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Looking for a career switch? Read this first

Whether you have your sights on a mid-career makeover or a simple sideways move, here are 10 ways to make the transition work for you

young business woman, sitting in waiting area, while employees move about the officeIf you feel ready for a change in focus, your best option might be to go with a job that makes use of your same skills, but with a twist (Getty Images/Chris Ryan)

If you’re in mid-career, you’ve likely been working for 10 years or more. So it’s only natural that at some point you might feel the need for a career overhaul—or at least a sideways move. And you wouldn’t be alone: according to a U.S. survey, 15 per cent of people expect to change jobs and careers more frequently than the previous generation, and nearly 75 per cent say they are likely to return to school during their working lives.

But whether you’re simply bored with your current job or looking to do a total revamp, making a change isn’t a decision that can be made on the fly. Here are 10 tips that can help make the transition as smooth as possible.


It’s important to think about what a career change means for you. There are many possibilities: 

New job, same field: You might happy with the work you do, but need a change of scene or culture. In this case, you might just want a new job, says Madeleine Burry, author of Tips for a Successful Mid-Career Change. 

Different industry, similar skills: If you feel ready for a change in focus, your best option might be to go with a job that makes use of your same skills, but with a twist, suggests Burry. This is the path CPA Jordan Barratt chose. Over the past 11 years, he went from senior manager in financial services/audit group at EY to director of quality assurance and operational risk at RBC, then back to EY, where he’s currently the Canadian campus recruiting leader. Barratt used his experience in professional services as a springboard to move into industry, then back again. With each change, his focus and responsibilities changed slightly—and now, his job doesn’t look anything like the one he first took in 2004. 

Full makeover: For some people, tweaking their career isn’t enough: they want to reinvent their work life (and sometimes themselves) entirely. For example, it was a desire to experience working and living in another country that drove Brazilian-born Roberta Melo to move to Canada in 2016. (“To me, living abroad is a powerful way to understand yourself,” she says.) Although Melo was working in the Brazilian civil service, and already had a law degree as well as a BA in radio and broadcasting, she used the move to completely re-engineer her career, based on her natural interests. She now specializes in tourism and hospitality management, and recently completed a Toronto-based internship program in the travel industry.


As Dana Manciagli, a career expert and private coach, points out in The impact of career transition stress, you should assess your past experiences in order to identify your interests and skills. For example, when Melo and Barratt performed their own self-evaluations, they discovered they were most comfortable working with people. As Melo points out, for instance, she often served as the face of government in her civil service job in Brazil, since she dealt directly with the public. “Surprisingly enough, what used to be my colleagues’ worst nightmare was what I liked about my job,” she says. 

Similarly, when Barratt was in industry, he found he missed working with a wide circle of contacts, both internal and external, as he had in professional services. “In my former role at EY, I had spent 60 per cent to 70 per cent of my time dealing with people matters, whether they be client related or team related. So I missed that aspect when I moved to industry. Managing different relationships is something I enjoy and it’s one of the reasons I wanted to take on my current role.” 


It’s important to bounce ideas off your friends, family and other contacts. As Barratt points out, “When you’re looking for a role, you might have blinders on and not necessarily consider all the things that would be important to you. Friends and co-workers know how you operate, what you’re trying to do. Even if their view reinforces your own, that is helpful.”

Before taking the job at RBC, Barratt spoke with partners at EY and told them about the opportunity. “I really appreciated being able to talk to people who had probably considered something similar in their careers,” he says. “There’s a very supportive culture for those types of exchanges at EY.” 


If you are considering a major career change, it’s important to prepare yourself for the effort required, says Mara MacDonald, a dual U.S./Canadian citizen and founder/CEO of Bright Futures, a career coaching and counselling firm in the San Francisco Bay and Toronto areas. MacDonald had worked for many years in trade finance at international trade organizations such as the Export Development Corporation before marriage took her to Silicon Valley. There, she found high-tech firms weren’t in need of the types of banking/insurance/credit services that were her specialty. However, switching her focus to executive coaching and strategic counselling meant she needed to obtain new certifications in training and human resource management (a two-year process) as well as joining and taking on leadership roles in a number of new associations. 

“Changing course in mid-career is not for the faint-hearted,” she says. “If you are going to do it, you need to be rock solid on your end goal.”


Having a plan and timeline can be extremely useful, especially if you are organizing a major transition that involves going back to school. As MacDonald says, “Your watchwords should be ‘No surprises.’” Melo agrees. Part of her preparation for moving to Canada included applying to college here. But she also needed to improve her English. So she took five months of English as a second language before starting on her course. “I organized all the details when I was in Brazil,” she says. “I had plan A, plan B and, just in case, plan C, before I left.”


Sometimes, it can be useful to hire a professional to guide you. For example, MacDonald worked with a career coach for six months—a period in which she did self-assessments and 360-degree evaluations from work peers and friends, and also conducted deep-dive research on target firms in her new chosen career zones. “A program like that is very grounding,” she says. “You do a lot of exercises that clarify which skills, interests, values and experiences you want to take into your next career.” (A coach can also help you with other job-switching necessities, such as updating your resume and preparing for job interviews.)


As MacDonald also points out, it’s fundamental to consider who is on the journey with you. “Your family and support system have to be there for you while you go through all the changes and psychological ups and downs,” she says. “They may very well be the key to your success. You need to make sure you have their buy-in.”

If you have a mentor and/or work in an organization that encourages moves within and outside of the company, this can help with a transition. As Barratt explains, for example, there is a lot of movement from group to group at EY. The firm also organizes internal career fairs every year—an event that brings together representatives from every function, from tax to standards to finance and audit. “The reps are there to talk to people about their day jobs and any opportunities that might be coming up,” he says. 


If you’re currently in a job that isn’t exactly the right fit for you, you might be tempted to run away by jumping on the first opportunity that comes along, says Barratt. But that is not necessarily a good idea. “Another better offer might pop up three weeks or a month down the road,” he says. “You’ll put yourself in a much better spot if you take the time to consider your options.” 

Barratt himself considered another offer before returning to EY. “If I had been running away from my old job, I would have joined that company and I don’t think I would have liked the role as much as the one I have now,” he says. 


Even if you have pursued an opportunity and are fairly far along in the recruiting process, you can still change course, says Barratt. “It’s fine to step back and say ‘It’s OK if I don’t take that role.’ ” 

That same freedom actually applies to career transitions in general. As Melo puts it, “As you change careers, you are going to discover new things about yourself. Don’t be afraid of recalculating your route in the middle of the process.”


Inevitably, major career shifts will give rise to doubt and uncertainty. (As Melo explains, “You’ll face insecurities. Keep your friends close.”) Nevertheless, career changers often come out of the process with a whole new lease on their working lives. Says Melo: “I am living this amazing adventure and getting to meet amazing people on the way. I am discovering my own strengths and becoming a better version of myself. I have just finished college and now I am applying for full-time positions in the area. Let's see what life brings.”


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