Time for a career u-turn?

A photo of a u-turn sign
Hopefully your career u-turn will start during an amazing sunset...
"I knew I had to give it a try, even if that did mean retraining and giving up a good salary"
  • | by Rachel England

The phrase 'new year, new you' usually applies to healthy eating and more visits to the gym, but some take the promise of a new start more seriously than others.

While most of us shake off the new year gloom after they've dealt with their inbox, others are putting another 'to-do' on their resolutions list: find a new career.

According to findings by a number of organisations, including the Office for National Statistics and The Happiness at Work Index, as many as 22% of the population are unhappy in their jobs, and while for some that dissatisfaction could be eased with a workplace MOT – asking for a pay rise, getting that promotion, taking on more challenging projects – for others their frustrations can only be assuaged by a complete career u-turn.

"I'd tried everything to make myself feel better about my job," says former lawyer Sarah Pearce, 36, from London. "I took on work outside my comfort zone, I negotiated flexible working, I even moved to a different side of the office, but ultimately I found that the job – the whole industry – wasn't for me."

Sarah now works in a sports centre, teaching children's activity classes. "Making the move was terrifying," she says. "I was very well established in my previous job – law was all I'd ever done – and I wasn't particularly qualified for the job I have now. But sport is my true passion, so I knew I had to give it a try, even if that did mean retraining and giving up a good salary."

She adds: "I deliberated about it for months, but once I finally made the decision and started telling everyone, I was surprised by how many people said they'd love to change their careers, too."

So what's stopping them? "Fear," says John Lees, author of How to Get a Job You Love. "People are afraid of the unknown, and of change. So a lot of people will spend a long time thinking about changing career without doing anything about it, and then look back and wish they'd taken action years ago, because if they had by now things might be different."

But, he warns, all too often the alternative response is to jump head first into a career change without doing the proper preparation, which can be just as damaging. "If you're going into a new market, you have to be market-ready. Assuming your skills are transferable and someone will just give you a chance is a pretty high-risk option. Before you start actively pursuing other jobs you need to do thorough research to make sure you truly understand the sector you want – or think you want – to be in."

Get ready to jump

Stuart Taylor, 31, from Bromley, left his job as a big six energy analyst to pursue a career in illustration. He says that doing as much preparation as possible is key to making a successful switch. 

"Get as much of a run up as you can before jumping ship. Learn as much as possible about what you're getting yourself into while continuing to work in the career you're planning to leave. Get training, shadowing work and experience beforehand if you can, and speak to people in those careers – preferably people not too far from the level of career you'll be entering at."

Jenny Scott, from volunteering charity Join In, suggests considering voluntary work. This looks good on any CV, she says, but it's also "a great way of obtaining new skills for a career change without leaving employment, and a good way to use your existing skills and apply them to a different sector for experience."

But preparation can only go so far. The real stumbling block for those making a career change is getting a foot in the door.

"Employers might be wary of hiring someone that hasn't been working in the industry so give examples of how quickly you learn and pick up new skills," says Sid Barnes, managing director of recruitment firm Cordant Professional Staffing. "If you've worked across various teams or departments in your existing role on various projects, then share this and the success you've achieved as it shows how flexible and adaptable you are. And consider how you could apply your existing strengthens and skills in a different way to bring something new to the role you are applying for."

The long view

Switching careers is a challenge, but it's not impossible, says Sarah. "You do have to work harder to prove yourself, and there are downsides. I'm poorer, for a start, and my family wasn't thrilled when I told them what I was doing. But I'm light years happier. It's not easy to change your career – but in the long run it's a lot easier than spending the rest of your working life being unhappy."

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