Should I Ditch the Finance Industry and Start Clean?

Last Updated Apr 21, 2009 4:03 PM EDT

Dear Stanley,

I'm one of the unfortunate folks who lost their mortgage underwriter job when my company closed. Any ideas on a possible transition to a new career and how to address it with prospective employers?

Moving On

Dear Moving On,

I feel sorry for you. You're coming off a career that is now totally disrespected in many ways. What did mortgage underwriters do for the last 10 years or so? Gave crazy mortgages to a lot of people who maybe shouldn't have gotten one. Can you retool yourself to operate in the new mortgage environment? I have a friend who tried to get a mortgage recently. It was a nightmare. As insanely lenient as things were before, now the banks are flipped the other way. They're nuts, sitting on their fat hoards of bailout cash and basically refusing to lend it to anybody unwilling to jump through flaming hoops, barking. This friend of mine makes a good salary, has a bit of money in the bank, the house was fairly appraised, and he got a great price. But the "speedy closing" department of the lending institution keeps sending him letters and more letters and additional requests for duplicate forms and indemnification documents and so on and so forth and blah blah blah. He's been at it for two months with no end in sight. These guys were drunk on risk for a decade, and now they're cringing in a corner, trembling like wet Chihuahuas. Isn't there a middle ground?

I read in the newspaper last week that the finance industry is coming back. I think that's true. So there's probably some hope for you if you stick with your current skill set. Keep in mind that reform of systems like the banking industry is spasmodic. Things will get more vigilant and responsible for a time. But before long, the banks will be back at their old tricks, figuring out ways to make short term windfall profits and squeezing every last drop of lucre out of the money machine. If you're patient, you'll be back pumping out no-cost loans in no time, I am sure.

Before that, I'd stick pretty close to the things you know how to do. You could market yourself as a strategic planner. I've noticed that there's been a bump in corporate interest in the planning function. Finance types who understand risk and return are needed always. The fact is, organizations have been on a bit of a heedless joyride for quite some time. I personally haven't seen a tedious, six-pound deck of charts laying out the Ten Year Plan in a really long time. So perhaps the time is right for a return to more responsible forecasting and slow, sure growth. Could be a growth area for guys who until recently were capable of justifying anything.

Whatever you do, stay in finance, though. Moving out of that discipline will mean the acquisition of a whole new skill set -- primary among them being the ability to write in plain, understandable English -- as well as the need to explain what you've been doing for the last few years and why you don't want to do it anymore. Too much explaining bogs down an interview. Make the most of what you know. Build on where you've been. It's easier than starting over completely.