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So You Want to Change Careers…(Part 1)

After more than two decades in the technical recruiting game, Stout Systems has learned a thing or two about how to help people find jobs. We are often invited to take our show on the road—presenting seminars at colleges, universities, user group meetings and the like.

At just about every seminar we present, we meet career changers who are looking for advice about how to land that first job in their new field of interest.

And while every situation is unique, there is a lot of advice that can be generalized to help out in just about all cases.

Before I launch into that, let me share the stories of a few people I’ve met:

  1. The Chemist: One woman had a master’s degree in chemical pharmacology. She had an impressive list of articles that had been published in an impressive list of scientific journals. The type of job she was looking for? An entry level software development role. I’m sure that everyone who reviewed her resume scratched their heads and thought the same thing I did: why would a person who has taken the time and effort to earn a master’s degree and who commands respect in her industry want to fall back career-wise to an entry level job? Her answer: chemical pharmacology isn’t where the research is at nowadays. It’s biological pharmacology that’s all the rage. And in order to land work as a researcher in that field, she would have had to go back to school. Going back to school after all the time she had already spent in school? No thanks. On the other hand, she had taken some software programming courses and attended a bootcamp—which she loved. In fact, more than being a pharmacology researcher.
  2. The Customer Support Representative: A gentleman I met had more than a decade of experience manning a help desk for basic tech support issues. A rarity nowadays, he had spent his entire career with the same company. He had a broad understanding of computer equipment, operating systems and the like. But he wasn’t really interested in becoming a network or systems engineer—the most obvious career moves. He had taken a programming class completely out of curiosity to find out what it was like and realized that he had an aptitude for it—as well as a passion. So he attended a bootcamp to make himself eligible for employment as a software engineer.
  3. The Serial Career Changer: At a user group meeting, I met a woman who had floundered around from job to job and career to career (her words, not mine). She took a programming class online—and suddenly felt like she had found something that capitalized on all of her skills. An organized mind, an analytical approach to problem solving, a strong interest in people and what they need. She wasn’t sure where she was going to end up physically since her life was in flux, but since software development work is pretty much ubiquitous, training in that field would be very practical.

The three examples I have given have very little in common: one person who was heavily educated, one person who had a very long work history in a single role in a single company, one person who had jumped around from career to career. The one thing they shared was the desire to make a change.

I gave each person different advice based on the specifics of their situations. What my advice consisted of breaks down into three areas: first, do everything you can to become qualified for the new field. Then, tell your career change story in a compelling fashion so that hiring managers will want to take a chance on you. Finally, leverage your prior experience to the greatest extent possible.

Get Qualified

Of course, the first issue is how to become qualified to move into the new field of interest. Here are three different approaches:

  1. Training - What constitutes training nowadays is pretty wide ranging. Certainly one can go to (or go back to) a university to earn a degree. There are also online training courses, bootcamps, tradeschools, college certificate programs, government retraining programs, and much more. If you decide to get training, research whatever you are considering and make sure it has a good reputation. You want the training to carry some weight when a hiring manager sees it on your resume.
  2. Certificates - You can become certified in just about anything nowadays. If you think I’m kidding, just Google search “certified dog walker.” Yep, there is a certificate program for dog walking. And there is a national association for pet sitters. I’m not knocking these certificates and associations. They may be great. I’m just making the point that there is a certificate for everything. If you are interested in becoming a project manager, a programmer, a Scrum Master, a big data analyst, etc., becoming certified in the field may be a great first step to take. And no matter what kind of role you are interested in, there will surely be a certificate you can earn in the field. But you won’t know how much it will help you land your first job until you do some research. I can assure you that being a Project Management Institute certified Project Management Professional (PMP) carries a lot of weight. But what about any of the numberless other certification programs? A great way to find out how valuable a certificate would be is to look at the jobs that are currently on offer for the field you want to break into. If you see the same certificate listed as required or preferred on numerous job advertisements, you can assume confidently that it commands respect.
  3. Experience - Getting experience in the new field isn’t always easy. If you are moving into a field that produces work product (like a software developer, a business analyst, a data analyst, etc.), then it is very important to create some work product that you can share. Creating personal projects and putting them into a Github or other repository is a great way to show off what you can do. Just be sure that you actually have something to show off. If you create an application, it should be complex enough and polished enough to impress a hiring manager that you show good potential. If you create UI designs or technical documents, they should show a high enough level of quality. It doesn’t matter if you create projects of your own, do pro bono work, or contribute to open source projects. The most important thing is to do the work so that you have something to share. Another way to get experience is to volunteer. Charitable organizations never have enough staff, so there may be an opportunity to volunteer and gain valuable work experience. There are also hackathon projects that come up from time to time. Those are multi-discipline, so even if you aren’t a programmer, you might find that your project management or design skills can be showcased. If you already work for a company that could employ you in your new field, cross training in the new field or working in the field, even if on a very part time basis, is a great way to get experience.

It is a commonly held misconception that the only thing that matters is a degree coupled with commercial experience. That is completely false. What is true is that you can come up with many different ways to gain experience and to create work product that is a testimonial to your new skills.

In Part 2 of this series, I will give some pointers on how to tell your career-change story (on your resume and in online profiles like LinkedIn) in a way that will persuade hiring managers to talk to you.

In Part 3 of this series, I will give you some food for thought about how to leverage whatever you have done in the past, academically, professionally and even as a serious hobbyest, to help you get a job in your new field.

If you're looking for a career change, visit our job board to see if you qualify for some of our positions. Best of luck to you!

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