How to Deal

Changing Fields in a Rocky Job Market

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By Lily Garcia
Special to washingtonpost
Thursday, December 25, 2008; 12:00 AM

I've been laid off from my job. I'm in my mid-forties. Is it really truly possible for a forty-something to change careers without going back to school and incurring thousands of student loan debts? Remember, there is no company to pay for my school and I need to be working again within six months. For those of us in the middle to lower rungs of the economic ladder, how feasible is a career change later in life?

After 20 or more years on a career path, making a change is hard. The difficulty results from the fact that starting anew usually requires accepting a position at much lower seniority and pay. Even if you do go back to school, as you suggest, or retrain in another way, there is no getting around the fact that you lack the necessary direct experience to be considered for a new role commensurate with your years in the workforce.

You might be able to preserve some of your seniority by switching to a related or analogous field. Such arrangements are especially feasible for employees who remain within the same organization. For example, an accounting professional responsible for an organization's payroll might be able to transition into a position on the human resources staff that focuses on employee relations instead.

Pulling off such a move is more challenging if you are also switching employers. But it is not unheard of. The key to making yourself a viable candidate in a different, yet related, field is to demonstrate that you have the skills to do the job. Although you may not have performed the exact same job before, you can deconstruct your work experience into its component parts and then reconstitute it to form the necessary candidate profile.

Suppose you have worked your entire career in corporate internal audit departments. You have been responsible for theft and loss prevention and ensuring that appropriate controls are maintained. As part of your duties, you interview employees, review documents, and write reports. One viable career move would take you into the legal field. The duties of a legal assistant job include gathering and organizing documents, interviewing witnesses, conducting legal research and ensuring that legal procedures are followed. By drawing connections between your internal audit experience and the requirements of the legal assistant job, you might be able to persuade a hiring manager that you could do the job well even though you might have never set foot in a law firm.

As with all job applications, it can give a tremendous boost to your quest for a career in a new field if you know someone in the field who can vouch for you. In this sense, it helps to be a seasoned worker. The longer you have been working, the more people you know who have moved on to other jobs. If you have kept up with these former coworkers over the years, you might find that you have easy access to a robust professional network that can help to take your career in new directions.

Join Lily Garcia on Tuesday, Jan. 6, at 11 a.m. ET for How to Deal Live.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail HRadvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.


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