Should You Ditch Your Career?

By Toni Vranjes

April 9, 2009

If you’ve lost your job, switching to a completely new career may seem alluring. But is it a good idea?

If, say, an out-of-work banker wants to study exotic fish as a marine biologist, or a laid-off attorney wants to help sick people as a doctor, should they go for it?

Career-transition experts urge people to think long and hard before making a huge leap. They recommend a cautious, pragmatic approach to these kinds of decisions.

The guidelines vary based on age and personal circumstances, according to John Challenger, CEO of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas of Chicago. For people in the middle of their careers — generally speaking, those in their 30s, 40s and 50s — Challenger typically recommends against a drastic career change.

He does make some exceptions. If mid-career people have an independent source of income or significant savings, or they’re willing to scale back their lifestyle, then a major career shift may make sense. But otherwise, it may not be such a good idea.

Returning to school to launch a new career requires time and money, and it may involve forgoing income from a job for a while.

“In the mid career, when you have a family to support and all those major life expenses, it’s hard to go back to school,” Challenger says.

After finishing school, that person will compete for jobs with recent college graduates and with people who have years of experience in that area. And even if the person does land a job, the salary could be much less than it was in the previous occupation, according to an article (PDF) by James E. Challenger, president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

“From the monetary standpoint, changing careers will result in a dramatic salary loss of 20 to 50 percent,” Challenger notes in the article. “It will probably take the career changer five years or more to equal his or her last salary.”

Although a 180-degree career shift may seem attractive to some job seekers, it can lead to profound disappointment.

“Being released from a position may seem to afford the opportunity to ‘do what I’ve always wanted,’” he states in the article.

But the job seeker “… is proceeding from an untenable position, competing against others who are already experienced in that area,” he adds.

People considering a major career change need to be aware of the harsh realities, says Ellen Sautter, an Atlanta-based career consultant with outplacement firm Right Management.

“Especially in a market like we’re in, where so many people are available, it’s harder to make a complete switch,” Sautter says.

Although switching to a completely new occupation often isn’t right for people in the middle phase of their careers, those in the early or late stages generally have more flexibility to pursue this option, notes John Challenger.

If the prospects in your industry are bleak, you may want to transfer your skills to a new industry instead of changing your career.

Many skills can be transferred among industries, according to the article by James E. Challenger. For instance, stockbrokers are basically salespeople, and they can transfer their expertise to other types of sales positions. And accountants who work in the steel industry can take their accounting skills to a variety of other industries.

“Transferring skills is a much more productive solution to the job problem than changing careers,” Challenger states in the article. “It is also a more productive solution than trying to stay in the same industry where prospects are unfavorable for finding new work.”

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