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How to change careers at any age

Change careers

No matter how old you are when you decide to change professions, the most important thing isn’t your age — it’s your qualifications, says Catherine McGinnis, MS, a nationally certified career counselor and coaching manager for Phoenix Career Services™.

“The average worker will change careers — not just jobs, but actual career fields — three to five times in his or her lifetime,” she points out. “To compete and successfully obtain each new position, individuals must have up-to-date skills, a current resumé and a solid network.”

Here, McGinnis shares six tips for shifting gears at any age:


Learn all about your new field.

“When you talk to someone who’s already doing what you want to do [known as an informational interview], you’ll get a firsthand account of the path they took to get there,” McGinnis says.

Some potential sources of help include family and friends, networking events, the University’s Alumni Career Mentor Program or the LinkedIn® professional network, McGinnis suggests.

“Say you want to be a professional writer,” she says. “Instead of asking a working writer, ‘Hey, will you read my article samples?’ ask, ‘What did you have to do to get where you are now?’” and then model yourself according to that information.

Finding a mentor can be especially helpful when you become a first-time supervisor, McGinnis notes, adding, “A lot of people don’t realize how different management is from being a worker bee. If some aspects of management are unfamiliar to you, [you can] take a class or get some additional training or certifications.”

Another way to prepare for a new career is by volunteering; there likely are many charitable organizations in your community that would welcome your help. Although you won’t be paid for your time, you can gain experience and knowledge, as well as add bullet points to your resumé.

Know the desired qualifications.

If you’re not sure whether your existing skills and experience are enough to transfer to a different job title or industry, check employment postings for positions that interest you and note what’s required.

“Maybe you’re considering a career or a promotion in human resources (HR), and you keep seeing ‘SPHR certification required’ on job postings. You need to find out what that is and what you need to do to get it,” McGinnis says, noting that it refers to a specific credential in the HR field.

Professional association websites often have information on how to earn such credentials. “If you’re going to [get] additional education, you also need to choose programs that employers actually want, and employers are the best way to find out what that is,” she adds.

She recommends that older workers check organizations such as AARP to help identify employers and job opportunities that may be a good fit for their skills and experience.

Update your resumé to current standards.

Keeping your professional documents in order is just as important later in your career as it is when you first enter the job market. “The resumé is a living document, and we all should update ours at least every six months,” McGinnis recommends.

If you haven’t looked for a job lately, familiarize yourself with up-to-date resumé formats by attending professional networking events, reaching out to friends or colleagues who’ve had recent job-search success or asking human resource professionals for guidance. The same applies if you’re switching careers or industries, where resumé standards may differ from your current occupation.

You can craft a functional resumé based on your skills and how they apply to the job you seek, or one that follows your job history chronologically. Or you can write a combination resumé that covers skills and experience and then lists your employment.

Include only current software programs, skills and industry keywords, McGinnis advises, and avoid listing every job you’ve ever held. “A general rule of thumb is not to go back more than 10 to 15 years on your resumé,” she adds.

Consider other ways to use your skills.

Sometimes your existing training and experience are enough to begin a new career. “You need to open up your mind a little bit and consider the actual duties of the job, rather than just the job title,” McGinnis notes. She cites herself as an example.

“At one point, I was interested in becoming a corporate trainer, but I didn’t think I was qualified. Then I read the job description and saw that it required knowledge of personality assessments like Myers-Briggs, a master’s degree in a psychology area and articulating business-oriented advice to many types of people — things I already did as a career coach. Turned out I was already qualified.”

Be realistic about pay.

“You should always be informed about what salary ranges are for your discipline and the job market when considering a new career,” McGinnis notes, and not expect that your years of experience in another field mean your pay level will transfer.

“Someone might have worked in corporate America for 20 years and then decide to become a teacher, where the pay is [generally] lower.”

She suggests using the Job Market Research Tool, which is part of the Phoenix Career Guidance System™, to explore salary ranges by job type, advancement level and location. The tool also provides information on typical career paths and the required training for the type of position you seek.

Get your family on board.

If your career change will require additional education on top of the job you’re already working, it’s essential to involve loved ones in your plans.

“Make clear that it’s going to be short-term pain for a long-term gain,” McGinnis stresses. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” she adds, noting that members of her household revamped their schedules and chores when her husband was finishing a degree and working full time.

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