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Uncharted Territory
A Career Transition Can Present Obstacles if Not Well-Planned

By Andrea N. Browne
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Friday, June 23, 2006 6:00 AM

When Washington's Meredith Bove learned she was pregnant in January 2005, she knew changes were inevitable.

An excited mother-to-be, Bove, 30, realized her 50-hour work week and the unstable nature of her job as an internal consultant for a global telecommunications company would no longer work. With that in mind, she hired a career coach while on maternity leave in August.

With 10 years in the workforce, Bove wanted stability. For her, that meant a desk she could call her own, a set work schedule so she could spend more time with her husband and growing family, and a steady group of clients. After some thought, Bove eventually decided switching careers was her best chance.

She interviewed for jobs in management consulting and at nonprofit associations before accepting a position as an account director at McLean, Va., public relations firm SheaHedges Group, in February. Now, Bove says she loves her new situation and is doing rewarding and meaningful work.

Bove's experience is not uncommon: Many professionals find themselves at a crossroads during their career and considering substantial changes. Some make the choice willingly, looking for new opportunities with anticipation; others find themselves unhappy or unemployed, making change a matter of necessity.

What's Your Motivation?

Transitioning to a new field can be challenging. To make the process run more smoothly, experts say, fine-tune your strategy based on your motivations for seeking a change. Most workers are in one of the following categories:

·  Unemployed and looking. Whether laid off or bought out, unemployed workers are in the same boat, their job stability at an end -- or nearing one. In such a case, says Katherine Ponds, senior vice president of transitions practice for employment consulting firm Right Management, don't panic.
Instead, she says, take time to determine what your professional goals are, then decide whether it's best to immediately respond to vacancy announcements or contact a recruiter based on what's most effective given your targeted job openings. Asking family and friends for job leads is another option.

Those considering buyout offers have a little extra leeway, adds Ponds, as they can investigate these questions at length before accepting or rejecting the offer.

·  In search of balance. Many workers find themselves wanting better work/life balance. This is common in the case of professionals eager to take the time to start families, but is also increasingly a desire for executive-level workers who are ready to take a step back from the boardroom and put personal obligations ahead of professional ones.
The strategy for making such changes happen varies according to the situation: While most workers will have to make a strong business case to employers for why they can make a successful switch to a new career, upper-level professionals can find themselves working to convince employers that they're not overqualified. "It is important not to 'dumb down' your resume," in such cases, says Ponds.

·  Unhappy or bored. When workers are unhappy with their jobs -- feeling underutilized, stuck, or otherwise disengaged -- they "do a lot of introspection about what direction they want the rest of their lives to go," says Darwin Flinn, vice president of corporate services and business development for Poughkeepsie, N.Y.-based human resources consulting firm Career Soar Inc., as the thought of spending years doing something unbearable often spurs a desire for change.

To break the cycle, suggests Dana Law, president of Hueytown, Ala., organizational performance consulting firm Sankora Executive Solutions Inc., workers should try an assessment test, such as the Strong Campbell Interest Inventory, to determine which career field suits them best.

Time to Strategize

Once you know where you are and what you need, another challenge arises: How to best prove you are qualified if your previous work experience isn't a perfect match?

First, Ponds says, do not look so far afield that you're being unrealistic. It should be clear you can do the job you're applying for. Look at the job description carefully, she suggests, and see if you have at least 70 percent of the core requirements for the position -- then use a functional format resume, which highlights accomplishments and demonstrated successes rather than work experience and job titles, when applying.

Your non-traditional background can also distinguish you from the competition, according to Flinn. In your application, carefully identify the specific qualities only you can bring. In interviews, he adds, a "can-do, positive attitude" will impress hiring managers. (Bove says this strategy helped her land her new gig.) If you're worried that your lack of experience might hurt you, remember that you can bolster yourself by understanding exactly what you are capable of and expressing that clearly and confidently to potential employers.

You can also fill holes in your experience by taking courses in your targeted field, says Law. For example, if you want to move from commercial advertising to to the business world, consider business management classes. Apart from the skills you'll pick up, your initiative can impress potential employers. To understand what might be needed, she advises researching the specific job requirements by visiting online job boards that list an overview of similar roles and investigating the companies you are targeting carefully.

No matter what your circumstances, networking always helps. While many job seekers are hesitant to try it, industry events are a proven way to meet everyone from top executives to hiring managers. Put yourself out there -- let people know you're interested in work; ask for help and advice, and follow-up with them. While it may not turn into a job immediately, the experience will inform your search and circulate your name.

"Networking is critical for anyone trying to make a career change," says Robbie Morganfield, executive director of the Diversity Institute at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., which trains minority professionals for transitions into journalism. "You need to know who's who and what's going on in that industry."

If at First You Don't Succeed

Even with the best intentions and preparation, career transitions -- like all job hunting -- can take time. If your initial attempts at making a switch prove difficult, you might want to re-evaluate your approach, assess what isn't working and make changes.

One of the most frequent reasons people are unsuccessful, says Ponds, is that they don't take an organized approach to transitioning. Applying to job openings without thoroughly reviewing your resume and determining whether the position is realistic can lead to wasted time and frustration, so careful research of industries and job descriptions can help you avoid this.

Another barrier to success, says Flinn, is not effectively representing your unique skills during an interview. Since most workers seeking transitions may be combating apparent "holes" in their qualifications, it's important to give employers reasons to believe those holes shouldn't scare them away. If you're having trouble doing this, Flinn recommends seeking the assistance of a career transition consultant.

And always stay positive. Most hiring managers put an awful lot of effort into finding the right person for the job, says Ponds. Give them a reason to believe it could be you and you'll always have a chance.

It worked for Bove. Almost four months into her new position, she's happy with the outcome of her transition and is working harder than ever. Bove says, "It's not always about how many hours you work. I have the flexibility I need in terms of juggling work and home, and that's all I've wanted."

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