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Build Your Career Office Life

Changing Careers? 4 Challenges of Starting Over

Changing Careers? 4 Challenges of Starting Over
Credit: patpitchaya/Shutterstock

Changing careers is a lot more complicated than simply applying to jobs in a different industry. When you're up against more experienced candidates, many of whom are younger than you, it can be difficult to convince employers to take a chance on you, despite your previous career accomplishments. And even when you do get hired, you might not be fully prepared for the realities of being back at entry level again.

If you're about to leave an established career to start over in a new field, here are a few workplace challenges you may come up against, and how to navigate them gracefully.

When you start working in a new field and you don't have much relevant experience, your first job will almost certainly be at a much lower status and salary level, said Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO of iRelaunch, a resource for professionals relaunching their careers.

"If you have been relatively senior in your old role, one important question you need to ask yourself is if you have enough financial resources set aside for a possible compensation drop," she said.

Before you go all-in on your career change, most experts say it's a good idea to put a budget and savings plan in place to make the most of your current salary while you still have it. You can also pick up freelance work or take on a side job to make up for your anticipated income gap. [See Related Story: 5 Tips for Making a Big Career Change]

As a midlife career changer, it's very possible that many of your new younger colleagues will be in positions above you. One of them might even be your boss, which may feel a little awkward to you at first. Karen Horting, CEO and executive director of the Society of Women Engineers, said these younger, higher-ranking colleagues can help you get up to speed in your new field — and you might even be able to provide value to them, as well.

Career changers "have valuable experiences, too, some of which their younger counterparts may have not experienced themselves yet," said Horting, whose organization recently partnered with iRelaunch to create the STEM Re-entry Task Force. "Share that perspective with them. This is an opportunity for both parties to help each other."

Fishman Cohen noted that when she returned to the workforce after an 11-year gap, her new bosses and some of her same-level peers were younger than her. Establishing great relationships with her colleagues, regardless of age, helped her assimilate more easily, she said.

"I approached the situation [by] being honest when I didn't understand something, identifying the right people to ask the right questions to, and establishing a rapport with my younger colleagues that did not overly focus on generational or age references," Fishman Cohen told Business News Daily. "We focused on the work, and enjoyed good team relationships and interesting conversations."

Transferable skills are very important when starting a new career, but in most cases, you'll also need to pick up a few new industry-specific skills to really succeed. This can be harder to do when you're used to thinking about and doing things a certain way, or if you're unfamiliar with the technology your new industry uses.

If you can afford to enroll in a semester- or year-long certificate program, you might be able to quickly and effectively catch yourself up on core industry knowledge. Fishman Cohen noted that these types of programs, which often focus on very specific topics within a career field, are offered at many colleges and universities, and can even be completed online in some cases.

"These programs are a good way to signal to an employer you are serious about the career change and are immersing yourself in the latest thinking in the field," Fishman Cohen said. "If there is a field study or capstone project as part of the certificate program, that's even better, because you can put the project as a separate entry on your résumé, in addition to the certificate program itself. It's great material for interviews."

Horting added that joining professional industry groups and attending networking events in your new field can help you hone the new required skills faster, too.

Once you're at your new job, stay open-minded and be willing to learn from your new colleagues, advised Emilio Pardo, executive vice president at AARP and president of Life Reimagined.

"Acknowledge and see younger workers as mentors," Pardo said. "Rather than apologize for what you don't know, show appreciation for what they may teach you."

You paid your dues and served your time at the bottom during your first career. From a mental and emotional standpoint, one of the hardest things about switching career fields is knowing that you have to do entry level all over again, and that your previous accomplishments won't carry as much weight.

"There's a challenge in understanding and coming to terms with the fact that you've already done this same type of job in the past, but now you're required to start over," Horting said. "[You have] to put your ego aside [and] focus on the long term versus the short term, which can be a struggle."

Overcoming this feeling requires an adjustment to your overall mind-set about your career. Pardo said it's best to adopt a "learner" attitude, rather than a "knower" one.

"Focus on ability to add value, to live fully, [to] show energy and interest in learning, and to act on purpose," he said. "Older employees should show genuine interest in younger colleagues and resist any temptation to talk about 'the good old days.' The future belongs to the learners, [so] be a learner every day."

Nicole Fallon Taylor
Nicole Fallon Taylor

Nicole received her Bachelor's degree in Media, Culture and Communication from New York University. She began freelancing for Business News Daily in 2010 and joined the team as a staff writer three years later. She currently serves as the assistant managing editor. Reach her by email, or follow her on Twitter.