A Step-by-Step Guide to a Successful Career Change

Navigating a career change is a challenge for every job seeker. You may know you’re ready to start over in a new career path, but where do you even begin to determine what’s next? It’s hard to know where to start, so I’ve put together a step-by-step guide including tasks, books, and online resources you can use to take action in your career change.

Changing careers is possible! It helps to start with yourself: by reflecting and assessing your talents and strengths, you can clarify your career goals and narrow down your options. With more focus, you can find new networking opportunities to learn the lingo and build connections in new industries. Then, you’ll be ready to dive into a new career that brings you fulfillment and purpose. Let’s get started!

Step 1: Reflect and self-assess your strengths

When you’re thinking of changing careers, it’s crucial to understand what you’re good at and what you enjoy doing. Start your exploration with yourself! Sometimes this is the hardest part. Luckily, there are lots of resources out there to help you identify and name your core strengths, skills, and passions.

Get started with these recommended resources:

Strengths Finder 2.0 by Tom Rath: Do you ever wonder why you sometimes finish a task feeling exhausted and depleted, yet other days you walk away with a strong sense of self-worth and satisfaction of a job well done? Chances are that on the exhausted days, you didn’t get to use your strengths. On the days when you’re in the flow, you were able to use your talents toward a job well done.

What Color is Your Parachute? A Practical Manual for Job Hunters and Career Changers by Richard Bolles: Yes, it was first published in 1970 and has had over forty editions since then, but it still remains an invaluable tool for professional self-discovery. Doing the exercises helps to uncover new ideas and to reveal potential areas for informational interviews, exploration, and research. It’s a great career guide and self-discovery tool all in one.

The Career Guide for Creative and Unconventional People by Carol Eikleberry: Exploring your strengths can lead you down several different career paths, so you may need to get creative in your search for happiness at work. This book can help you identify opportunities that you may never have thought of.

Ask yourself the hard questions.
What do you want out of your next career? Is quality of life more important to you than a large paycheck? Do you want to collaborate with a team or work alone? Do you love networking? Dislike sitting in an office? What are your passions? What are your values? Where do you see yourself in five years? In ten years?

Your answers to these and other questions will help you make informed decisions in your job search. Assessing what you want from your career keeps you from wasting both your own time and employers’ time when you’re applying and interviewing. Truly knowing yourself helps you make a smart career change from day one.

Step 2: Focus in on your dream industry and job position.

Allow yourself to dream big and consider all career possibilities. Build a list of industries, job positions, and opportunities that are of interest to you, based on the work you did to understand your strengths and passions. Outline all of your job considerations, creating a robust list of pros and cons for each option, including salary requirements, location, flexibility, benefits, and company culture.

Target specific roles and positions rather than working off of vague ideas. Imagine yourself getting the job that you want. What do your days look like? How do you feel arriving to your office? Does this job grow with you over the next 10, 20, or even 30 years? Narrow your focus and target industries where you can showcase your strengths, and look for job positions where you can work to achieve your career goals over time.

A foundation of research will help you determine what career direction is right for you. Get started with these resources:

  • CareerOneStop — Discover the fastest-growing industries where demand is high, and which industries are experiencing declining employment.
  • Vault — This career intelligence website offers pros and cons for each employers in its database, so you can assess the full picture of what it’s like to work for each organization.
  • Glassdoor — Job seeker review website where people anonymously report their salaries and experience with employers.
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics — While it can be a difficult site to navigate, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has the most robust collection of wage and benefit data available publicly.
  • PayScale — PayScale uses crowdsourced data and machine learning to provide salary ranges for many industries and roles.
  • Salary.com — Collects worldwide, HR-reported compensation data and makes it easy to add filters to customize your salary search. It also provides a methodology for producing salary numbers in a clean report.
  • Comparably — Comparably shares salary ranges and culture reviews for job seekers, though it’s tailored to the tech industry.

Step 3: Reframe your work experience and package your transferable skills

There are a few great ways to gain experience in a new industry in order to make a career transition. You can seek out volunteer work in that field, take a continuing education course, and attend industry events to meet new contacts and learn about new opportunities. But, you probably already have some applicable skills that you can repackage in your resume and cover letter to better fit the position you’re looking for in the eyes of the hiring manager. It’s all about how you present your transferable skills.

For example, let’s imagine you have a background in customer service working at a call center, and you’re now ready to follow your dream of working in an administrative position in the nonprofit sector. Even though you don’t have nonprofit experience, you can highlight several of your existing skills in your resume, cover letter, and interview. Customer outreach, conflict resolution, time management, and top-notch organizational skills are all transferable in this context. You’re likely already more qualified than you thought!

Get started translating your past experience into a new role by pinpointing your transferable skills using these six key skill categories:

1. Basic: Basic skills are essential in any professional context. These include the ability to carry out written instructions and communicate with your team members.
2. People: Interpersonal skills rank high on hiring managers’ wishlists. You’ll need to prove you excel at building relationships with clientele, navigating conflicts, and contributing to a friendly office culture.
3. Management: Even if you’ve never been a manager per se, you may have experience overseeing the work of others in previous positions. Perhaps you’ve trained a new employee or helped set shift schedules. Remember to keep an open mind when looking for managerial experience in your past.
4. Clerical: Most jobs include some level of clerical expertise such as proficiently using programs like Microsoft Office or using internal communications systems effectively.
5. Research and planning: This can include skills as small as knowing which tasks to prioritize when juggling multiple customers’ needs or helping to strategize for a company event.
6. Computer and technical: You may take your technological skills for granted, but remember that simple tasks like scanning and copying documents aren’t second nature to everyone. Let your techie side shine!

Step 4: Start building a network in your target industries

Incorporate networking into your weekly routine.
Here’s the good news: you already have the most important asset every networker needs — a group of friends, family members, classmates, and current and past coworkers. Now that you’ve decided on a new career direction, reach out to your contacts, attend networking events, and immerse yourself in the communities relevant to your new role. Try to build a rapport with experts already thriving in your chosen industry. Networking comes in many different shapes and sizes, with numerous formats to choose from. You’ll find more success, enjoyment, and connection in networking when you seek out the opportunities that align with your personality and your current career goal.

Identify networking events and find local organizations where you can get involved and start forming new connections. Get started with these networking guides for Portland professionals:

  • Nonprofit Networking Events — Discover nine local nonprofit organizations that host monthly meetups, weekly seminars, and other regular forums.
  • Tech Networking Events — Whether you’re a seasoned tech industry pro or looking at tech as a new career path, Portland has numerous opportunities for networking.
  • Marketing Networking Events — Portland has dozens of great networking events for marketing professionals aspiring to learn from industry leaders, and each other.

Keeping your relationships strong will enable you to navigate the hidden job market (all those jobs that aren’t posted online).

Step 5: Make that career change happen

Revamp your resume.

Crafting an effective resume will help you set you up for a successful career change. In revamping your resume to reflect your career change, it’s essential to keep these points in mind:

1. Prominently list your transferable skills.
Highlight those transferable skills you outlined in Step Two! Create a “Skills” section within your resume and emphasize the specific skills that are relevant to a new position.

2. Use the right keywords.
Optimize your career change resume to fit the role for which you’re applying by including keywords highlighted in the job description, such as “customer service” or “multi-line phone system.” Not sure what keywords to include in your resume? Take time to research the top keywords in your next career path.

Refresh your cover letter.

In a career change cover letter, you’re presenting your case for any employment gaps, as well as explanation as to why you’re headed in a new direction. It is an important opportunity to highlight the skills you’ve acquired and discuss past job transitions. It’s also a chance to define why you’re the right person for the role.

1. Introduce yourself and position your transition.
Use the opening paragraph of your career change cover letter to summarize your skill set and express how your experience aligns with the organization’s needs for the open position.

2. Cover your career change bases: Explain why you’re evolving.
As you transition to the second paragraph in your career change cover letter, share your story in more detail: why are you making the transition from your previous role and how you hope to utilize your previous professional experience in the new job. What brought you here and why does the open role interest you at this time?

3. Show your work and feature your transferable skills.
Use the third paragraph to share examples of your skills and experiences and how they’ve shaped your path to the new role. Give specific instances on how you’ve developed your skills, and be sure to highlight previous successes.

4. Reveal your passion and align your goals with the organization.
Wrap-up your career change cover letter by expressing your thoughts and feelings behind the new career transition. Include your insights as to how you plan to utilize your past experiences to succeed in your next role.

5. Summarize and show enthusiasm.
End your cover letter by summarizing the paragraphs above, recapping your story, your successes, and your transferable skills. Be sure to include contact information and relevant links supporting your successful career transition.

Planning for a career change can mean the difference between success and failure. Finding a job that fulfills you is the ultimate goal, but you have to do the work to figure out where you want to go. With a clear plan of action, you’ll be ready to make your next move and find a career that excites and motivates you.

Contributed by Mac Prichard, the founder and publisher of Mac’s List, where he writes regularly about job hunting, leads classes on job search skills, and hosts the Find Your Dream Job podcast.


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