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To Switch or Not To Switch

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Ever wonder why some people do mental cartwheels over the prospect of changing careers while others reject the idea entirely? It hinges on having an all-consuming desire to radically change your life by earning a living doing something different. Some of the reasons both for and against career switching make perfectly good sense. Let's take a look at this new battlefield and find out whether you're up for the joust.

Why People Change Careers

Let's start with the reasons that people switch careers.

  • Technological Change: Say you had a secure job in an old-line manufacturing firm that became automated over a 6-month period, thus eliminating better than 50 percent of the jobs. If it was just a matter of time before your place in the production process was usurped by a computer, you'd have no choice but to bail out and find a new career. Simply put, changing jobs is only a temporary maneuver. Inevitably, you'll have to retool yourself for a new career. All industries have been affected by technology. For instance, it once took a half-dozen bookkeepers and administrative assistants to keep an office's records up to date. Today a totally automated office with one computer and three clerks can turn out at least twice as much work.

  • Failing Company: Faltering companies force many disillusioned workers into new careers. There's no point running through the litany of companies that went the way of all flesh in the past decade. When the paychecks are coming regularly, it's easy to delude yourself into thinking you enjoy what you're doing. But when the company is going under and you risk losing your job, suddenly the sky opens up, the sea parts, and you ask yourself, "Why in the world would I look for the same type of job when it bores me to death?" Once past the confusion and uncertainty, not to mention immobilizing fear, you ponder the prospects of doing something you actually enjoy.

  • Failing Industry: The same rationale applies to a crumbling industry. Imagine you've been part of the widget industry since the late 1950s. Now it's falling apart before your eyes. You're a victim of what the experts call structural unemployment--the condition of permanent unemployment created by the phasing out of old jobs and the creation of new ones as a result of technological change. You're forced into making a move. You've got two choices. If you love what you're doing, you can shift your skill to another industry. This is an example of career salvaging, mentioned earlier. But if you're ready to move on, an overall career change makes sense.

  • Unhappiness: Under the umbrella heading of unhappiness, I'll include disillusionment, disinterest, boredom, and changing values and motivation. It's amazing when you consider the staggering number of workers who despise their jobs. One morning, they drag themselves out of bed and say to themselves, "I can't take it any longer. I'm quitting." What brought them to that point is the stuff that makes shrinks wealthy. It just proves that people are complicated and unpredictable. What drove us in our twenties is no longer important in our forties and fifties. Reason enough to downshift into something that revs up our juices.

  • Money: Even in the get-in-touch-with-yourself 1990s, nothing is wrong with switching careers for money. After all, when you cut through the pretense, one of the pressing reasons for changing jobs is financial. The fact is that some careers pay better than others. Take the writing business. What kind of fool goes into it for the bucks? Yes, there are superstars making incredible money. But they're the exception. Most full-time independent writers are struggling to make ends meet. Others do something else full time and write in their spare time. Or, if lucky, they are supported by spouses or trust funds.

That's just one dramatic example. I've known many disillusioned teachers who threw in the towel because wages were abysmally low. Some became stockbrokers or lawyers so they could enjoy a better lifestyle.

You get the picture. Throw all the idealistic patter that's been rammed down your throat out the window and look at the money issue honestly. It's no crime switching careers for more money-if you enjoy what you're going to be doing. If you don't, you'll have problems later on.
  • Power and Prestige: Right alongside the desire for money, the need for power and prestige is a compelling force by itself. As you master your new career, you stand a good chance of ascending to a powerful position. It's very common when switching from a profit-making to a nonprofit company. A low-level manager who becomes a superstar fund raiser in a nonprofit organization garners enormous power and respect, because he or she becomes critical to the organization's survival. For the same reason, the position carries well-deserved prestige.

  • Personal Reasons: Life deals us unexpected twists and turns. A divorced parent who gains custody of his or her children and is not earning enough to support the family may change careers to meet new found needs. In short, circumstances often dictate our career direction. The tough part is picking the right career road.

  • Health or Age: Certain industries are more hazardous than others. The construction and oil and gas industries are two that come to mind. If you're working at a physically demanding job in these industries-as an engineer or a field manager, for example-poor health could impede your performance and trigger a career change. The same goes for age. Blame it on genetic makeup, but some of us are stronger than others. Many 50- and 60-year-olds change careers when they discover they can no longer work at physically taxing jobs. It's just nature telling them they've got to find a new career.

Why People Don't Switch Careers

For many people, a career change represents a new chapter in life. Yet many others avoid it, for the following reasons.
  • Fear of the Unknown: Fear is the greatest single force preventing people from doing anything. A fear of making fools of ourselves or not succeeding keeps millions of us locked into tedious, dead-end careers. I'm not going to play shrink and attempt to explain how fear can stop us in our tracks. Suffice it to say, it s an immobilizing force with complex origins.

  • Uncertainties of the Job Market: In a topsy-turvy job market, many potential career changers back off and wait for market conditions to stabilize before considering a major move. Even job changers contemplating the step up to a better job slot proceed cautiously during uncertain periods. If the unemployment rate is going through the roof and industry conditions are shaky, you might not want to risk giving up what you have to venture off in a new direction. Yes, it's healthy to take risks. But often, hanging back makes sense too. It's a judgment call.

  • Relocation: Even though relocation can be a tantalizing and challenging adventure, many older workers avoid it. Families, friends, business relationships, and real estate holdings are all good reasons for not moving. Sentimental and financial attachments are also powerful reasons for staying where you are.

  • Money: Money is a good reason for changing careers, but it's also a good reason to remain at the job. If you're conflicted about changing careers, as many of us are, money can be the deciding factor-especially if you're earning a good salary. Some of us value money more than others. You may not love your work all that much, but the money is satisfying. A stockbroker friend confessed he occasionally has ideological battles with himself. There are times when he hates selling and the frustrations of dealing with temperamental and difficult clients. Yet the feeling is always overridden by his sizable commissions, which give him a lifestyle that would be hard to duplicate doing something more fulfilling. He knows a career change means starting over-with drastically lower earnings. That translates to dramatically downgrading his lifestyle-a compromise he s not willing to make.
The moral of the story is, don't be too harsh on yourself if you feel the same way.
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