How to switch careers without starting at the bottom
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By the time she reached her early 30s, Debbie Yee had been working as a senior Aboriginal health nurse around Cairns and the Cape York Penninsula for five years. But when her organisation started restructuring, she decided to resign. “I heard that the federal member was looking for an electorate secretary, and dropped my resume into his office,” she says.
Despite having no political experience, Debbie recieved a call the next day asking if she could come in for an interview. “It just so happened that [the federal member] was on a caucus committee for Aboriginal affairs – I was interesting to him because I had worked closely with indigenous communities,” explains Debbie. She got the job and began a new career in politics.
A survey by Seek Learning recently found that 23 per cent of respondents were planning a career change. The number one reason people call it quits on their existing jobs is because they can’t stand their company’s management style, according to Barbara Mallick, a senior career consultant at EPR. “Burn out is another factor, particularly in fields like corporate law,” she says. However, behind this simple, dissatisfied exterior, there are often deeper, more complex reasons why women decide to trade-in established careers.
The first is changing circumstances. “Many women are more financially secure in their 30s than they were in their 20s, so they have more options,” explains Caroline Cameron, career coach and author of The Great Life Redesign (Wiley, $29.95). For women who are parents, the demands of motherhood can necessitate fresh career planning. “A desire for greater fulfillment and a better quality of life are common reasons that successful women make these kinds of job swaps,” she adds.
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However, to many people, changing careers when you’re already a master in your field sounds like madness. Who wants to return to a graduate salary at the bottom of the pecking order? According to Mallick, the secret to swapping careers without taking a pay cut or losing face is to make your move horizontal. Or even better, upwardly diagonal. “You have the best chance of career change success if you can parlay your existing skills and knowledge into an advantage in your new industry,” she says.
Podiatrist turned shoe designer, Anna Baird, is a great example of this. “I couldn’t do what I do without the knowledge being a podiatrist gave me,” says the 33-year-old mother of two, who designs, manufactures and sells fashionable shoes that are good for your feet (bared.com.au). Of course, her knowledge of foot anatomy is instrumental to her new business, but podiatry added another string to her bow. “Even though I had no background in retail, I was able to transfer my customer service skills directly over,” she says.
Transferable skills are career change gold, and if you’re in the market for a new nine-to-five, step one is to identify yours. If you’ve been in the same role for 20 years, you might not realise that things you can do with your eyes closed are actually pretty special – like whipping up efficient, automated spreadsheets, or summarising pages of complex info into an executive summary. “Rework your resume to make your existing skills relevant to your new field,” says Cameron. “Don’t leave the employer to join the dots. Give tangible examples of your past achievements, and spell out how they would transfer into you being a valuable employee.” A fabulous sales record might give you an edge in relationship management. If you’re superb with presentations, you could be great in an education role.
While it’s a mistake to assume that your new career is going to be as glamorous and exciting as it seems on TV (looking at you, emergency doctors with immaculate hair on Grey’s Anatomy), once you’ve made an informed choice, stick to it and stay positive. Debbie, the former Aboriginal health nurse, says it best: “When I told people I wanted to go for the electorate secretary role they said I had no chance, because I’d never worked in the political sphere. But I had the skills and was at a stage of my life where I was curious about what I could do in the world. I wanted a new challenge.”