Changing jobs is hard. We’ve all done it: written the resume, sat in the car before the job interview, nervous, looking in the mirror, checking teeth for evidence of lunch, fumbling for a breath mint, and lamenting quietly that three strangers will determine whether you can pay the rent next month. The circumstances are different for everyone—maybe you were fired and need something fast, maybe you’re just looking for a interesting career change — but chances are, whatever job you are applying for, it’s still in the same industry and field you already know. A new job means doing something similar for someone new.
But what if it’s not?
We don’t all get it right the first time. What if you’ve put in years or decades in an industry but hate it and want out? What if you became an electrical engineer because that’s what mom wanted, but what you really want to do is be a graphic designer?
Making an extreme career change is one of the most difficult moves you can make in your professional life. It requires a plan and patience, but it can be done. This is how.
FIND A BRIDGE JOB
“A large career leap—say, from sales to IT or vice versa—is rarely accomplished just by rewriting one’s resume and applying to job openings,” says Thea Kelley, a job search and interview coach based in the San Francisco Bay Area and working with job seekers nationwide. “Employers receive hundreds of resumes for each opening, and many of them will be people who are currently in the same type role the company needs to fill.”
In most cases, she says, a large career shift must happen incrementally or through a “bridge job”—a role that combines skills from both the previous and desired roles. For example, a salesperson with a goal of working in IT could first gain experience in selling the type of technology they want to work with, and meanwhile obtaining the necessary IT education. Those looking for bridge jobs should experiment with advanced searches that include keywords for the skills you already have, and the job that you want. (Note that on the ClearanceJobs job search page, the bevy of search options at the top allow you to stack filters and searches until you find the perfect job for you.)
Kelley also encourages job seekers interested in making major career shifts to find people in the field and speak with them. “There’s no substitute for informational interviews to get real-time advice to help chart a path forward.”
Someone looking to make a major career change must also demonstrate a serious commitment to the target field so that a prospective employer won’t think you’re simply a dilettante, or just a failure in your current career. “Enrolling in courses, earning certifications, doing pro bono work and joining professional associations are some ways to demonstrate seriousness while gaining experience, skills and contacts,” says Kelley.
BUILD YOUR BRAND
“When you are a professional, you are branded in two ways,” says Marc Miller, an author and the founder of Career Pivot, a firm that prepares workers for major career changes. “You are branded by your profession and you are branded by your industry.” Miller explains that if you are a salesperson in the computer hardware business, it is easier to move into a marketing job in computer hardware than it is to go to a sales position in, say, automobiles. “Switching industries is a lot harder than switching professions.”
The people who are successful in making a total career change always do their homework. One of Miller’s readers was a product manager who wanted to get in the electrical “smart grid” industry. The reader found a job that allowed him to get the appropriate software training, but when he later applied for smart grid jobs, nobody would return his calls. He had no smart grid industry experience.
“So he started a blog,” says Miller. “Every month, he conducted and published interviews with one or two people in the smart grid industry. After eighteen months, he had street cred and companies started talking to him.” The man eventually found a smart grid job.
One of Miller’s clients, likewise, was the CIO of a medium-sized oil and gas equipment company. The client wanted to get in the digital transformation business. To build credibility in his desired industry, he started a website, made his own green screen, and began filming videos of himself discussing digital transformation. This eventually got him invited to speak on a panel at a Financial Times conference. “This got him into more and more conferences, which got him into even more conferences, and enabled him to change jobs,” says Miller. Today the man is a digital transformation consultant.
DRASTIC CAREER CHANGES REQUIRE DRASTIC RESUME CHANGES
“Resume transformation for a career change is no simple update,” says Kelley. “A new format may be needed, such as a functional resume or, perhaps more effective these days, a ‘hybrid’ that emphasizes the relevant information without departing completely from the chronological format preferred by most employers.”
The language of your new resume must be “translated” carefully to speak the language of the target profession without going too far and coming across as deceptive about your background. “Relevant experience and skills must pop off the page within the first few seconds of reading,” she says, noting that someone in a career transition should either plan to spend as much as a thousand dollars to have a resume written, or to make a serious study of recent resume guides and rewrite it themselves. A copyeditor should be retained to correct punctuation errors and awkward phrasing.
“Interview preparation is also important,” she says, “since you may not be used to describing your background in a way that’s relevant to your target occupation.” Mock interviewing and feedback with someone who is deeply familiar with the target occupation and industry is essential. She adds that this leads to a more articulate and confident presence in networking conversations as well.
Ultimately, says Miller, those personal connections make all the difference. “Someone is going to have to take a risk on you,” he says, “and the only people who are going to do that are people who know who you are. Transition jobs have one foot in the old world, one foot in the new world, and professional relationships take you across. It’s never done alone.”