New Jobs: 8 Lessons from Real-Life Career Switchers

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Last Updated Nov 11, 2009 10:07 AM EST

When Lisa Eaves decided to make a mid-career switch from working as a tech specialist for Fannie Mae to opening her own acupuncture practice five years ago, it was a risky move, but not a rash one.

During treatment for melanoma several years earlier, Eaves, 51, had become fascinated with Chinese medicine. And she also began realizing that technology work, while financially rewarding, was not something she was passionate about. “I felt it was time to explore other lines of work, and my health scare gave me that push,” Eaves says. So she enrolled in night and weekend classes while she worked and eventually got a Master's degree in acupuncture before starting her practice part-time.

Eaves had time on her side, and ideally, so will you. But if a layoff or a shrinking industry has left you little choice but to find another line of work, there’s still plenty you can do to prepare and make that transition as smooth and successful as possible. According to a recent CareerBuilder.com survey, one-third of American workers are interested in changing careers right now. Here are eight rules for doing it right.

1. Dig Inside for an Honest Appraisal

While it’s obviously crucial to match your next job or career to your interests, that can be easier said than done. You may have been working in the same field for years — or even decades — making it hard to get a good idea of what else you’re suited for.

To help you get started, check out free self-assessment quizzes at Careerpath.com and Monster.com. You can find more detailed personality tests — such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the Strong Interest Inventory, and the Work-Personality Index — for a fee at What’s Next.

Beverly Jones, a 53-year-old corporate lawyer and vice president of external affairs and policy at Consolidated Natural Gas, accepted a modest early-retirement package. Her second-act plan was to get involved in landscape design, since gardening was one of her passions.

But she soon found that it didn’t make sense as a career choice. As a hobby, gardening was the perfect antidote to a busy career, but the solitary nature of the work made it a lousy full-time gig. She thrived on social contact. The good news: Jones had another skill — mentoring — that met all her requirements for a rewarding second career.

While remaining loosely associated with a law firm and lobbying for a nonprofit, she studied and obtained a Leadership Coaching Certificate from Georgetown University. She also attended career workshops, hired her own career coach, and read extensively about the field. Roughly six months later, she launched her own coaching/consulting practice in Washington. “In time, I began to find my own voice as a coach and felt confident I was doing what I was meant to do,” Jones says.

2. Get the Skills You Need Before You Leave Your Job

If at all possible, keep your current job while you add the education you need for your new pursuit so that you can reduce your financial burden. Under federal law, employers can offer up to $5,250 a year in tax-free education-assistance benefits for undergraduate or graduate courses. You don’t even need to be working toward a degree. Your employer, however, may require you to receive a minimum grade or to complete a program to be eligible for reimbursement. You may also need to stay employed by your company for a period of time after completing the course of study. And some employers even offer these benefits to laid-off former employees.

When mortgage banker Cliff Stevenson, 55, decided to become a high-school social-studies teacher a few years ago, he took night courses for two years to get a master’s degree in education before he resigned from his firm. Since he had an undergraduate degree in history, all he needed were seven additional courses in education to be certified as a social-studies teacher in Pennsylvania. “I started planning years before I switched careers,” Stevenson says. “My wife and I thought carefully about the financial aspects, and I set a target date that I would leave the mortgage-banking business, which allowed me to go to school and stuff away as much money as I could.” Unplanned bonus: He got out of mortgage banking just before the industry fell off a cliff.

3. Take Advantage of Education Tax Breaks

If you need to ramp up your skills with a degree or additional classwork, the tuition tab can be onerous. Stevenson’s total cost for a master’s degree in education, for instance, was $35,000. Depending on your income, though, you might qualify for various tax credits, such as the lifetime learning credit, worth up to $2,000 each year for an unlimited number of years that can be used for tuition and fees. The credit has an income phaseout for 2009 incomes from $50,000 to $60,000 (single filer) or $100,000 to $120,000 (married filing jointly). These phaseouts are indexed for inflation.

4. Apply for Student Aid

Financial aid isn’t just for undergrads — anyone can get low-cost student loans from the government, even if you’re only attending part-time. Acupuncturist Eaves was able to borrow $10,500 to help with her $26,000 tuition using low-interest Stafford loans, the main federal loan for students. Graduate Stafford loans currently charge a fixed rate of 6.8 percent, compared with about 8 percent for a home-equity loan.

The good news is that the federal aid formulas that determine how much you can borrow don’t take into account your home-equity or retirement accounts. Also, a certain amount of your savings — about $20,000 to over $60,000, depending on your age and marital status — are not calculated into your aid formula. And your student-loan interest may even be tax deductible, depending on your income level. You can get more information on what’s deductible from IRS Publication 970, as well as from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators’ Tax Benefits Guide.

In addition, there are a number of research scholarships and grants available specifically for older students that are offered by different associations and foundations. Check out sites such as FastWeb and FinAid to find what’s available.

5. Consider Moving to Reduce Costs

The reality is that you will probably have to take a salary cut when you move into a new career, so it might make sense to look for work in an area where the cost of living is lower. Tim Sheerer, 48, moved from an expensive northern New Jersey suburb, where he had commuted to work on Wall Street as an investment banker, to Pittsburgh, when he decided to enter the restaurant business and open an Italian bistro. The cost of living there — about one-third lower — allowed him the cushion to get his restaurant up and running without undue financial pressure. Of course, that sort of uprooting is a little more complicated if you have a family to consider. For Sheerer, he couldn’t have done it without getting the green light from his wife, Colleen, and four children, who all pitch in at the restaurant.

6. Train While You Work

When Seattle human resources pro Arlene Carter lost her job, a friend told her about an executive fundraising job at a local assisted-living community. The job duties combined fundraising, public relations, and marketing. Carter figured she didn’t have quite the right skills for the job, but she went for the interview anyway. As it turned out, the hiring manager for the nonprofit foundation liked her and offered to shell out a few grand to help her to earn a certificate in fundraising from Indiana University-Purdue University.

It may be hard to believe, but there are some fields, particularly in the health care sector, where there’s a shortage of workers, so employers are willing to help train employees who have the overall skill set and personality to do a job but need to bone up on the nuts and bolts. “The kind of work I did in human resources and what you do in public relations is actually pretty close,” says Carter. “And because it was a hybrid job, it was a little easier to make the stretch.”

Fields such as nursing, eldercare, and home health services are particularly amenable to on-the-job training, says Ellen Freudenheim, author of The Boomers’ Guide to Good Work.

7. Downsize Your Lifestyle

When you’re new to a profession, you usually can’t expect to pull in the big bucks until you ramp up your skills and gain experience. So get a clear handle on your finances, and start to look for places to cut spending. Ask what luxuries you can do without, from dining out to dry cleaning. And set aside a cushion of up to six months of living expenses to ease transition costs, as well as for unexpected emergencies. Before she left Fannie Mae, Eaves, for instance, refinanced her condo to lower her monthly mortgage payment and paid off her car loan.

Arlene Carter had to take a 15 percent pay cut for her new position, but she’s taken it in stride. For starters, she now commutes just one mile to work as opposed to 30 minutes to her ex-employer’s office, which helps her save on gas and wear and tear on her car. She and her husband also found ways to trim monthly expenses by cutting channel options for their cable-TV service and reducing the number of minutes available on their cell phones. They make a habit of opting for home-cooked meals, and her new work environment’s casual dress policy means lower wardrobe bills. “I don’t even notice the pay cut,” Carter says.

8. Get Your Foot in the Door

It’s critical to soak up as much as you can about the businesses that appeal to you before you make the plunge. So do informational interviews with people who work in those fields, apply for internships or fellowships, and consider volunteering or moonlighting to get a sense of what the job entails. A potential employer can get a chance to see what you have to offer, and you get a peek inside to see if the job suits you.

Before Steve Brooks, a veteran TV producer based in Atlanta, opened his boutique winery in Walla Walla, Wash., he worked as an apprentice to top-drawer winemakers in the region, in addition to taking classes. “I made a lot of contacts in the business and connected with winemakers who were willing to mentor me,” Brooks says. “I was a cellar rat for three years, and it was the best education I could imagine.”

Kerry Hannon is the author of the upcoming book, What’s Next: How to Follow Your Passions to a Fantastic and Fulfilling New Career (Chronicle Books).

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