A Career Planning Game Plan

Woman on LadderPlanning your next move demands self-examination and research before you set a job goal and start climbing the career ladder.

Maybe you want to be a famous actor or a pop star? Go for it, but have a backup plan. If you're looking at a less risky career choice it may be time to look at what you've done and where you'd like to go and what you need to do to get there before starting the next chapter of your career.

There are bookshelves full of literature on career planning that generally agrees on a multi-step process to get people moving toward goals. Everyone has different experiences, desires and timelines. Yet a disorganized approach, for sure, will lead to frustration and disappointment rather than a focus on a new career. In this section we reference other parts of this book since the principles of any job search remain largely the same, whether you're anxiously starting a different profession or staying in the same one.

Let's Talk About You 

One simple step you can take in this direction is conducting a self-assessment. You can do this with the help of employment counselors at one of Minnesota's WorkForce Centers or through online assessment tests available at iseek.org and other websites. The information gleaned from self assessments may put a damper on your plans to become an astronaut, but you may find some hidden skills and talents — leadership, communicating, working with tools, whatever — that will unlock ideas for new careers.

Job experts believe a good assessment includes interests, skills, values, preferred environments, temperament, motivations, work experience, training needs, and your current work and financial status. Each of these areas gives definition to your career search.

Do you want a job with great regularity and little change, one with or without travel, with a large company, or a small one? Where creativity is rewarded? Or where doing diligently many of the same tasks daily is celebrated? Can you afford a new career? These are just some questions you will want to answer prior to thinking about heading in a new direction.

Avoid diminishing your creative impulse by placing too many limitations on it. "Don't let yourself get stuck in 'I can't do this, I can't do that' kinds of thinking that reflect only current real-world constraints but not what could be developed," argues Leonard Lang, a Minneapolis-based career coach and author of Guide to Lifework: Working with Integrity and Heart. "By thinking creatively, you can be re-energized and find new solutions you hadn't dreamed of before. But that won't happen if you get stuck on thinking first of these constraints, such as there are bills to pay ... kids are in school ... 'I don't have the education.' Dealing with those constraints is vital after you get a vision of your career."

Time for Homework

Armed with a greater sense of yourself through personal and professional assessments, you now have to begin a major research project. Later, we show many resources on the Web and at the library where you can explore careers that you find appealing and that may fit your skill set — or your skill set with additional training.

Follow a strategy of studying the demand for occupations you find attractive. You will be advised to follow your bliss in career books and on the Web. That's an option maybe you could find a career transforming your skills as an amateur taxidermist into a professional one. Just don t make the decision blindly. Understand that a new career may entail sometimes considerable financial sacrifice.

By doing your homework, you might want to consider a career in the top 20 or 30 growing professions rather than strike out on an unlikely dream of becoming, well, a brain surgeon at age 55. No career counselor wants to dampen enthusiasm, but a dose of reality is often required unless a person really possesses the absolute drive and determination to take on an exceptionally challenging profession.

One job expert related the story of a woman who really did want to become a physician at age 40 and understood the sacrifices and time it would take to embark upon a medical career. She went with her passion. That's an extraordinary story, and a rare one. More commonplace are people who develop skills in one area that they can re-purpose in another field.

See our section, Career Investigation Tools, for details on occupations, conducting labor market surveys, reaching out for informational interviews and finding job survey data.

Filling Skill Gaps 

Once you have a pretty good idea of what career or careers you want to pursue, you may find your lack of knowledge or skills will make it hard for you to find employment. Let's say you sold medical products to hospitals for a number of years and want to transition into a role where you re a care provider, such as licensed practical nurse or registered nurse. You will need additional schooling in order to make that dramatic a leap.

Perhaps you seek a different career path in the same or a similar profession. A programmer who wants to get into management could consider a master's of business degree or a leadership/executive training program at a local college. That programmer could volunteer for managerial-style jobs with an IT association to experience, in a small way, the skills demanded of a larger managerial position in the future.

You can, in effect, conduct your own skill gap analysis to determine what education, degrees and training — or combination of all three — might be needed in a different career. Then you need to find the education or training you require for your new career, an issue less of a problem in large or medium-sized cities where many colleges and private institutions have created night and weekend courses and degrees for working adults. (If you're unemployed you may qualify for financial assistance and be able to attend day classes.)

Case Study 
Learn how Mary Beth Heffernan changed careers by taking a volunteer position that turned into full-time job. Read Mary Beth's story.

Making a Move 

You may decide, in the end, to stay in your current profession or to take whatever positions come your way, a strategy not without appeal in a job-poor economy. You could come to the conclusion that you'd prefer your favorite activities remain hobbies instead of potentially new careers or that you devote your ancillary talents to volunteer organizations instead of professional, paying positions.

More than a few brilliant amateur photographers have not opened studios, for instance, and many great teachers remain mentors and tutors at schools and have not gone into the profession. Your talents beyond work always can be exercised in other avenues. In many cases staying in your field will be a wise choice. Not everyone can, or should, start a new career.

The question you have to answer in moving in a different direction is whether you can continue in your profession. Can you still find a job or contract work? And if you're starting anew, do you have the commitment and resilience required to make what will be a monumental change fraught with the potential for considerable setbacks, roadblocks, challenges and struggles?

Expert Leonard Lang suggests people test-drive their vision. Take a course or two in the career you want to pursue, rather than entering a full-time degree program. A few courses later you might decide that teaching elementary school isn't something you want to do, after all. Or, you find your commitment has solidified and to save time you're going to become a full-time student. Investing time in courses or training will give you a clearer picture of whether a new career is what you really want.

If you have to take a temporary job while retraining or preparing for a new profession, "this is nothing to feel bad about," adds Lang, who has spoken at Minnesota WorkForce Centers. "It may be that a transitional job will give you experience or connections that help you move toward your larger goal."

If you take the plunge into a new career, you will not be alone. A recent Minnesota newspaper feature story highlighted many career changers, among them an airline mechanic studying to become a biomedical technician, a project manager who opened a consignment store, a used car dealer who sells his own homemade salsa at area grocery stores and farmers markets, a former assistant principal taking classes to become a computer technician and a recruiter at a large national retail chain who left that job to pursue a singing career.

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