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5 Things Successful Mid-Career Transitions Have In Common

career transition

It’s easy to talk yourself out of making a career change if you’re in your forties or beyond, by telling yourself it isn’t practical or realistic. Not so fast!

A recent study by the American Institute of Economic Research, an independent research firm in Great Barrington, Mass., had some good news for would-be career changers in midcareer and beyond.

  • 1 million to 2 million workers ages 45 to 65 made a career change between 2011 and 2012.
  • 82% of workers in this age range who wanted to switch careers pulled it off
  • 90% of those who switched careers said their transition was successful. Seventy-two percent agreed that “emotionally, I feel like a new person” since changing careers, 65% said their stress levels dipped, 68% said it didn’t take unreasonably long to find a new job and 59% reported they are now “following their passions.”

So how do you join them? The study offered an interesting glimpse into what the successful career changers had in common.

They pushed past the fear. Among the successful career changers, 49% said they were “very nervous” about it. Despite their anxiety, they pressed on.

Talking with contacts who are already pursuing your target career is good way to alleviate worries that you won’t be able to navigate your transition successfully. When I made the decision to become a freelance writer, after working in corporate America, for instance, one of my best sources of support was other freelance writers who had already established their businesses. They gave me great advice on which types of clients were best–and even introduced me to some–so I could hit the ground running.

They didn’t wait for the “perfect” moment.  Among the successful career changers, few had extra financial resources to help them make a change, and 30% had to take a pay cut. Fortunately, the smaller paychecks weren’t permanent for many. Half of successful career changers reported an increase in income over time.

If it looks like you will have to accept lower pay to make a career change, build your own support system ahead of time. Perhaps you can cut out one or two recurring extras, like restaurant meals or impulse purchases at the mall, from your budget for a six-month period and tuck that money away before you make a career change.  If you’re married or have a life partner, brainstorm how you can make up for a potential dip in income together. Perhaps your mate may be willing to pick up the slack, by going after a higher paying position or, if he or she does not currently have a job, returning to the workforce.

They made the change in less than a year. It took the successful career changers 11 months to change their work situation, while career changers who viewed their change as unsuccessful took 22 months.

The study didn’t say exactly why unhappy career changers took longer. But in an interesting finding, the dissatisfied folks were more likely to get formal career training to make the switch than satisfied career changers. Among the unhappy, 41% earned a professional certificate, 41% got short-term training to learn hard skills and 32% took short-term classes to pick up soft skills. In contrast, among the successful career changers 34% got a professional certificate, 23% took classes to learn hard skills and 23% got training in soft skills.

I suspect that folks who invest a lot of time in picking up new skills may have higher expectations about the results a career change will bring, and may end up disappointed as a result. If you are thinking of going back to school for an extra credential, make sure you do plenty of research about what your future career is really like, so you don’t end up regretting the decision.

They made the most of skills they already had. The survey found that successful career changers used seven skills from their prior job; those who were disappointed with their career change only used two.

So what skills did the successful career changers tend to tap? The top five were: Problem solving, interpersonal communication, public communication, reading comprehension and basic computer skills.

Not sure what skills you can best apply to a new job? Make a list of the ones you use most often. Then search some of the job boards to see which positions come up when you enter those skills. When I entered “interpersonal communication” on one site, for instance, titles including consultant, manager, wealth advisor and account representative came up. This exercise may give you some ideas for careers you never considered but where you could potentially leverage what you already know.

They ignored the conventional wisdom. You’ve probably read advice for career changers to network at career fairs or on LinkedIn, or volunteer to become a paid employee. The vast majority of successful career changers did not do these things.

That’s a little surprising but when I think of very experienced colleagues who’ve re-invented themselves in high-paying careers that were new to them, it makes sense. They turned to contacts who knew and respected their work for help in winning a new gig. When you’ve spent a lifetime building a great reputation, it can be a very powerful asset.

About the Author

Elaine Pofeldt is an independent journalist who specializes in writing about entrepreneurship and careers. She was a senior editor for Fortune Small Business magazine, and her work has appeared in Fortune, Money, Forbes.com, Inc. and Crain's New York Business, among others.