Changing careers later in life

Changing careers later in life can be challenging, whether it involves returning to education or simply striking out in a new direction. And yet it’s a prospect many people face, by choice or by necessity. The importance of preparing yourself, of making the best, most-informed choice, is even greater in middle age; all the advice that applies to anyone planning their career applies here as well, but other issues are also foremost:

How possible is it? What are the prospects?

There’s no denying that, embarking on a new career, a (say) 50-year-old faces challenges that someone fresh out of school does not. Large companies are less likely see the 50-year-old’s paper qualifications as reason enough to hire them – and are likely not used to judging applicants for relatively entry-level positions in terms of their decades of experience, rather than in terms of their qualifications and energy.

Of course for many people a new career is not a matter of choice but of necessity, so questions of possibility and prospects don’t really apply; the issues are defined by necessary. That’s no reason not to take the same care in choosing your path.

And, on the positive side: today’s job market is a place in which people change jobs frequently (12-15 jobs in a working life is now the average), in which secure pensions are an endangered species, and in which loyalty is less and less important, and less and less expected, from employers or employees. The 22-year-old new hire is probably more likely to be gone in 5 years. This means that the relatively few remaining working years an older newcomer offers to employers can be less of an issue, if s/he comes with a promising prospectus.

That means that this prospectus is of crucial importance. Choosing a new career path in which your previous experience is an asset can help immensely, as can communicating the energy and perseverance that led you to undertake, and carry out the ambitious project of changing careers in midstream. You’re selling yourself in different terms than a young person straight out of school is.

And stress that experience: bringing a young new hire up to speed in the basic disciplines of working life is an expensive and time-consuming proposition for many employers.

One very real consideration, in these circumstances, is whether the best possible trajectory is perhaps one that involves self-employment rather than working for someone else. This can involve offering a service or opening a business; but it means that the only person judging your capacity is you.

Finally, there can be practical advantages to changing careers in middle age – advantages that someone in their 30s might well not enjoy. Experience has already been mentioned; but there’s also the possibility that a 50-year old will be in a better immediate financial position than someone still raising children and paying off a mortgage and student loans. In fact, arriving at those two familiar landmarks – the empty nest and the last mortgage payment – can often play a role in the decision to strike out in a new direction.

Finally, for those whose search for a new career is a matter of necessity rather than choice, these considerations do not apply. The following suggestions as to how to approach the project do mostly apply, however.

If you want to change jobs in middle age or beyond, consider the following suggestions:

You cannot have too much self-knowledge

This is as true for someone in middle-age and considering a career change as it is for a teenager pondering what to do after high school. And so your first step should be to ask yourself “What do I want out of a change of career?” and “What marketable skills have I accumulated?”

Answering the first question involves making some sort of life plan, assessing the goals you have for your career and for life in general; this is probably more important at 50 than 18, if only because you don’t have the same luxury of time in which to make mistakes and change your mind. Put it all on paper and reflect on it. Writing a cover letter for the perfect job you’ve yet to apply to is one way of starting this process. Another is accessing the vast array of resources available for those

Answering the second question should entail more than a list of credentials and jobs; life demands more skills than that, and you will have accumulated many of them. List them, study them, and list some more. The cover letter can cover these as well. Write it, re-write it….

Compared to that teenager, you’re relatively unlikely to have a store of undeveloped talents or ambitions waiting to be discovered. Your assessment will be of a different sort. But you never know; there’s no reason not to take the same assessment tests offered to teenagers. Perhaps an unexpected career as a sculptor or a bereavement counselor beckons! So if you like, by all means take them. This is especially true if your search for a new career is a result of the old one ending, rather than a desire for new horizons that you might already have in sight.

Learn about the available options

Study the job market. The options available for those entering a new career in their fifties are smaller in number than for those starting out their working lives, but they exist. One possibility, if you don’t already have a particular job or field in mind, is to take advantage of the services offered by companies, training centers and professional institutes that concentrate on offering their services to older clients.

Some organizations offer entrepreneurship training to this segment of the population, and unless you have strong and concrete reasons to rule this option out, it is one that you definitely should consider.

Learn how to market your experience

You will certainly get job offers, and thus have the opportunity to present yourself and what you have to offer at interviews. Your best strategy will almost always be to emphasize the experience and skills you’ve accumulated.

Some employers will always lean towards hiring younger applicants, and some jobs will favor what youth has to offer. Other employers will value experience over youth, and there will certainly be jobs in which age and experience constitute an advantage. It’s a cliche, but one based in truth, that employers are obliged to spend longer and longer training young employees in basic skills which an older candidate will already have acquired.

The most important thing is that you recognize that you are offering an alternative to the younger people competing for the same job, and take every opportunity to remind your interviewers of this fact. Differentiate yourself, and sell the difference. That difference is experience.

Look to your networks

Standard job-search websites will be of less use to the older job-seeker striking out for new pastures; they’ll naturally be focused on jobs aligned to the needs of people moving within the trajectory of a career: entry level jobs for young people; more senior jobs for older employees moving within a typical career arc….. By all means make use of them, but you should also explore your networks – of friends and relatives, of former co-workers and employers, of acquaintances made through your union or professional or recreational associations.

A wealth of networks is one strength the older job-seeker brings to the search. And networks can constitute a powerful resource. People who know you well won’t hesitate to pass your name on to anyone they encounter who might be looking to hire, and they won’t hesitate to present you in the most positive terms. And someone, somewhere in your extended network, might simply offer you a job. So by all means network.

Be persistent and flexible

Searching for a good job will always require persistence, even for young people. This is even more true for the older candidate looking to change career paths. The only answer to the real challenges entailed is persistence. Keep at it, use all the skills and strategies you have acquired, and something will eventually come your way. Hand in hand with this persistence should go a degree of flexibility.

This can be harder with the passing years, if only because the older job-seeker my feel they don’t have the same luxury of time to invest in jobs that do nothing but pay the rent. But flexibility may prove necessary if a chosen field proves impermeable to your best efforts. It doesn’t mean giving up, but rather returning to your research and exploration, and a search that takes you even further afield.