Remembering Career Change Basics
How does that new cliché I just made up go? This isn’t your father’s interviewing market. Truer words were never spoken. Global trade is changing life for all of us. Technology is automating human processes. Computer modeling is trumping gut feeling. Teleconference marketing is replacing sales trips. Highly qualified candidates are being hired on temp contracts and cut loose when the project is over or the job is shipped offshore to cheaper-labor nations.
Keep your dreams alive as you assume the role of career changer in a new era, but be clear-eyed about the challenges you face when you set out to interview yourself into places where you’re a stranger. Mull over the following points of practical straight talk about career changing:
- Career change is not job change. A career change involves a marked shift in jobs requiring new primary skills or knowledge, or a totally different work environment — or both. For example, when a manager in the telecom industry leaves one company for another managerial position in the same industry, he makes a job change; when he leaves the telecom industry to become a museum curator, he makes a career change to a different job and different industry.
- Retraining may be unavoidable. When you attempt to make a clear change to a different kind of job (for instance, engineer to sales rep) in the same industry, you may well be able to pitch your way into an employer’s graces without investing in additional formal education or training. Your challenge is more difficult when you try to change both your job and your industry at the same time, but you may be able to pull it off without immediately spending additional time and money in school. However, you won’t be able to get out of educational renewal to satisfy credibility and licensing requirements in such careers as law, public accounting, and nursing.
- Employers worry most about risk. Managers are concerned whether the crossover skills (which I tell you about in the upcoming section “Leveraging Crossover Skills for Change”) you acquired in your former career will translate to your new career. When your skills don’t convert and you can’t do the work, the business suffers a negative impact and — if you’re fired — a risk of being sued for wrongful discharge. Another worry is whether you’ll suffer changer’s remorse, quickly becoming dissatisfied and turning into a “bad hire.” These risks drive employers to seek out directly applicable skills in proven performers.
- Your competitors are new graduates. When you’re starting over, you compete with new graduates who are starting out. Expect to be paid entry-level money; an employer is unlikely to compensate you for your 15 years’ experience in another field (unless you can show that your experience can save or earn money for the new employer). Even so, you have an ace up your sleeve: You bring judgment, commitment, high motivation, proven good work habits, and real-world lessons.
Eyeing the Best Career-Change Tips
When you want to give your best effort to prevent a career change, whether voluntary or involuntary, from going awry, pay attention to the following pointers.
- Connect with others in your intended field. When your change is voluntary, at least six months in advance of your leap, join a professional association of members in the career field or industry where you want to go. When your change is involuntary and you’re suddenly left high and dry, scramble to assemble a skeleton personal network of people who can guide you into your intended field and beef it up as fast as you can. Make friends. Find out who’s who and what’s happening with professionals who can connect you with employment. Ask what you should read and what workshops you should attend. Ask if you can visit a professional’s workplace as an observer.
- Educate yourself. Seek out short-term certificate programs and workshops offered during industry conferences, as well as those available locally. If you study online, get the scoop on pluses and pitfalls of distance learning. One starting spot: www.geteducated.com.
- Bone up on the industry. Even if you’re a nonacademic type who always sneaked light rubbish reads or sports sections into your study halls, at this time in your life, you really can’t afford to skip hard-core research on your proposed destination. Those greener pastures sometimes bleach out when something about the work isn’t what a changer realistically expects or can do well. This probably happens as a result of skimpy research.
- Talk the talk. Learn the lingo of prospective new colleagues. You’ll seem like one of them already — an insider, not an outsider.
- Brace yourself for interview pitfalls. When you find yourself trapped in a behavior-based interview setting and you’re coming up short trying to answer a question about what you have done that’s relevant to the new career, answer quickly. Then reframe your response, segueing from behavior-based interviewing (the past) to situational interviewing (the future): That’s a good question. And here’s what I would do if we decide I’m the right person for this position. I would —.
- Make the experience connection. The bridge you use to join the old with the new must be rational and reasonable. Your qualifications have to come from somewhere — skills you already possess, volunteer work, part-time jobs, training, hobbies, and so forth. Strive to present a believable relationship between your qualifications and the career you’re targeting. The more convincing your bridge, the easier you make it for an employer to say, “Welcome, we want you.”
- Accentuate the positive. Don’t say you hope to change careers because there are no more jobs in your field. An exception may be when a condition is well known, such as real estate agents who got out during the recent downturn in home sales. Even then, add that you’d been thinking about making a change for a couple years and have decided to redesign your life for a better fit with your priorities and goals. As in any job search, you’re moving toward a preferred future, not running away from a bad spot or a toxic boss.
- Tell true stories. Expect to be asked the same kinds of questions that new graduates often face, such as some version of “Why shouldn’t we hire someone more experienced in this line of work?” When you work out your answers, remember to storytell — that is, to back up your claims of superior qualities with true examples of accomplishments. Otherwise, what you claim will likely be blown off as hot air. You must be believable.
- Inventory your core skills and knowledge. Sort through to see which will cross over to a different industry or career field. Push them to the front of your memory, where you can find and translate them as needed. The use of crossover skills is the topic of the next segment.
Leveraging Crossover Skills for Change
Midcareer, Roger (or so I’m calling our hero in this true story) woke up one morning asking himself, “Is this all there is?” Successful but unhappily employed, Roger wanted to find a new way to work, produce, self-actualize, earn a living, and be happy.
Pulling the plug on his job as a controller of a division of a big Midwestern corporation, Roger worked with an experienced career coach on self-analysis; a big part of the analysis focused on identifying Roger’s crossover skills. Using judgment born of maturity, Roger realized that what he really wanted to do was work outdoors with boats. After leaving his land-locked state and moving to Florida, Roger’s transferable skills, including boating and financial management, built his crossover bridge into a marina business that he liked so much he ended up buying it two years later.
Using crossover skills as a bridge from one career (or job) to another is your most important persuasion tool to gain acceptance in job interviews. So what exactly are crossover skills? In a nutshell, crossover skills (also called transferrable skills) are those you’ve gathered through jobs, classes, volunteer work, hobbies, sports, projects, parenting, or any other life experience that can be valuable in your new career.
Blogging, for example, is a crossover skill. Surprised? Don’t be. Blogging is more than going online and telling the world about your day or what you think. For starters, blogging requires more than writing skills. As a blogger, you build a loyal readership and study visitor statistics to see what works and what doesn’t. You meet self-announced deadlines for new material. You make intelligent responses to comments, including those that insult your own intelligence. As an extension of social networking, blogging can benefit many businesses (such as financial services) or causes (such as politics) that depend on large numbers of customers and supporters. Any entity seeking to establish or maintain a blog needs people who can make it work correctly.
A few better-known examples of crossover skills include the following:
- Decision making
- Oral and written communication
- Problem solving
- Technological savvy
Crossovers are portable skills that you can use in many work settings. They go straight to the heart of an employer’s question of “Can you do the job?” Considering the importance of been-there, done-that experience to the success of your career change, be ready to identify your crossover skills to an interviewer and to translate how they make you immediately productive.
There’s a hitch. Even brilliant people have trouble correctly and comprehensively identifying their portable skills. Searching online for “crossover skills” or “transferable skills” is the cheapest and quickest way to get started on identifying yours. Additionally, look for books that contain multipage listings of portable skills, including my own Cover Letters For Dummies, 3rd Edition. When big, fat holes remain in your inventory of crossover skills, it’s time to return to your college’s career center for help or engage a career coach well versed in identifying skills and competencies.
Say What? Say This When You’re in Change Mode
You aren’t going to ring up a sale trying to explain why your previous experience as a restaurant manager qualifies you to manage a nuclear waste disposal company. But you are going to make headway with hiring decisions when you give convincing reasons why your lack of explicit prior experience doesn’t matter. Study these sample answers and then add your own circumstances, interpretations, and phrases to the scripts that follow.
- To respond to hesitations about your career change:
This job is a good fit for what I’ve been interested in throughout my career — working with others to achieve an above-average outcome, enjoying the satisfaction of being technically competent, and having a serious interest in sports. For example, my work at Leader Public Relations taught me that a team needs bench strength. When the senior publicist left Leader unexpectedly, I was able to successfully step in and increase placements within six months by 20 percent. The persuasion skills I bring along with seven years of surfing ideally qualify me for this position as assistant manager of surf board production. Do you agree?
- To respond to concerns that your previous experience is irrelevant to the job you want:
I am a well-qualified candidate for this educational research position because cost control expertise required by the grant is more than met with my 15 years’ experience as a manager with budget and supervisory responsibility.
- To respond to concerns that your previous position is irrelevant to the job you want:
Yes, I was a receptionist for 12 years, and it was great training to deal with all levels of individuals. Here’s why I am so well matched to your brokerage department. Not only have I interacted with venture and equity capital managers and with retirement fund managers in a high-pressure environment, but I have taken a course in financial markets and stock, bonds, and other investments. With the world rushing forward, I think we need new thinking for new times, don’t you? My people skills will help me to bring in the kinds of customers you’ve been losing to online traders. Do you see any reasons why I wouldn’t be a great addition to your team?
- To demonstrate that you are changing directions with forethought and action:
As I matured and got to know myself better, I realized how I fit into Career X better than what I’d been doing, although my previous work has been fine preparation for what I plan to do with the rest of my life. I’ve been steadily drawn to Career X for several years, and getting ready for this transition, I did the following (attended school, researched and volunteered in the field, took a part-time job in the new industry). Since you didn’t screen me out because of my prior experience, I assume you recognize my crossover skills.
I appreciate your valuable time invested in seeing me, so I have taken the initiative of working up a brief ledger sheet that shows you how I qualify for this position. May I come around the desk and walk you through it?
(A ledger sheet in this usage refers to a brief one-page sheet of paper with two columns. Title the left column “Job Requirements.” Title the right column “My Qualifications.” Show the matches item by item. You can do a ledger sheet for interviews on paper or on a laptop.)
- Waitress transitioning to wholesale sales rep:
Although I haven’t yet specifically sold eyewear accessory products to retailers, I do have sales experience when you consider that, in my previous job, I was a de facto sales representative for the restaurant.
My upselling record consistently brought in high revenues each week. I’ve demonstrated that I pay close attention to detail, that I can multitask with precision and accuracy, and that I know how to build a loyal clientele of customers who rave about my service and attention to their requirements. (Smile.) While I’m certainly not the type of person who would lose her head if it weren’t attached to her shoulder, I am the type of person who would lose her reading glasses if they weren’t attached to lovely eyewear accessory chains such as the one around my neck.
I won’t disappoint you. When can I start?
- To respond to reason you are interviewing:
As soon as I was sure I wanted to do work that makes a difference in people’s lives, I researched this field and reached out to practitioners for informational interviews. I quickly learned that I had to have an associate degree for this work, but before I signed up at New School Community College, I researched the reputation of its program by checking with previous graduates and with the employers who hire them. I also went online to a social network and asked for comments on what people really thought about the program I was considering making sacrifices to attend. Everything I heard was good, so I attended and now have my degree. It was a great decision!
- To the issue of the cause of satisfaction in your last career and concern that you would experience changer’s remorse:
I didn’t see the results of all the hard work I put in. The structure was overly rigid and bureaucratic, and, frankly, I like to feel as though my contributions accomplish a positive outcome. And although I am pretty good with computers, I like to have a slice of my day working with people. I checked out your company with my network, and you get glowing reviews for rewarding outstanding performance, for giving employees breathing space to accomplish their assignments, for being able to observe the fruits of their labor, and for hiring great teams. Is that how you see this company? Are we made for each other?
Steer Clear of Snap Judgments
The message is clear: To successfully sell a career change, remember to logically lay out a bridge explaining why you — with no prior matching experience — will be able to handle the job you seek. And take pains to assure that you, as a career changer, aren’t given to snap judgments and quick reversal.
Funny stuff will happen if you say either of the following bloopers:
- I saw the job posting and, what the hey, this company is in an industry that I’m willing to give a whirl.
- I’m changing careers because I can’t stand what I’ve been doing and just need several more quarters for my social security.
People actually say things like this in interviews. They don’t realize that such rationales are akin to telling a prospective buyer that you’re selling your house because the heating bill is too high.