If you find yourself mid-career longing for more meaning in your work, you’re not alone. A mere 14% of Americans are employed in their ideal jobs. Whether you jumped on the wrong ladder early in your career or have changed your mind based on a fluctuating market, shifting priorities, or better opportunities, it’s never too late to make a career switch.
In fact, there’s never been a better time. With job tenure averaging 4.2 years, the creation of positions based on new technology, and the merging of fields into hybrid careers (such as fintech), organizations are continually reinventing themselves to keep up with an ever-changing global market. They need employees who can do the same, so job seekers who aren’t agile, relationship-savvy, self-starting, learning machines need not apply.
Gaining experience for a career change
Unfortunately, recruiting technology hasn’t caught up to this workplace reality. Applicant tracking systems use titles and keywords to weed out candidates. However, a strong network can help you overcome the online gymnastics to reach the hiring decision makers, and transferable skills from previous roles can be rebranded to show your savvy.
But demonstrated commitment in the form of experience—paid or unpaid—can tip the scales when making a career change. Fortunately, there are many creative ways to earn experience without missing a paycheck. Here are a few:
Take the path less traveled. Many career switchers seek an advanced degree as a first step, which is expensive and time consuming. However, unless you’re pursuing a profession that requires specific credentials (e.g., lawyer, nurse), evaluate how much applied experience an academic program offers.
You’ll need to supplement any academic learning with application. In many cases, you can create your own “internship” through side hustles, volunteer work, and part-time gigs without incurring tens of thousands of dollars in loans. In fact, there may be opportunities within your own company.
Example: Karen, a skilled graphics designer interested in being more customer-facing, asked to shadow the sales team on client calls so that she could improve her work, meet new contacts, and learn the business development side of the business.
Embrace flexible formats. In addition to seeking new skill sets, organizations also have new work structures. Portfolio careers, the gig economy, and virtual roles have created infinite opportunities for the savvy career switcher.
Professionals no longer need to wait to be called after submitting an online application. Rather, you can create your own real-world experiences. It’s never been easier (or less expensive) to build a website, market yourself online, and connect with potential customers. Nonprofits and academic institutions are consistently under-resourced, and they welcome low-cost (or no-cost) help in exchange for offering experience and a positive reference.
Example: Dina, a full-time human resources coordinator with her eye on marketing analytics, worked on weekends to help two nonprofits upgrade their databases, engage data analytics tools, and create reports to inform spending and generate more donor leads.
Start where you are. If you work in a sizable company and have been a high performer, they’ll likely prefer to retain you in a different role than lose you to a competitor. Many would-be career switchers are fearful about approaching their manager to discuss an opportunity in another department. However, understanding your company’s culture, partnering with your manager, communicating your values, and paying attention to timing will make it a smoother process.
Example: Kamesh worked in IT and had a passion for coaching other employees. In his annual review, he discussed his desire to move to the learning and development team and put together a transition plan for his boss to consider.
These paths require creativity, initiative and adaptability—the exact skills employers are starving for in today’s market. If you find yourself saying “Yes, but…,” you need to consider how serious you are about making a career switch. The best rewards in life require risk, courage, and persistence. While it may not be easy, it’ll be worth it. Is this your year to switch?
With crucial foundational skills, you can move from being an individual contributor to a manager who achieves team success.