More of us are shifting career gears than ever before, but just how smoothly you make the move depends on how well you do your homework.
There are lots of reasons for exploring a new career: fundamental changes in your field, company outsourcing or downsizing, even simple dissatisfaction with your current job. And there are many things to consider, including whether a career change is financially realistic.
To make sure you arrive at your new profession destination without wrecking your life and finances en route, check out these seven career-change steps.
Step 1: Figure out what's wrong with your job picture.
Is it you, the job, your employer or your industry? Leslie Godwin, a career and life-transition coach based in Southern California, recalls a client who was desperate to find a new job. The client liked her boss and her employer, but she had been promoted to a position she didn't like.
Godwin, author of "From Burned Out to Fired Up," helped her client rewrite her job description. The client is now as happy as ever. The lesson: A drastic career change might not be the correct solution. So don't trade the legal bar for a bartender's counter without double-checking whether your current career can be saved.
First consider smaller professional adjustments. Like Godwin's client, you may be able to put a new twist on your old job. Or look into changing employers instead of your career field. A pharmacist in Idaho, for example, grew tired of his job there, moved to Montana and began substituting for pharmacists when they went on vacation. The new twist makes his job interesting, plus he picks his assignments, working as little or as much as he wants.
Step 2: Know your strengths and weaknesses.
Once you decide that changing fields is the right move, examine your capabilities. Get beyond job titles. Look not only at your employment history, but also at hobbies you hold dear. Look at the core skills -- communicating, analyzing, good eye for graphics, poise -- that allow you to be successful at both.
It can be hard to be objective. Consider hiring a coach to help you discern your skills and what jobs can best be served by them. Don't forget about family and friends; their observations are a good way to uncover your skills.
"Ask three of your closest friends to evaluate your strengths and weaknesses," says Damian Birkel, founder of Professionals in Transition, a nonprofit support group for the unemployed and underemployed. "Invite them to offer their input on your career path. Friends can have helpful insights, but be warned; they can also be brutally honest as they offer you their no-holds-barred truths."
Step 3: Determine which skills are transferable.
Keeping your skills in mind, scan the classifieds in your local newspaper or go online to job sites. "Look at the different job descriptions and how they are written," says William A. Werksman, a managing partner with Resource Partners, an executive search and recruiting company based in Las Vegas, Nev.
"See what the different industries have to offer. There's such a vast array of jobs out there," Werksman says. "If you're currently working for an airline in customer service, you can take your customer service skills and use them in the entertainment, recreation, or tourism fields."
A client of Pam Brill, an executive coach at her New Hampshire-based consulting firm In the Zone Inc., was an administrative assistant in the medical industry and was promoted to a management position. She hated it. Brill helped her examine her interpersonal, communication and organizational skills and the client was able to switch from administration to customer service.
Today Brill's client is a customer liaison representative at a ritzy health spa. "It was a perfect fit with her skills, but different from what she had been doing," says Brill, author of "The Winner's Way: A Proven Method for Achieving Your Personal Best in Any Situation."
Step 4: Research your options.
Before you jump career ships, especially to a field in which you have no experience, do some research. Attend conventions or trade shows. Not only will you find out more about the job you think you want, you'll also build an important database of industry contacts.
Talk to people you know in the field. If you don't know anyone, try to find connections through family, friends and business colleagues. And don't be afraid to cold call companies. "It's one of the tricks of being a headhunter: Ask for help and most people generally will try to help you," Werksman says.
Finally, take some courses in your chosen field. Ask your fellow students and professors for their perspectives on the market and the occupation you're considering. As with trade show inquires, you'll get a feel for your new career and expand your networking options if you do decide to make the switch.
Step 5: Be realistic about a new field's prospects.
Make sure you're not being tempted by a fad field that soon will leave you looking for work again. Even in established professions, examine whether the outlook is boom or bust.
Birkel, author of "Career Bounce-Back," has created some questions to help you figure out if your next career path will be a successful one:
How do industry experts rate the field's health today? Research trade journals, industry associations or the general press. Even an Internet search engine inquiry into the industry could give you valuable information.
• What major changes are being predicted?
• What factors will help the industry during the next decade?
• What are the biggest threats the industry will face in the decade ahead?
• In what geographical areas will the field be strongest?
• What are the biggest advantages or disadvantages for working in this field?
True, it's good to get in on the ground floor of things. Just make sure it's a field with a solid foundation.
Step 6: Test drive a new career.
Most career counselors suggest making a gradual career change. That means hanging onto the job you want to escape while making initial forays into your desired employment area. This will give you a chance to adjust to the new work without giving up your current paycheck.
The easiest way to test a new career is to scale back the hours at your current job. If you can afford it, see if your boss will let you work part-time. Or use some vacation time to try your hand at something comparable. If your ultimate goal is to open a flower shop, a weekend job at a local florist could provide an inside look at the industry.
Also look for volunteer positions or internships in the new field. Such positions might not precisely mirror the job you ultimately want, but they should give you a feeling for what the field requires.
A job-testing stint also could help you discover flaws in what you thought was an ideal job. Headhunter Werksman worked with a software engineer who yearned to open a high-end coffee shop and tried a stint as a barista.
"That took the luster off his dream," Werksman says. It was disappointing, but it was better that he found out before he made the big leap.
Step 7: Determine whether you can you afford to make the change.
Maybe in your zeal to find a new career, you told yourself that the money doesn't matter. But the truth for most of us is that money always matters.
That's why you shouldn't impetuously quit your current job. Neither, says recruiter Werksman, should you try to finance a career change by tapping your 401(k) or other retirement fund. And don't take money out of your kid's college fund.
Do find out the accepted salaries in your dream field. Check salary surveys published in trade journals, wage data collected by trade associations and statistics published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Then crunch the numbers and come to a realistic decision on whether you can afford to change career gears. If you've got kids to put through college or a heavy load of credit card debt, it might not make sense to take a $30,000 pay cut to pursue your dream job. On the other hand, if you are sure you'll be happier and don't mind scrimping for a couple of years knowing that eventually you'll be making good money, then go for it.
A good way to figure out your financial career-change feasibility is to write a business plan. This holds true whether you're taking the entrepreneurial route and opening your own juice bar or going back to school for training to become a veterinary technician. If your calculations reveal that you can't afford to make the switch as you originally planned, the change still might be possible. Maybe you can't survive on a vet tech salary, but you could become an office manager for a vet. That would pay more and allow you to work in the animal care field.
In addition, putting your business goals on paper will help you tweak your career change moves and increase the odds of success.
Career counselor Godwin had a client who wanted to start a retail operation where parents could hold parties for their children. They discovered a lot of businesses already offered the service, so Godwin helped her client revamp the idea. The retail party spot turned into a business in which the client now puts on children's parties in their own homes. The business plan process allowed her to put a different spin on the original plan and mine an overlooked niche.
And be ready for your new career's total bill. In addition to financial costs such as a probable pay cut as you start over at an entry-level position, retraining expenses and possible relocation outlays, you'll also have some personal dues to pay. It will be like starting your first job all over again, one that's likely outside of your professional comfort zone.
"I don't believe you are ever too old to change careers," says career counselor Birkel, "but you do need to be prepared to pay the costs for making the change."
Jenny C. McCune is a contributing editor based in Montana.