is what you want." But if your problems stem from the nature of the work itself, then read on.

Making the Big Jump

Okay. You've been a lawyer for ten years and you are sick of it. You are bored, tired and as cranky as an 80-year-old woman who just watched a baseball come through her picture window. No amount of fiddling with your current career is going to make you happy. It's time to burst out. But where do you start?

"The first thing to do is make sure you are not just running away from a career you don't like," says Dr. Potter. "Rather than being motivated by escape, you should be motivated by the idea of moving toward something positive--a goal, a dream, something you want. Otherwise, you may end up in a new career hating the very same things you hated in your former career."

Take a good long look at what you like. "What do you like to read when you don't have to read anything?" asks Hulvershorn. "What is your subject matter of choice when you read? What has been a continuing interest that you've maintained since you were young or an interest that went by the wayside because you were too busy to keep up with it?"

You're looking for experiences that give you either a great deal of pleasure or satisfaction. "Think of college and high school courses you loved," continues Hulvershorn. "And along those lines, papers you had to write in school that you thoroughly enjoyed researching or hobbies that always intrigued you. Note the magazines you always pick up first at the dentist's office. Are they technical, financial or intellectual? What part of the newspaper do you read first? All these things can give you clues as to what really interests you."

Dig even deeper. It's not enough to say that you love pottery or that you want to travel around and find great pottery to sell in your own little shop. "You have to know what it is specifically about the idea that you really like," says Hulvershorn.

The problem is that often only one facet of an idea is what truly excites us, while the rest of what's involved in the job may be downright annoying. "Let's say you love the woods, so you decide to become a forest ranger," says Dr. Potter. "Sure enough, you get to see plenty of woods . . . but what you didn't count on was spending even more time dealing with the government bureaucracy of the National Forest Service. You may even have quit your last job to escape bureaucracy."

One way to avoid all this is to make a list of simple values that you want to incorporate into your next career. Don't write down something specific such as you want to be a tap dancer or a farmer. Write down that you want to entertain people or make things grow. Do you want to work at home, outside or in a posh corporate environment? Do you want to make big bucks or is helping others more important than helping yourself?

Then make a list of everything you don't want. No corporate politics, no time clock, no paperwork, no computers and so on.

"Put all your values, dislikes, interests and skills together, and it could be that they point in a single direction toward a career that you might be uniquely suited for," says Dr. Potter.

Find a hook. "When you've found what you like, you've then got to find a hook," says Charles Cates, Ph.D., general manager of EnterChange, a national outplacement firm with corporate headquarters in Atlanta. "Something you've done in another area, be it volunteer work or professional, that will allow you to swing from your former career to the one you want."

According to Dr. Cates, most people approach career change a little starry-eyed and don't consider the fact that companies hire you for what you've done in the past and what you can do for them in the future. They really don't care how keen you are to embark on a new career. "You have to be able to make a case for yourself. You have to show them that despite your past career path, you are well suited for this new career."

And that means experience. "Get it any way you can," says Dr. Cates. "It may mean a low-paying apprenticeship in your off-hours; it may mean volunteer work . . . but you need to build a portfolio of experience."

Explore opportunities in your company. "Whenever you work at a company for a period of time, you begin to build a power base," says Dr. Potter. "And I don't mean power in the sense of lording it over others. I mean power as the ability to accomplish and influence through your network of relationships and understanding of how things are done at your company. A power base is very valuable and not something to be thrown away lightly by leaving your company."

What Dr. Potter suggests, if possible, is a lateral move within your present organization, such as a move to another department or to a different position. "That way you keep your power base and can expand on it by gaining knowledge of other areas of the company. In turn, this makes it easier for you to explore new possibilities, and it also makes you more valuable to the company and more likely to get challenging assignments."

Reshape your job. If you can't make a lateral leap, look for ways to expand your current position in the direction of your interests. "I tell people to look for unassigned problems," says Dr. Potter. "These are problems that don't belong to anyone. They are opportunities and, by solving them, they act as vehicles to get you where you want to go."

Dr. Potter remembers one woman in particular who dreamed of being a counselor or running her own import-export business. "But she was a chemist and a well-paid one at that. To become a counselor would have meant leaving her job, training, struggling . . . things she wasn't really prepared to do."

What she did instead was talk to her supervisor about making a presentation to the other chemists, working with them on their flagging job satisfaction as one chemist to another. Her supervisor agreed and one presentation led to another. She still had her regular job, but the job counseling side began to expand. "Now she travels all over the world to make these presentations at her company's overseas divisions," says Dr. Potter. "She's doing the counseling she wanted, doing the traveling she dreamed of doing with her import business and the company is paying for her learning curve." All from calling dibs on an unassigned problem.

Leave your company but take small steps. You're tired of being a secretary for a plumbing supply company. And, having inventoried all your hopes, dreams, values and dislikes, you now know that you want to edit romance novels. Go for it, but slowly. "Changing careers in a competitive job market is not an easy thing to do," notes Hulvershorn. "Anything you can do to make your current skills work for you in gaining access to a new career is a big plus."

A good way to make a small step in the right direction is by changing industries without changing job functions. Become a secretary for a publishing company, suggests Hulvershorn. "It's easier to get things accomplished, make connections and learn the industry from the inside rather than by looking at want ads."

From secretary you might move to proofreader, then associate editor and maybe someone would then give you a crack as editor.

Go back to school any way you can. When people come to Hulvershorn for a career makeover, it often requires that they go back to school. A lucky few can afford to hit the classroom full-time. Most cannot and many end up viewing the need for additional school as an insurmountable stumbling block on their road to a new career.

"But, what many people don't realize is that due to the increase in career changes, most universities are moving toward more flexible programs to accommodate professionals who haven't the time for the standard route," says Hulvershorn.

"The first thing I try and get my clients to do is cut down on their hours or at least work out a flextime deal with their bosses. Maybe they go to school Tuesdays and Thursdays and put in makeup time in the office on Saturdays."

Some schools offer weekend programs where you head for the campus Friday night and come home on Sunday night. Others have correspondence courses. "There's always a way to do it no matter how impossible it may seem at first," says Hulvershorn. "The important thing is to take the first step, and then you'll be surprised when you realize what you can do."

Think tangentially. "Large or small, the company you currently work for does not operate in a vacuum," notes Dr. Cates. "It has suppliers and it has clients. The question you need to ask yourself is whether any of the companies currently doing business with your office has anything to offer with respect to your interests."

The advantages to this kind of thinking are many. "First, you speak the same language as these other companies, making it easier to find a possible position with them," says Dr. Cates. "Second, while they may or may not be personally familiar with you, they at least know your company, making you more than just an outsider from off the street."

Speak the lingo. Sometimes, the ability to show pertinent experience may be no more difficult than presenting what you've already done in a new light. Every industry has its own language, and if you want to change careers, you'll need to take your past experience and rephrase it in a manner that seems pertinent to the new job. "For example, a high school teacher who wants to become an in-house corporate training director might describe past experience in terms of group motivation and training plans rather than lessons and curriculum," suggests Dr. Cates.

Moving from the Home to the Workforce

Ever since you were married, your husband has been the one bringing home the bacon, while you stayed home with the kids. Is it too late now for a successful outside career? Not by a long shot, says Beverly Potter, Ph.D., lecturer, consultant and author of Finding a Path with a Heart: How to Go from Burnout to Bliss.

"In this day and age where everyone works, the housewife has become something of an anomaly with negative connotations," says Dr. Potter. "But just because you don't have a business card, it doesn't mean you don't have a job, and it doesn't mean you can't get tired of that job."

According to Dr. Potter, housewives typically have two problems that they need to overcome in making a successful transition from the home to the workforce. "Many times it's easy for the housewife to think that she has no marketable skills, but this is typically a combination of low self-esteem and a lack of self-examination," says Dr. Potter.

So the first step is to look at the home like a business and ask yourself what you do to run it properly. "A wife and mother teaches the children, balances the finances, plans, budgets and acquires food, clothes and other necessities for the family and performs many other tasks as well," says Dr. Potter.

The second step is to apply those tasks to a business situation. "No one will deny the fact that the job market is tight for those without prior experience," notes Dr. Potter. "So one way to make the transition a little easier is to volunteer. You might not get paid initially, but you will be building workplace experience. You'll have a title and you'll make contacts." From there you can then move into the professional world with confidence.

Be Ready for New Opportunities

With so many people changing careers, Hulvershorn advises getting used to the idea that you, too, may be career hopping someday. So be prepared for it. Here are a few tips.

Encourage your activities outside the office. "A hobby at 30 can become a full-blown career at 50," says Hulvershorn. "One of my clients was a stockbroker who happened to have a little farm on the side. That same person is now a full-time organic farmer. My advice is to constantly be growing through your outside interests in an active way that later can become something more."

Network like there's no tomorrow. "Those most successful in making career changes are those who maintain an elaborate network of people they know outside the industry," says Dr. Cates. "Cultivate contacts in the community, at the PTA or at your kid's sports league. That's how you get referred and that's how you hear about opportunities an outsider would never know about."

Create a slush fund. Career change can sometimes be an expensive proposition. Tuition, downtime without pay, business start-up costs and relocation expenses can all be major roadblocks if you don't have ready cash. "I always tell people, especially young lawyers, to never live on their entire income," says Hulvershorn. If you spend all your money and save none of it, you are basically denying yourself the freedom to explore new possibilities.

Hulvershorn suggests that people try not to expand their lifestyle expenses every time they get a raise. "Instead, put that money into an interest-bearing account that will buy you the freedom you'll need five years down the road when it's time for a change.

Be prepared. "Keep your resumé constantly up-to-date," says Dr. Cates. "And keep an eye on the want ads. This not only makes it easier to make the leap when the time is right, it also gets you into a career-change mind-set."

Never think it's too late. "People are always asking me if it's too late to make a career change," says Hulvershorn. Her reply is simple: "You're still breathing aren't you?"