How to change careers

Feeling restless at work? It happens to everyone sometimes, but if that mood won’t go away and your job simply isn’t satisfying you anymore, it could be because you need a career change.

This is a bigger deal than a new job. A full-blown career change is a real fresh start – not just a new desk and job title. It can involve retraining, or even taking a few steps back down the ladder, but the rewards of finding the right path are worth it, and every year, many of us make that leap of faith.

People switch industries for a variety of reasons. Perhaps you're ready for a new challenge and feel you’ve gone as far as you can in your current sector. Maybe you started out in the wrong industry and it’s time to find where you belong. It could be that you want more human interaction – it's not uncommon for people to move from working in a warehouse or in construction to a role that involves people management. Sometimes, it's a simple numbers game: some industries have higher salaries than others, and there’s nothing wrong in wanting to change your lifestyle.

Whatever your motivation, our career change advice will guide you through this big but exhilarating step. Let’s start with the most fundamental question: do you really want to do this? (We suspect you already know the answer.)

Is a career change the right thing for you?

The first thing to be certain of is whether a career change is the right approach. Before taking a leap into the unknown (or at least, lesser known), there are other routes to consider. 

Could you get the sense of fulfilment you need with a different role in the same company? Would a more senior position in your sector be the right kind of challenge? Might taking your industry-specific skills to a new organisation be a satisfying change? We hesitate to use the term 'easier options', but staying with the devil you know can be a more straightforward solution.

However, if you really feel you’ve come to the end of the line with your current career path or you're ready for a brand-new challenge, it’s time to think about how to change career

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The challenges of a career change

Change is rarely easy – but who wants a life entirely free of challenge? It might feel daunting at first, but a 2018 survey of British workers revealed that a third of people have retrained to follow a new career at some point – and lived to tell the tale. 

You might have a definite plan in mind (“I want to change my career to work in the health sector”) or something a bit vaguer (“I want more opportunity to use my people skills”). Either way, we’ll take you through the key thought processes and practical actions to take when you're looking for a new career.

Stop repeating the same career mistakes

Think about what you don’t like about your current career. If your concerns are with the whole sector, can you pin down the reasons why? Many factors (work-life balance, for example) are common across all industries, so it's important to make sure that starting a new career really will make things better.

What are the elements of your current job that you’d like to change? It seems obvious, but unpacking this now could save you from having similar issues next time around. Factors to consider include:

  • Tasks
  • Opportunities
  • Salary and benefits
  • Colleagues
  • Location
  • Working environment
  • Working hours
  • Organisational structure
  • Organisational culture

Changing careers later in life

Let’s get one thing straight: there’s no such thing as 'too late' for finding a new career. So, if you’re reading this and you’re on the far side of forty, it’s not a problem. In fact, it’s often an advantage.

Remember when you were a fresh-faced thing, straight out of school or university, basking in the beaming glow of your first real job? Of course you can, because it wasn’t actually that long ago. You’ll also remember your more senior colleagues, who seemed so assured, so wise, and just so damn good at everything. That’s you, now. Whether it feels like it or not.

Every year brings with it experience and expertise – and sensible employers don't tend to turn down those qualities. If you’re switching sectors later in your career, your invaluable management, organisational and interpersonal talents might just give you a leg up on the competition.

You’ve built up a solid skills-based CV, a network of contacts and professional experience your 21-year-old self would envy. For more confidence-boosting tips, read our article on changing roles later in your career.

Making sure your career change is financially viable 

Like with most big life changes, there are financial considerations when starting a new career. Sometimes, the monetary aspect is obvious: if you’re moving from middle management the first rung of the ladder in a new sector, you should expect a reduction in your take-home pay.

With some career moves, the financial implications are less apparent. An extra £3 parking charge a day seems like nothing. However, averaged over 260 days per year at the office and you’re already down £780 pa. Other things to take into account include:

  • Pension contributions
  • Health insurance
  • Perks like gym membership and free parking
  • Commuting costs
  • Dress code
  • Staff discounts

If you’re switching to a completely new career, you may have to go down a massive snake before you meet your first ladder. Can you afford to be back on a starting salary? If you have to go back to college or retrain, will you have to pay for this? If so, how much? 

Finally, are you moving straight into a new job, or leaving your post before finding a new one? If the latter, you’ll need to ensure you have sufficient savings or alternative income to see you through a job hunting or retraining period. 

Career change tips

Before you leap into a new industry, think about its longevity. After all, you don’t want to be switching sector too often, and some fields are more evergreen than others. Innovation experts Nesta identified those jobs that will still be in demand in over a decade’s time. Society will always need teachers, medical professionals (for both humans and animals) and skilled tradespeople, and Nesta reckons there’ll still be room for creatives and artisans, too.

Have a look at Nesta’s findings, and see if your chosen career change has legs. Another good tip is to ask yourself a few probing questions: what do I want to achieve? Where do you see yourself in five years? What, if anything, do you want to get out of your career? If your current job doesn’t look likely to align with your ambitions – well, that’s one more reason to follow your dreams.

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Steps to follow when changing career

Believe it or not, the hardest part is done. Making the mental shift from “shall I change career?” to “I’m going to change career” is the biggest barrier of all. Armed with this resolve, you can move on with some solid steps towards your goal. Time to start putting your plan into action.

Assessing your skills 

Like any job seeker, you’ll need to market yourself. But what exactly are you promoting? Your existing CV won't cut it when you're making a cross-sector move – you'll need to focus more on talking up your transferable skills rather than relying on your direct experience.

When you’re assessing your skills, take a broader view than you would if you were looking for a similar role. At the risk of sounding existential, think about all aspects of your life. What skills and experiences can you pull from your daily life and past experience that are relevant to your chosen new career? This could be as part of:

  • Voluntary work
  • Sports and hobbies
  • Parenting, or being an aunt, uncle or godparent
  • Pet ownership
  • Personal blogging and social media
  • Training courses, evening classes and qualifications
  • Skills from every job you’ve had (of course)
  • A small business or side project

First, consider your transferable practical skills, like meticulous record keeping and sound knowledge of certain software. Then look at soft skills – things like listening, conflict resolution and attention to detail. This isn’t the time to be modest, so if you find it hard to reflect on your strengths, it can help to ask others. Talk to friends, family and colleagues to build up a wider picture of your marketable talents.

You'll need examples to back up any skills you refer to. This is true for all application processes, but may need a bit more thought for a cross-sector move. Be ready to draw on all sorts of past experience, whether personal or professional. If you’ve ever planned and run a kid’s birthday party, you have the organisational skills most companies would pounce on. Highlighting your passions will stand you in good stead for pursuing a career within an industry you truly care about, if that's your goal.

How should my CV and cover letter look if I am changing careers?

Your CV should be tailored towards the industry you're applying into work in. The standard format is to open with your current or most recent position, then work backwards through other significant roles before outlining qualifications and certificates. Eventually, you'll drill down to skills. 

A career change CV is a different beast entirely. Your work history isn't necessarily the star of the show, and your personal attributes and individual skills have become your main selling points, so turn your CV on its head and bring your most relevant qualities to the fore. Yes, this feels a little weird at first. In a world where being captain of your university rugby team trumps your latest sales figures it can all feel a little bizarre, but stick with it – have faith in those transferable skills.  

How do you know which skills to highlight? Start by researching your chosen industry and asking yourself what qualities you think are most important for that field. Look at job ads within that sector to see what employers are looking for. Talk to people who already work in that field and ask questions. You’ll quickly build up a picture of what skills you need to focus on.

Don't ditch your career history entirely – you’ll still need to let recruiters know what you’ve been up to, but do consider reworking the wording. The industry jargon that’s become second nature to you may be unfamiliar to an HR manager from another sector, so keep the technicalities to a minimum.

You’ll also need to refine your cover letter to accompany your new CV. Again, highlight the key skills that make you the perfect person for the role, and briefly explain why. A strong career change cover letter will make it clear that you understand the differences between your current sector and the one who want to move to, while showcasing the transferable skills that will bridge experience gaps.

At this stage, there’s no need to write an essay explaining in huge detail why you want to switch careers – that’s a conversation for the interview. 

Increasing your online presence

These days, a job seeker's CV and cover letter aren't the only things an employer will look at when considering a hire. Most of us build up an online presence through our various social media accounts, and unless you're extremely private or have restricted public access to your profiles, these are available for any potential employers to see. That might be a sobering notion, but it's also a great opportunity to be seen. If you strike the right balance, social media could get you a job.

You might find one or two things to hide from potential employers, but it's just as important to think about what positive traits you can show. If a hiring manager checks you out (they will) and sees you’ve shown interest in their industry, that's one more tick in the 'yes' column. 

Seek out the main players and the up-and-comers in the sector: the organisations, trade publications, influencers and personalities. Once you've identified a few relevant accounts to follow, it'll open up a rich seam of useful (and interesting) content. Interacting with industry experts, whether that's retweeting, commenting or even opening up direct dialogue, not only looks good to visitors on your profile, but reading their blogs, tweets and articles is also a great way of staying up to date with the latest innovations in your chosen sector, which is handy for interviews. 

As for the content you're putting out there, keep your social media activity lively and uncontentious. It can be hard, we know, but stay as apolitical as you can. Engage with your followers, as this helps to build your authority (and your contacts). Got an interview? Make sure to google the panel and check out their latest social media updates before the meeting. Two can play at this game.

If you’ve managed to avoid social media thus far in your career, trust us: it's worth embracing it now. If you’re a newbie, here are our tips to get you started on Twitter.

Career change interview tips

So, your CV and cover letter made a good impression and you've been invited for an interview. That's fantastic news – for more than one reason. Not only are you one step closer to making your career change a reality, you're also focused on the skills and experience the hiring team want to hear more about. 

They've called you in based on the information on your CV, so you can guess with relative safety what they’re going to hone in on. Have coherent and logical answers ready for the following types of question.

1. “Why do you want to change career?”

This is actually a really helpful question, as it gives you an opportunity to talk about what you have to offer. It's your chance to explain your decision, emphasise how serious you are about it, and give concrete examples of the valuable skills you can bring from the outside.

2. “What did you dislike about your last career?”

The best way to answer this is to frame a negative as a positive. For example, explain how you didn’t feel you were fulfilling your potential in certain areas, and lead into explaining how your skills could be put to better use in this new career. Refrain from speaking ill of your current or old job (even if you really can’t stand it). Loyalty is most definitely a transferable skill.

3. “What attracts you to this industry?”

Why do you want to work in this specific sector? Be honest – unless it’s purely financial. It’s a great chance to say lots of positive things about the industry and this organisation (while making sure it sounds genuine.)

It’s all too easy to get defensive in an interview. As an outside candidate, you may feel that you have to defend your career decision vociferously. Be passionate, yes, but try not to be too self-justifying. You’ve got this far, so you’re clearly a viable candidate. Keep this in mind throughout the interview. 

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Key tips on how to change careers 

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) regularly commissions a regular report called Working Lives. It found that, when asked “What do you most regret in your life?”, four out of five retirees selected the answer, “staying in a job I did not like.” 

Be the fifth retiree and make that move you're ready for. 

So to sum up, here are nine key things to think about when changing your career: 

  • Decide whether it's a new job or company you want, or a full-scale career change
  • Be clear about what you want in your next role, and what you want to avoid
  • Choose your new sector wisely: will it still be viable in 10 years?
  • Do the maths: can you afford a career change?
  • Research the skills your new career will require: do you need to retrain?
  • Assess your existing transferable skills
  • Create a skills-based CV and cover letter
  • Build an online profile that shows interest in the industry
  • Practise answers to likely interview questions

With your thinking done, it’s time to start searching for that dream role. Whatever sector you have your eye on, Monster has the latest vacancies: have a look at our jobs search facility to see what exciting opportunities await. Then, when you’ve written that new upside-down CV, upload your CV to our website where it’ll be seen by recruiters looking for their next star candidate.

Changing a career can be daunting, but remember that many, many others have done it before you, and have found the challenge is more than worth the effort.

If you ever need a reminder that finding a new career path is worth it, remember that Elvis didn’t stick with truck driving, did he?

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