How to Switch Careers in Midlife

Many people fantasize about changing careers, but few actually follow through. It just seems too daunting.

These days, though, a lot of people don’t have much choice. Maybe their industry’s days seem numbered, and they figure they better start planning now. Or maybe they already have been hit by a layoff.

But making a change — whether voluntary or forced — can be particularly tricky for people who have been in one field for many years. Typically, they don’t even know the answers to some of the most basic questions: What kind of job am I interested in? What kind of job am I suited for? What kind of work is available out there?

Here are some tips on finding answers and making the career-change process less traumatic:

Square One

“The first step is to assess yourself and what you’re looking for,” says Emily Allen, manager of the Workforce Initiative Program at AARP, formerly the American Association of Retired Persons. For older workers, it’s often “the first time in life that they can consider what they want to do rather than what they need to do.”

One place to turn for assistance: free services offered by many states. For instance, the Massachusetts Department of Workforce Development has 32 “One-Stop Career Centers” that offer no-charge or low-cost career counseling, workshops on job-search strategies and networking groups. You may also get such services as part of a severance package from an employer.

Career Coaches

Many job seekers also are hiring career coaches for help in identifying new fields and applying for new jobs. These advisers often have an advanced degree in counseling, human resources or psychology and typically charge about $100 an hour.

Look for someone who is certified by groups such as the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs or the National Board for Certified Counselors and Affiliates. Ask about experience with career changes.

Counselors say working with a professional can keep you focused and upbeat.

“A lot of people don’t do this work without deadlines and someone helping them,” says Peg Hendershot, director of Career Vision, a nonprofit career counseling service in Glen Ellyn, Ill.

Outsiders may also give you more objective counsel than family and close friends — “an outside voice,” Ms. Hendershot says.

Testing the Waters

Job counselors typically begin the process by interviewing clients about their interests and by administering tests to identify natural aptitudes and potential fields of work.

One commonly used tool is the Myer-Briggs Type Indicator, which classifies different aspects of people’s personalities.

Others include the Strong Interest Inventory and the Ball Aptitude Battery.

You also can take tests online. The Center for Applications of Psychological Type offers the Myer-Briggs for $150, including a written report and a one-hour phone “feedback session.” To find other tests, some of which are free, search online for “assessment tools.”

Test results are “a catalyst for thinking about choices,” says Kent Wampler, deputy director of JobNet Career Center, one of the Massachusetts centers.

Digging Deeper

After identifying potential fields, a good place to start on further research is the Department of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbook.

The guide provides information about salaries, educational requirements and job opportunities. It is available at libraries, job-placement centers and online.

Web sites geared to people in a particular field sometimes offer a wealth of career information.

But reading about a job isn’t enough. It’s important to observe the work and to talk with people in the field.

Get Out There

Professional associations are a good place to meet people and to learn about potential jobs.

Also, see if you can spend time shadowing someone in a field you are considering. Ron Roge, who became an independent financial adviser after almost 20 years at a telephone company, has sometimes invited others considering a similar move to observe a typical day at his Bohemia, N.Y., firm.

Job counselors also recommend volunteering in a field to get a better understanding of the work. For instance, if you are thinking about becoming a high-school teacher, look for opportunities to work with teens in a community or school organization. If you’re thinking about construction, organizations such as Habitat for Humanity need volunteers to build homes.

Volunteering “is also a great way to make contacts” that could lead to a job offer, says Linnea Walsh, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Workforce Development.

Other Options

Particularly if you’ve already left a job, working for a temporary-staffing company can be a way to try something new. For instance, Kelly Services provides free testing, job training and placement services in temporary and permanent positions.

A temporary job is a way to “put a toe into the water,” says Steve Armstrong, a vice president of operations for Kelly.

Take particular care if you are thinking about starting a new business, particularly if it’s your first. Don’t leave your day job without a business plan and enough cash for living expenses.

Mr. Roge, who now has 10 employees, says he “miscalculated what I would need for living expenses” early in his second career. “It took longer to build a business than I thought.”



By Jilian Mincer

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