How to change your career path

Changing the type of work you do can be frightening. We can’t all afford a personal coach or career counselor, so here’s a short article on the way the world of work has changed and how you can use this knowledge to make your own well-planned and successful career change.

From career paths to crazy paving

It used to seem so much easier – if a touch restrictive. First you attended primary and secondary school, leaving secondary in your late teens. The less academic or engaged students left early (from 15 onwards) and often worked in the trades, retail or factories. The more academically inclined often continued into tertiary education, either in a technical environment, or to university, graduating after three or more years with a diploma or degree. A handful undertook post-graduate degrees, but most commenced work. Work for women was often interrupted by childbearing and raising, but for men it usually meant a 40-year stretch, punctuated by annual leave or time off if jobs were changed. Many workers remained in the same industry all their working lives. In their late 50s or early 60s most would retire and often not engage in meaningful work again before dying, within 10 or 20 years. If this sounds very boring, soul-destroying and predictable, that’s because it probably is. And because our own expectations for later life are now much more robust and exciting.

Most people’s ability to learn, work or take a sabbatical was directly connected to their age and life stage. If they were young, society understood they were in a “learning” phase. Those aged mid-20s and older were expected to remain in paid employment (mothers excepted) until they had reached their use-by date (i.e. retirement age) and then they were expected to go quietly into the sunset, well beyond the ability to contribute.

Happily, these days have gone or are going. The old ‘linear’ progression of learn-work-retire has gone. The concept of life-long learning is now replacing the old “need” for all education to be completed in your earlier years. If you initially trained as a carpenter in your teens, you might now, in your 50s, decide to have a crack at another career – perhaps as a lawyer – and if you successfully complete your degree (part time, in the evening, as a distance learner, whatever suits) and articles you can then practice.

There are no barriers

In fact, there is nothing to stop you from applying for entry to any career course in the world.

Repeat, nothing.

So when you say to your friends and loved ones, I really wish I’d been a florist you now have to be prepared to take ownership that this is something you can still do, if this remains a burning ambition. And if you don’t pursue this line of work, it is because you are choosing not to. Not because you are not “allowed “ to or you are “barred” from this profession or because you cannot gain the qualifications “at your age”. None of these reasons are even remotely defensible. So even if you resist the simplicity of the statement that all career aims are achievable, try to suspend your disbelief while you are reading this book and learning how to kick start your next career.

In fact for those of us old enough to have experienced the linear education- work career path we may need some ‘retraining’ before we can see our own career progression as ‘crazy paving’ with simultaneous learning and working activities punctuated by time out, parenting, caring for others, volunteer work and travel.

A picture is always worth at least 1000 words, so take a look at the diagram below to retrain your perception of your career progression. The old steady uphill path – until you reach the pinnacle – finally you’ve ‘made it’ – before a gracious decline into the dimly lit twilight years no longer has to be your fate. There just has to be more to life than that. And there is – a myriad of challenges, adventures and fun to be had for those who wish to work longer, in different arenas. Recognising the random pattern of our working lives is the first step to freedom. This new ‘randomisation’ of work manifests itself in six very different ways:

• A shift of emphasis from money to meaning

• A shattering of the previous ‘contract’ of full-time job for life

• A dramatic change in place and space where work occurs

• A change in power relationship between company and worker

• A redefinition of job security

• A lessening of relevance of age or stage of worker

Let’s consider them.

From money to meaning

Many workers in western nations have received sufficient income to satisfy highly sophisticated needs as well as the basics of shelter, clothing and food. And their search for self fulfillment is often heavily attached to the quest for more meaningful work. Described by American transitional management specialist and author, William Bridges, this ‘money to meaning’ phenomenon particularly applies to those who have been in the workforce a long time. It can also be prevalent amongst recent university graduates. The reasons why different age or life stage workers might want a more meaningful occupation can vary. Older workers may have reached a level of maturity and/or financial security where they feel they can ‘afford’ to give back; to leave a legacy of something more than an empty inbox. Younger people, including graduates, may believe corporates are only interested in the bottom line, often at the expense of mankind, and so decide that their first work priority is to do something more worthwhile and to hopefully incorporate some life-balance along the way.

R.I.P. the full-time job

Sometime in the past 30 years something incredible has occurred and most of us have missed it. A quick glance at Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) research, however, reveals just how comprehensive the death of full-time paid work is. [endnote 4]. Where have these full-time jobs gone? To casual, part-time or temporary positions or contractual or consultancy-based projects is the answer. In Tribes, author, Seth Godin, calls this the ‘Project Hollywood’ way of working. [endnote 5] To make a movie, a project is created, specialist workers are contracted and assembled where and when needed, and when the project is completed the whole team disperses. This is the way of the future. Jobs are going out the back door and “work” is being performed as, when and how necessary. For some workers this will introduce an unprecedented freedom to their existence, and they will use this new way of working to shift employment hours to suit personal needs and family schedules. Other workers will miss the structure, continuity and predictably of the day job. Some may never recover and will not find a place in the new work order.

It’s also no surprise that, as the shift from money to meaning gains momentum, the term “free” pops up in new descriptors for changed ways of working, in particular the terms free agent or freelance.

Place and space dissolve

The increasing fragmentation of the traditional day job has also had a massive impact on where and when work is performed. In 199X Ira and XX wrote Next in which they predicted the future of work and how it would be carried out. [endnote 6]. They were basing many of their conclusions on the ‘cyber reality’ of the work they did for XX advertising agency which was then at the cutting edge of work practices. Their predictions, however, have held true for a wide range of occupations across most industry groups. They described offices as project depots, using the analogy of student unions which ‘cut the cords of physicality’. They also described a trend which is now a reality; that of ‘hotdesking’ where companies offer fewer desks than workers, and concentrate more on meeting rooms where the “real” team work can be done. The office is becoming the laptop computer, Blackberry or iPhone, with work performed in cafes, on planes, at home, and, less often, in an office. For a while the serviced office was a popular “façade” for those who were setting up a new business and did not possess the resources necessary to fund their own bricks and mortar workplace. Trained staff would answer the phone, while a communal reception area and meeting place gave the impression of a larger organisation. But no longer does this ‘need to impress’ figure so largely. So many successful businesses are now conducted by phone or laptop that offices are rarely visited, even more rarely thought important.

Time has also been fractured – partly by increasing globalisation where work teams need to provide around the clock support – but also by the understanding that if the work data exists in cyberspace it can be accessed on demand – when the worker is best able to handle it – which is not necessarily between 9am and 5pm. Many mothers of young children maintain their work when children are at school or asleep – not during traditional company hours. The increasing erosion of a central workplace is not confined to high tech industries – but spreading to all occupations where a PDA offers instant connection to central information, one example being parking officers who now do all their work in the street, with data relayed back to local councils or shires by wireless connections. These workers rarely find it necessary to visit the council office.

Goodbye mothership

In the old ‘job for life’ days there may have been a sense of an all-powerful employer and an (almost) powerless wage slave. Judging by the advice available to would-be applicants before a job interview about how to dress, speak and perform to please, it would seem that the employer holds all the power. This is very dated thinking. The world has changed. It was once the larger companies who employed the most workers. Now there are more small business owner-managers than any other category. Also on the increase are those who earn their dollars as consultants or contractors.

Whilst once a company might once have adopted a paternalistic role and assumed responsibility for pension funds, health insurance and many other benefits, it has become increasingly common for shareholders to call the shots. And shareholders, according to market indices, seem to like nothing better than staff reductions and reduced obligations to those who remain.

Many companies have also found it much more profitable to outsource services and to hire consultants, freelancers, temporary workers or part-time or casual staff to do work on a project basis rather than making a long-term, and highly expensive, commitment to individual workers. This message has been received loud and clear by younger employees who treat jobs as short term assignments rather than exercises in mutual loyalty. This new reality needs to be understood by workers of all ages and stages:

• Old-fashioned loyalty is gone

• You are as good as your last project

• Your bargaining power is equal to the person on the other side of the table

Not only can this be an incredibly liberating thought – it also frees you up to think of your career(s) as separate small businesses which need to be personally and actively managed on an ongoing basis.

And if you are already an owner-manager you may often feel beholden to your clients – but at least you (hopefully) have more than one.

Redefining security

As we have seen with the demise of the job-for-life, the concept of work security has also largely disappeared. This may seem a frightening thought, but it is one most workers will need to get their heads around. If you are searching for job security you are seeking security in the wrong place. Remember, the job is dead. From now on you need to stop looking outside and start looking to yourself to create new conditions. These new conditions will prove to be the only way to strengthen your work security. They involve a process of understanding your best work attributes, supplementing those skills which are necessary in today’s work environment, staying abreast of developments in your field, or fields, of choice, and keeping your professional or vocational networks current. In short, to remain work-secure you must remain work relevant.

Work at any age or stage

Age and stage are becoming less relevant, with retirement as we knew it officially obsolete – but more about this in Chapter Ten. The old linear progression of education – work – retire has been so shaken up that workers may now acquire their highest educational qualifications towards the end of a formal work career – and this qualification might lead to new directions or businesses. The concept of project-based work, rather than jobs, will demand the best person is hired. This may well be a 22-year-old nerd – or a 75-year-old grandmother. It will come down to suitability for the (short term) role. And if applications are handled by an online search engine, the demeanour of the grandmother probably won’t count against her as it might have if an ageist recruitment specialist was involved.

Understanding and accepting these six influences on the way we work and our career paths will help us enjoy the ride, rather than feeling threatened by the change.

Connecting your career dots

If we accept the ‘crazy paving’ concept of career progress, does this mean it is more challenging than ever to create an exciting career change? Does too much choice in the ways we can work just make the whole career planning scenario even more problematic? While, from the outside, it may appear overly confusing, understanding the mechanics of career change will enable you to plan and achieve a smooth transition towards the career you desire. Effective career change begins with the recognition and analysis of the six main factors which are always present in the work you do:

1. The sector and/or industry in which you work

2. The organisation which employs you (government, NGO, private or public company, association, own business)

3. The specific role and tasks you do

4. Your work arrangement (full time, part-time, permanent, casual, contract, consultant, project-based, or portfolio)

5. The location(s) (External office, home office, virtual office, field work or mix)

6. The learning involved (education, qualifications, training, experience)

Some people who seek change really want the full enchilada – a leap from a specific role in a specific location to an entirely different type of work engagement somewhere else. This happened when former Marketing Manager, Tara Burns, resigned from her role in a capital city with a large IT company to become self employed, starting a Bed & Breakfast in a small coastal town. This is a dramatic ‘six-factor’ change, when considered in terms of the Connecting Your Career Dots table (following) shows a change in each and every element of the work Tara did:

1. Sector – from IT to hospitality

2. Organisation – from public company to start-up home-based business

3. Specific role – from marketing manager to B&B owner/manager

4. Work arrangement – from full time paid employee to full time (plus non-paid overtime) self-employment

5. Location – from large city to small town

6. Learning – From frequent use of formal educational skills (marketing degree) to infrequent use of same skills, now supplemented by new hospitality skills and interpersonal attributes.

Your appetite for risk

Not everyone is like Tara with the appetite for such a seemingly high risk six-factor change. Many would prefer a gentler career “segue” which involves a change in just one or two elements – such as a new role with the same employer, perhaps a move to another branch of the same company, or the undertaking of some training or short courses to extend their experience in a new sector.

Regardless of whether your desired work change is dramatic or subtle, the table below will assist you to think more objectively about the moves you might make. By defining possibilities in each of the six categories, you can then evaluate the magnitude of the changes you might make and consider the pros and cons of such dislocation before leaping in feet first. The table also enables you to prioritise possible changes in the most “doable” order, so you are managing your future career changes in an ongoing series of smaller steps.

This method has two important benefits. Firstly, it allows you to navigate change in a way which is manageable, rather than threatening and in a way which complements other aspects of your life, i.e. if you can demonstrate it is a carefully considered step in a grander plan, it’s less likely to frighten the family!

Secondly, it means that you have stepped onto a professional development escalator, acknowledging the need to continue to learn and develop.

If you are prepared to stay ON the escalator, you will remain employment relevant for the rest of your life.

Your current situation

Make a start now by listing your current situation under the six different ‘career dot’ categories, remembering to include in the Learning category whether you are currently undergoing a training or professional development program.

Next, list four or five potential changes you might make in each category. As you read the following chapters, and see how others have successfully connected their career dots to find more meaningful work, you can revisit the table to amend these of the options as often as you like. The more you think outside the square and actively review each of the six factors, the more likely you are to come up with an interesting and achievable path to a new and more satisfying way of working.

When you have considered some of these very different ways of making work work for you, then use the right hand column to prioritise moves you will make during the coming year – be they a change of sector, organisation, role, work arrangement, location or learning. As the many people profiled in this book can and will testify, there is no ‘right’ way to make a significant work change – and no right ‘order’. But thinking through what feels comfortable and what suits you most at this stage will help identify at least one action to get you on your way!

Connecting your career dots


It’s scary out there, but only if you’re out of touch, unprepared, or unwilling to prepare. The world of work has evolved more rapidly during the past three decades than in the 70 years prior. Whilst change can be unsettling, the changes in the way we work have given most people the opportunity to work in a much less formal way as well as affordable access to training, education and information. This means we have much more power over our own work future. By understanding and accepting the change which has occurred and learning the mechanics of the career change process you, too, can move toward more meaningful work, it’s just a matter of successfully connecting your career dots.

And one more thing.

Get set for more change. In fact, try to enjoy it.

It’s not just inevitable, it’s everywhere!

This is an edited excerpt of What Next? Your career change companion by Kaye Fallick.

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