Career Transition

Can You Still Transition Your Career Now?

A woman wearing bright yellow considers changing careers and looks out the window thoughtfully

If you’re thinking about making a career change, you’re not alone. Periods of uncertainty and risk often make people reassess their priorities, and, as a result, the COVID-19 pandemic might become an unexpected catalyst in the labor force. During a crisis, you might realize you want more out of a career, for example, or become tired of waiting for the right moment to transition. The forced perspective can nudge individuals into action, and months of social distancing mean most of us have extra time to devote to our work.

What’s more, job seekers can take advantage of the conditions in today’s market. In an interview with Fast Company, Jenny Blake, author of Pivot: The Only Move That Matters Is Your Next One, explains employers will be more understanding about mid-career changes because of the crisis. “The snow globe of the world has been shaken up,” Blake says. “No one is judging anyone for making a career change.”

But breaking away from the status quo during a pandemic is also precarious. While the COVID-19 shutdown stretches on, the U.S. is shifting from an employee-driven market to an employer-driven market. Here’s what that means for executives and senior management.

Rising Unemployment Rate

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported a 14.7% unemployment rate last month; however, Betsey Stevenson, a member of the Council of Economic Advisers and Chief Economist of the U.S. Department of Labor, says the unemployment rate is likely closer to 20%. According to Stevenson, a categorization error in the initial data set produced the lower estimate. The higher figure hasn’t been formalized (the BLS doesn’t make ad hoc changes to published reports), but it still portends significant economic hardship. For comparison, the unemployment rate during the Great Depression was 24.9%; our current standing is the highest it’s been since then.

Fewer Job Openings

The most recent statements by the U.S. Bureau of Labor reveal there were 6.2 million job openings at the end of March—an estimated 813,000 fewer positions compared to the end of April. In the last 12 months, the Bureau also claims about 7.1 million jobs were eliminated from the market. Practically speaking, this affects job seekers a few different ways.

Black professional at her kitchen table deciding how to change careersFirst, options will be limited as more roles become obsolete or outsourced. Second, job seekers will probably encounter more competing candidates for every position. Because the ratio of job seekers to job openings will be high, employers have their pick of candidates. It might take more time to secure a position, and it’s possible you’ll need to make concessions about your contract terms. Employers will also look for the most qualified candidates, which could make distinctions like an advanced degree, certification, or license grow in demand.

The most rewarding roles, including those in management, typically attract more applicants. In 2019, the average corporate job listing drew about 250 applicants. This number will probably rise during a recession. Numerous staffing firms show executive searches already seem to be dwindling this summer.

Beating the Odds

Even though it might not be the easiest time to change careers, it’s still possible. It never hurts to keep an eye out for opportunities that interest you, and if you’re still employed, you can explore these options while still maintaining relative security. The pandemic and subsequent lockdown will probably affect the market for years to come, but they don’t have to define your career.

If a new career path is important to you, you can take steps to transition successfully. The following tips explain how to change careers while mitigating the risks.

Tips for Changing Your Career During a Crisis

1. Emphasize transferable skills.

Look at the skills employers need most right now, like financial management and fundraising. How have you applied these skills in earlier positions? Look for specific ways you can help businesses navigate a recession and protect their bottom line, then emphasize these points in your application materials.

2. Address soft skills that are important to remote workforces.

Think about the onboarding process for companies that are newly remote. HR departments are struggling to bridge communication breakdowns and encourage employee engagement; managers have trouble training new hires, monitoring their progress, and connecting team members.

When you interview for a position, show that you can anticipate these obstacles and make the process easier for the hiring manager. Highlight your soft communication skills and give examples in your work and the way you conduct yourself.

3. Target the right employers.

For executives and upper-level employees, the job search is more than just a numbers game. Because hiring is a large investment, businesses want to find the right fit. Target employers and tailor your application to their specific needs. Companies that are still developing their product (and therefore have a lean payroll) are most likely to hire outside talent during a crisis. Also consider looking at businesses with in-demand digital services that need to increase productivity. The video game sector, for example, has seen revenue increases since the lockdown.

4. Evaluate your risk tolerance.

Everyone has limits to what they’re willing to risk. Do you have enough savings to carry you through a six-month unemployment period? Are you mentally and emotionally prepared to take on additional stressors during a crisis? Think about what’s comfortable for you at this time and weigh the stakes.

5. Prepare for the possibility of a pay reduction.

If you’re new to an industry, an employer assumes financial risk by hiring you instead of a candidate with a proven track record. To make your candidacy more compelling, be prepared to negotiate the terms of your contract.


The rules of engagement have changed—here’s what you need to know about negotiating during widespread budget cuts


6. Start with consulting or short-term contract work.

Even though job openings are declining, short-term contracts and part-time work are on the rise. If you want to work with an employer, try pitching a short-term project or collaboration. You can use these experiences to build your resume, and a business might want to hire you full-time after working together.

7. Volunteer.

There are plenty of opportunities to volunteer, and doing so can help you gain valuable career experience. Nonprofit organizations like the Crisis Text Hotline, for example, offer free crisis training to volunteers (a $1,008 value). Credentials like these show you care about the community and will help you develop leadership skills.

8. Do the homework.

Resources are strained during a recession, and, as a result, businesses are more likely to make conservative hiring choices. To counterbalance your lack of experience, enroll in relevant classes and seek opportunities to learn more about the industry. Even if you don’t earn a new degree, you can list these qualifications on your resume and reference the material during interviews.

9. Explore your options.

A newly hired business leader talks to his colleagues in a video conferenceHerminia Ibarra, the Charles Handy Professor of Organizational Behavior at London Business School, suggests keeping a diverse portfolio of “provisional selves.” In “Reinventing Your Career in the Time of Coronavirus” (Harvard Business Review), she says job seekers should explore more than one career path.

Look for people in your extended professional network who have already transitioned out of your field into a sector that interests you. Host “informational interviews” to learn more about their industry and join professional associations or nonprofits.

When you’re starting to explore other fields, be open to new experiences and don’t let yourself be pigeonholed.

10. Leverage the “halo” effect.

In 1920, psychologist Edward Thorndike discovered commanding officers tend to believe soldiers who are good at performing one task are also good at doing other tasks. He called this phenomenon the “Halo Effect” because it improved the individual’s projected image, making them seem better than they really were.

When you apply to a job in new industry, describe your earlier achievements, even if they seem related only superficially. Hiring managers will automatically hold you in higher esteem when they see a list of accomplishments.

11. Be patient.

William Bridges, author and management consultant, is famous for developing The Transition Model, which consists of three stages:

  1. Ending, Losing, and Letting Go: This stage marks the dawning realization that the old way makes you unhappy or no longer works. People in this stage sometimes feel frustrated or remorseful about losing an earlier version of themselves.
  2. The Neutral Zone: Stage two is about processing the next step, which could involve some level of uncertainty, impatience, and low morale or productivity. It’s the in-between stage of the transition when a person neither identifies with their previous role or the next one. This liminality can make people feel unmoored and requires space and introspection.
  3. The New Beginning: After some initial trepidation, most people eventually reach a period of enthusiasm and accelerated growth. During this stage, you’ll feel highly motivated and energized. You might experience a renewed sense of purpose.

No matter which stage of the transition model you’re currently experiencing, try to be patient with yourself. Dramatic changes don’t happen overnight, and the current crisis will probably prolong the process. These steps don’t have to be linear—you might see periods of progress tempered with occasional setbacks. According to Bridges’s theory, each of these stages is equally important and ultimately contributes to your objectives. Don’t lose hope about the future, and if you’d like to transition into a new field, you can start making meaningful progress in that direction today.


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About the Author

Rachel Lake is a writer and editor in New York City. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. To get in touch with Rachel, contact her on LinkedIn.