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How to Switch Careers in a Recession

Generally speaking, deciding to switch professions in an era of spiraling unemployment is a pretty good definition of a career death wish. Even in the best of times, it's hard to persuade a hiring manager to consider you over someone who has a record in the field. The hurdle gets ridiculously higher in a recession, when employers have their pick of overqualified applicants.

Still, if you work in a shriveling industry like asset securitization, auto manufacturing, or print publishing, you have to ask, What's the alternative? If doing nothing means your livelihood will go down with the ship, well, you have your answer. You have no choice.

On the upside, a few professions are having labor shortages even in this economy. But don't kid yourself: Changing careers will be tough. In times like these, the standard advice from career coaches to patiently evaluate your skills and reposition yourself becomes something of a joke. You're going to have to take extreme measures. Here's how to do it.

Stop Dreaming

Goal: Be cold-blooded in your choice of a new career.

There’s an inherent appeal to the notion that career changers should transition into something they love. If your passion is also your vocation, the thinking goes, you’ll work harder and be more persistent. But following your bliss isn’t always the best strategy, particularly these days. “Ten percent of the population is passionate about what they do,” says career counselor Julie Jansen, author of I Don’t Know What I Want, but I Know It’s Not This. “You don’t need to be passionate. You need to want to get out of bed in the morning and like 80 percent of what you do. If you have that and you’re getting paid fairly, then you have a good gig.”

The logical place to look for jobs that clear that relatively low hurdle is in the industries that are hiring now, such as education, health care, and government. Howard Seidel of Boston-based Essex Partners, a career consultancy, recently helped a client make the switch from financial services, which has been hemorrhaging jobs, to a far more secure position at a government agency, where the client oversees his former industry. While it wasn’t the client’s first career choice, he has been pleasantly surprised by the intellectual challenge of his new post and enjoys the unaccustomed sensation of job security. “He feels he’s making a contribution, [and] he feels he offers a unique lens through which to analyze problems,” Seidel says.

Get Paid to Switch

Goal: Use your current employer’s benefits to prep for a new career.

Yeah, yeah, you know: You should be grateful to have a job these days. If you have kids and a mortgage, you shouldn’t even think about handing in your resignation without another position lined up. Which means you’re going to have to start preparing for your next job while you’re still at your current desk.

There may be ways to get your current employer to pay for some of that prep work. According to the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD), companies spent an average of $1,103 per employee in 2007 for additional training, and many companies will reimburse much more. Of course, for more extensive — and expensive — training, like getting an MBA, employers will typically require that you stay on for a year or more after getting your degree. But that’s a fair trade-off considering how much you’d otherwise have to pay. As for whether you should feel bad about getting your training paid for and then leaving, well, think of it this way: As long as you’re continuing to do your job well, you’re simply taking advantage of the benefits your company offers. “Most companies consider paying for training a cost of doing business,” says Pat Galagan of the ASTD. “[Having people leave] is an acceptable risk, especially when compared to not doing training.”

Case Study

How An Engineer Moved Into Graphic Design

After eight years of working for a NASA contractor in Maryland, software test engineer Kia Arian felt that her work was becoming routine and needed a change. “I thought, What can I do that’s creative and still uses my computer skills?” she says. Arian eventually settled on graphic design and, thanks to her company’s tuition reimbursement plan, was able to take a two-year, $15,000 course in visual communications and graphic design from a local school without spending a dime of her own money. At the time, she was doing some rudimentary Web design for her testing group, which allowed her to justify taking the course to her employer. Soon after she finished her coursework in 2004, Arian and her husband decided to buy a printing and graphic design business called Zine Graphics and Web, and today she utilizes the skills she picked up in school in her work producing marketing materials like brochures and booklets. “The tuition assistance definitely made the decision to go forward with [the career change] easier,” she says.

Take a Demotion

Goal: Get your foot in the door, and don’t worry about the title — yet.

Getting a job in a new industry is always somewhat out of your control, no matter how effective you are at repositioning yourself, since a potential employer still has to be willing to take a chance on you. “Hiring managers are risk-averse in any economy. They’re even more so today,” says Ricki Frankel, a San Francisco-based career counselor.

To make your job candidacy remotely attractive to your hiring manager, you’ll have to be willing to accept a reduction in status and salary; lateral moves between industries are exceedingly rare. But a step back in money and prestige should also be temporary. Wendy Fisher, for instance, was a senior manager at a major consulting firm, running large projects with as many as 15 direct reports. But when Fisher left consulting for the beauty industry, her first job was as a temp for Estee Lauder, a three-month position she got as a fluke when someone at the company came down with mono a few days after Fisher had an informational interview there.

Even after she landed her first full-time position at a small New York beauty company, Fisher was making about half the six-figure salary she earned in consulting. She had to do detailed personal budgets just to make ends meet. “That was tough,” Fisher says. “It was a readjustment of my lifestyle.” Within a year, though, she got a raise, then another and another. Three years later, she’s still at the same company, working as an e-commerce marketer and with a director-level title.

Career counselor Jansen says Fisher’s career trajectory is not unusual. Stepping a few rungs down the career ladder is often worth it. “When a career changer sits in front of me and complains that they’re doing things they did 10 years ago, I say, so what?” Jansen says. “If it brings you closer to what you want eventually, just get over it.”

Forget Your Network

Goal: Find people who can actually help you.

The mantra “work your network” has been worked to death by career advisers. But Caroline Ceniza-Levine, herself a New York-based career and life coach, believes your existing contacts are actually of little use if you’re hoping to switch industries. If you’re a lawyer, you’re likely to know other lawyers, which probably won’t help much if you want to become, say, a marketer. Finding people who might know about jobs in your new field means drumming up the courage to leave your network behind. “You have to get comfortable with contacting people cold,” Ceniza-Levine says.

That doesn’t mean pulling out a phone book and dialing blindly. For Sun Min, a lawyer who wanted to make the transition to broadcast journalist several years ago, the key was to find people she had something in common with, even though she didn’t know them. So she went to career services at her alma mater, Barnard College, and wrote down the names of 10 alums working in network news, all of whom had volunteered to give advice to aspiring journalists. Before she called, Min wrote down five questions for each person, understanding the need to be prepared and not waste any of her contacts’ time.

Min was surprised by how willing complete strangers were to help. Most said to use their names when contacting other people in the business, and she was even directed to the people who were doing the hiring. “Even in the shark tank of Manhattan, there are people who want to be mentors,” says Min, who eventually found work on a series of news programs, including 20/20 and 48 Hours. “Especially in this economy, there are people who want to help those struggling to find jobs.”

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