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April 06, 2009

Switching Career Paths During Hard Times

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Switching Career Paths During Hard Times

By Jennifer Merritt, Carolyn Bigda and Donna Rosato, MONEY Magazine

Switching fields may seem taboo, but it's quite doable, especially now when labor markets are tight. Almost half of the 164 employers who responded to our MONEY survey say they regularly target mid-career changers when recruiting.

One reason: Switchers are dedicated to their move, with 32 percent saying they'll spend "as long as it takes" to get the necessary certification and schooling.

What are they looking for? Pay and advancement, sure, but also fulfillment and a sense that they can control their career paths.

Steve Mullins, 44, already has a good job: He's a telecommunications engineer for a pharmaceutical company. But he's studying to become a nurse -- it's a top job for career changers because demand is so high. "They can offshore my job any day of the week," says Mullins of Noblesville, Indiana. "And of course, when you fix a router, it doesn't say thanks."

To make your case to a hiring manager, follow these tips:

1. Show your commitment.

"Employers are seeing high turnover," says Kimberly Bishop, a senior client partner at recruiter Korn/Ferry International. "They want to make sure you will be the right fit."

You'll be more convincing if you take classes, join industry organizations or moonlight within the field you're exploring before you try to go full time -- and you'll also have a much better idea if this really is the right move for you.

2. Quantify your skills.

It may not be obvious how what you know translates into what they do. So focus on your transferable skills -- not your experience -- in interviews and on your resume.

Quantify your accomplishments: Show that you increased sales X percent or managed Y number of people. "It helps provide the scope and breadth of your accomplishments," says Bishop, "and it shows you very clearly understand what you've done."

Also highlight areas in your background that give you an advantage. When interviewing for an IT position, Randy Jensen, 36, of Riverton, Utah, pointed out that after 15 years in radio, he has good communication skills. "I can string two sentences together," he says. "I'm not going to be a hermit in a cubicle."

3. Learn the Lingo. Talk the talk.

Learning industry lingo is critical. "If you want to be a brand manager, you need to talk like one," says Ricki Frankel, a career coach who specializes in transitions. Stay up to date on industry trends and read trade publications. Trade publications are also a great source for job leads.

To make the switch from sales engineer to marketing, Todd Cox, 39, of Atlanta, has been reading industry magazines and seeking out mentors. "It may be someone I read about or hear speak," he says. "I tell them what I'm trying to do and ask if they'll coach me along. It doesn't always work, but everyone gives me little tidbits."

4. Take a two-step approach.

"Every career is composed of two main factors, a job title and a particular industry," says Dick Bolles, author of "What Color Is Your Parachute?" "An easier way to transition is to change just one of those factors at a time."

So if you're a lawyer itching to become a travel writer, work as a writer for a legal publication first (new title) and then eventually move into travel writing (new industry).

Or do legal work for a travel publication and contribute pieces until you're able to pick up a writing position.

5. Give yourself enough time.

Quitting on a whim often results in a frantic scramble for a paycheck. Plus, you need to think through logistics. If you have to take a salary cut, how will you cover it? Are you willing to relocate?

It took Susan Rubin, 48, of Armonk, New York, four years to give up her legal practice and become a yoga instructor.

"I was hesitant to make the jump," she says, "but in the meantime, I was training and saving money. It was very hard for me to close the doors of my practice. But once I did, I never looked back."

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