How to Prepare for a Career Change Over the Age of 50

After spending a significant amount of time on one’s career, it’s not unheard of to explore new career paths.  This is the same for many re-entry professionals who had taken time off to care for family. It’s completely normal to desire a change in your career in both of these scenarios. However, the question then becomes: how do I make that change? And is change possible for someone in my age category? In this blog post we will share the 3 best steps for career change planning once you reach  your 50s, timelines needed for making the change, and strategies for getting unstuck and moving forward towards a new career path.

How age influences individual career planning for career changers

It’s amazing how your outlook and priorities change over the course of a lifetime. The jobs and interests you held in our 20s may seem like a distant memory compared to where you are in your 50s. And then there are those life scenarios that drive big career-altering decisions – like the decision to exit the workforce to raise kids; or the reprioritization of work when it comes to an ailing parent. Regardless of your life or career situation, it’s not too difficult to see why age brings a desire for change for many professionals. Many professionals start thinking about career change as a way to experience more meaningful work and professional fulfillment. And then there are those who are in the midst of a career transition, but now feel stuck. Whatever your case may be, a desire for career change once you  hit your 50s and beyond is completely normal.

Is career change possible at my age?

The short answer is: Yes! Career change can happen at any time and at any age. I see it all the time – even amidst ongoing age discrimiation. Anything is possible. However, career changes typically take time. This might not be what you want to hear right now, but it is the reality. If you are worried about age discrimination, check out this blog post I wrote on how to eliminate age discrimination in your job search.

How long does it take to make a career change? What can you expect?

Because the career change process takes time, you want to start the process towards career change as soon as possible. Career change won’t happen overnight and there are many pieces you will want to prepare to make the change more effectively. I’ve seen some clients make changes within weeks. Other clients take months to make a change. And there are others year who have to take on a few new opportunities before making the desired change. The important thing to focus on is not “how long,” but rather, “what can I do to inch my way closer to the change?”

1. The first step in making a career change: career exploration

The first part of making any career change is identifying your target. What will you do next (title) and with whom will you be employed? Wherever you are in the career change process, it will take time to figure out what that next move will be. Use this time to get a head start in your reflection process, so you can make that move with confidence. Use these reflection questions as a starting point:

  • What’s motivating your career change?
    • If there is more than 1 motivator, list them in rank order with the most important at the top. Use this list as a guide point to help you stay focused on what needs to change, it can also be used as a reference point to help you clearly articulate to recruiters and networks why you’re seeking a change. Most importantly, this list will keep you energized along the way!
  • What are the top 3 things you enjoy and dislike about your current position?
  • What are the top 3 things you enjoy and dislike about your industry and company?
  • What task (s) are missing in your current role that you want to see more of in your next job? 
  • What is the most important thing you need out of your next job?
  • Are you interested in going back to school to receive training?
  • What does success look like in the next 6 months?

How much time should you spend in career exploration and planning?

It’s easy enough to go for a new job that pays more money or has a cooler job title. However if those were not the top motivators on your list, then you will need to take the time to figure out what you want before starting a full-on job search.

If you take the time to go through this important first step of career exploration, your job search process will be focused and intentional. You will have a stronger and more focused brand. This in turn will produce more job interviews. It will further produce stronger interview outcomes and hiring manager interest!

What if you get stuck in the career exploration process?

For some professionals, career exploration will be enough to help you move to actionable next steps. However if you find yourself stuck at this step, you will want to seek support from a career coach. There are a few reasons a career coach can be beneficial on your career change journey. Sometimes when my clients have been stuck in a career rut or in a certain career for a long period of time, they can’t see the forest for the trees. They need help from another person to get unstuck. Furthermore, due to job search insecurities, “stuck” job searchers can have a limited view of their full potential and all the possibilities that lie ahead. A career coach is trained to pull you outside of yourself and help you see the path ahead much more clearly. If you do decide to work with a career coach, this process can take a few months of processing assessment results and career research to feel confident about where you want to go next. For some individuals it can take up to 6 months.

Another way to explore new career options is through networking. Your network is extremely valuable for providing new information or leads you may not have considered. If it’s been a while since you networked, you will benefit from this blog post I wrote on how to overcome networking anxiety.

2. Align to your next career move!

After you’ve taken the time to reflect on your answers to the exploration questions, it’s time to align yourself to the new target. This will look different for every person. What this looks like for you, depends on how dramatic of a change you’re deciding to make. If you’re making a career pivot, the transition will be a little easier. If you’re doing a complete career change you will likely have some skills gaps to fill. This can range from a simple certification, to an entire degree. Based on how you answered the reflective questions above, you know how deep you’re willing to go to connect to this new career area.

The first step in aligning to your new target: a skills assessment

A good next step will be to gain a deeper understanding of what skills you have that align with this new career area. You will also want to gain a deeper understanding of what skills are missing. For example, if you’re trying to switch from Accounting to a Digital Media Specialist position, you will likely see:

Skills Match: 

  • Work in cross-functional teams.
  • Analyze information and provide insights to improve the process/project/outcomes.
  • Connect/Communicate with external stakeholders.

Skills Gaps:

  • Technical skills: HTML, CSS, JavaScript, SEO, SEM.
  • Following KPI’s to match a company’s brand.
  • Supporting and optimizing a marketing campaign.

A few strategic options for filling in your skills gaps

After you’ve analyzed your skill gaps, you will need to take action to fill those gaps. Based on the severity of the gaps, you can choose a few next steps. You can either make a deeper commitment and pursue a relevant degree – allowing you to gain experience, connections and even an internship in this new space. Or you can take a less bold next step that may include taking online courses to gain technical skills. I don’t recommend taking the deep dive into a specific degree program unless you have seen this listed as a “must have” requirement on the majority of job descriptions you’re targeting.

One of the best ways to top up your skills is by gaining relevant work experience in your target space. This will allow you to add new skills keywords to your resume, cover letter, and LinkedIn profile. Ask your network about ways to attain relevant side gigs or freelance work in order to gain the right experience. Even volunteering can be a great way to gain new skills. Here are 22 transferable skills that can be highlighted from your volunteer work. If you are re-entering the workforce you will want to also focus on how to fill your resume gaps using this strategy. 

 Not ready to make such a huge career move or skills top-up right now?

If you don’t want to commit to a major change, there are other ways to lay the foundation for a future change. You may decide that you’re not willing to make such a big move right now, but you are willing to switch industries. Therefore, you may choose to stay in Accounting, but you may do that work in a marketing agency or at a company that has a large internal marketing/agency team. By keeping your same role and pivoting into a new industry, you are taking a step in the right career direction. Sometimes these moves end up being a huge opportunity in making big career changes in the future.

Should you get an MBA to make the career change more feasible?

If you are ready for a big change and thinking an advanced degree may be the answer, take some time to make sure a new degree will indeed produce your desired job results. Before you commit to pursuing an MBA, for example, you want to make sure it is a “must” in order to make the change. This is a huge investment and you may not want to pursue unless absolutely required for your new target role. You want to focus on obtaining a degree that will be a standard requirement – and therefore give you an edge on the competition when applying for jobs. While an MBA may sound nice, know that it will require finances, time away from the workforce, and/or a huge time commitment away from family/life-balance. So you want to be extra sure there is career value (ie job possibilities that will require it) before making the investment.

Many people pursue MBAs as a nice gap filler for the resume. They also believe this will result in an immediate job offer upon graduation. This is not usually the case, however. Most companies value experience OVER the degree. So you could just as easily gain the experience without the time/money investment. Take time to carefully consider adding these credentials to your name before pursuing this avenue as a means for change.

How much time should you spend in the career alignment process?

Whichever choice you make, it will take time! Time may be luxury you don’t have at this stage in your life, but it will be necessary to produce the results and make the change. Plan for 1 month or more for this step. If you’re only making an industry shift, it would still benefit you to fill any gaps. An easy way to do this is by focusing your efforts within your network. Learn industry trends and join professional associations to boost your competitiveness. This will put you in the right spaces with the right people.

3. Reinvent yourself by changing your resume and LinkedIn story

After you’ve put in the time and work for making a career change, it’s time to tell a new story that matches your career transition! It’s not enough to simply list a bunch of certifications and projects, you need to create a completely new professional brand that aligns with your new path. You want to plan for at least 2 weeks to tackle all of your branding.

Quick tips for reinventing your resume

A targeted headline at the top of the resume that talks to the roles and industries you’re targeting tells a clear story to the reader. This will help make clear connections between your background and the job opening

A summary of achievements at the top of your resume is a great way to showcase transferable skills stories and connect to your next career move. This is where you want to take your skill matches from step 2 and highlight them right at the top in a professional summary. You will also highlight your new skills in the skills section just below your summary. Because you may have over 20 years of work experience, select only your top, and best achievements to highlight up top. Make sure they aren’t buried on  page two!

Another great 50-plus career changer keyword opportunity is in  your education and training section. In this section be sure and highlight any new and relevant professional development. For example, if you attended a training on JavaScript through General Assembly, then add it. Be sure to also list the year of completion to show how recent it was. You don’t always want to include dates for ageism reasons but for any recent, relevant certifications/degrees the dates will serve you well!

Next, you will want to look at your current position and see if there are ways to break your role down into sub-categories that showcase relevant transferable skills. In keeping with the example above, as an Accountant, you may be able to break your resume into two parts, Project Management and Client Relations and then Accounting and Finance Management. If you create sub-titles within your job and write bullets to each area instead of under just the one bucket of “Accountant”, it then tells a story more relevant to your next career move, in this case marketing. An important part of creating desirable resume experience, is using your bullets to communicate career accomplishments. This is especially useful for career changers hoping to demonstrate transferable skills.

Adapting your LinkedIn profile for a career change

There are a ton of ways you can adapt your LinkedIn profile for a career change. And in fact, LinkedIn is more important than your resume when it comes to making a career change. Many 50-plus professionals I support are skeptical of LinkedIn but don’t be. You will need to embrace LinkedIn in order to 1) make the change and 2) beat ageism!

The most important thing to remember is that you want to write your profile to where you are headed – not where you are. Take advantage of all of the keyword and SEO opportunities by using strategic target industry lingo in your headline, and about sections. You can also join groups relevant to your industry area, follow influencers from your new space, and connect to people in your target new space. If your supervisor does not know you’re seeking new opportunities, be careful about updating your headline. You should also edit your settings to not notify your network of the changes you’re making to your profile. This will be particularly helpful once you start adding all your new skills and professional associations to your profile. If you are pivoting into a new role, you should try this LinkedIn headline strategy.  If you are an executive entering the executive career path, you will want to try this LinkedIn headline strategy.

The bottom line on changing careers in the 50-plus age range

If you’re looking to make a career change that is intentional and targeted, then you will want to start your reflection and exploration process now. Career change takes time. If you start now, you’ll be much further along once the market improves.

If you’re hoping to make a career change over the age of 50, check out our ageism-busting resume services. Our master resume writers will provide you with a custom resume strategy phone consultation, ATS and keyword optimized resume, and tailored resume that speaks to your strongest career accomplishments and value – everything you need to feel confident and put your best foot forward as a 50-plus applicant.

Noelle Gross

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