More than a year ago, I had a chat with a new acquaintance. An accomplished IT exec with a decade-and-a-half of experience under her belt, she was seriously impressive; but she was also unfulfilled in her job. “I wish I could change careers,” she told me. “I just don’t know how.”
It’s terrifying to say goodbye to a path you’ve spent years carving out for yourself, and can seem impossible to imagine rebuilding from scratch — especially during a pandemic when unemployment still sits at a staggering 10%, as of July. But for some, now more than ever, it feels necessary to entertain the idea of something entirely new.
Many unemployed Americans are struggling to make ends meet or pay for basic care, and starting a new career can seem daunting, if not impossible. When Ivanka Trump, a person who was born into unimaginable wealth, launched her “Find Something New” campaign earlier this summer on behalf of one of the most nepotistic administrations to ever inhabit the White House, she was roundly criticized for her out-of-touch suggestion that these struggling Americans who had been laid off or furloughed from their jobs should simply, you know, just get a new one; Or that they should spend thousands of dollars out of pocket on a new certificate program; Or seek work in an industry that does have jobs, but that might potentially put them at risk of exposure to the coronavirus. There is no excuse for the lack of social safety nets in place for Americans who worked hard in a field that may no longer exists, or no longer offers the kind of security that employees had come to depend on (like, for example, health insurance).
However, if you’ve been waiting for the perfect moment to make the leap into a new field, and looking for a sign to finally dip your toes in the water of something new, right now — in the middle of the pandemic — might just be the perfect time to make that career change (and there are ways to do it that won't put your life at risk, nor bankrupt you in the process). It's certainly not an easy feat, but with the right amount of patience and vulnerability, it can be done. Because if your job makes you miserable, a pandemic certainly isn't a reason to stay.
Finding Your Path
Some avenues are, at the moment, more practical than others: While tech and telecommunications, remote social, financial services, consumer goods, healthcare, and pharmaceutical industries are thriving during the pandemic, travel, automotive, energy, oil and gas industries are having a tougher time. But regardless of whether you’re leaving the travel industry in pursuit of something more stationary, or you're planning to apply for your pilot's license, the hardest part of making a drastic change is taking that first step outside your comfort zone.
Before COVID-19, Mariana Leung-Weinstein spent 20 years working as a fashion designer and photographer in Manhattan. Now, she's found a way to monetize her treats brand, Wicked Finch Farm. “The fashion industry was already in trouble [pre-COVID19] with many of my colleagues out of work,” she says. “When the pandemic hit, most everyone I knew was furloughed or laid off. As a long-term freelancer, I was also in the same situation.” Leung-Weinstein says she “began strategizing and accepting that I had to make a plan for the new normal,” figuring out “what businesses could thrive and how I could fit into it.” In 2020, after six weeks of unemployment — and “occasional tears” — she started to pour all her energy into the side hustle she’d started testing recipes for the year prior.
For other women, the pandemic had a clarifying effect. Amber Henderson previously served as a Supervisory Special Agent teaching at the FBI Academy at Quantico. She was serving with the Department of Homeland Security when the pandemic hit. She says an impending furlough without back pay was what motivated her to take the leap and start her own enterprise, i3 Solutions, an IT consulting firm.
It wasn’t an easy transition. “Despite my background, I am not immune from asking self-defeating questions like, ‘Did I make the right decision in putting my own personal value system ahead of the comfort of a consistent paycheck and stable retirement with the FBI?” Will I maintain financial stability being self-employed?’ ‘Is this sustainable?’” Henderson says.
Self-doubt is normal when you’re completely redirecting. Here’s how to pull it off.
Making the Change
“In my experience, when you find yourself dreading going to work, and you’re feeling like you’re not in control of your work environment, that’s a signal that you feel trapped, [and that] it’s time to think about making a career change,” says Kathy Davies, Managing Director of the Life Design Lab at Stanford University. But first, before you get overwhelmed with the reality of life amidst these unprecedented times, recognize that new restraints come with new opportunities. Davies suggests reframing the limitations of a global pandemic. “Being able to work from home can open up entirely new paths,” she explains.
Perhaps you can become self-employed, diligently pursue a side hustle, or work at a company you never thought possible due to location restrictions. So before you make a change, figure out what you really want to do — and keep in mind that more may be possible than ever before. Sink into that.
Next, figure out career role models you admire and ask for just 15 minutes to chat. “Especially in this time when people are stuck at home, they may be more able and willing to take that call,” says Davies. She said Jony Ive, the famed Apple designer, was finally able to join one of her Stanford classes due to a freed up schedule. If you can land the call, she says, ask challenging questions. “Does their story sound like your story? Do you deal well with the challenges that this person has in their job?” This can help confirm if you want to make a shift in that direction.
When you know where you want to go, update your resume and tap your network. “Don't be afraid to ask your contacts if they have suggestions or are willing to recommend you,” says Maya Frost, a change coach and founder of Switch Strategies. It’s far more effective to have a current employee hand-deliver (so to speak) your application to the hiring manager, with whom they might be buds. Do not sweat a job loss or furlough on your resume, either. “The pandemic is shaking things up so thoroughly that there's far less of a stigma attached to job loss or being out of the market for a while.”
“The pandemic is shaking things up so thoroughly that there's far less of a stigma attached to job loss or being out of the market for a while.”
Once you land the interview, let your personality shine through. Keep in mind that companies may be more selective than ever due to shrinking operations and budgets in the pandemic era, in addition to having an over-abundance of candidates. You can stand out through your force of will and attitude, says Frost. “Enthusiasm and a fresh perspective are valuable qualities for new hires,” she adds. “Use this to your advantage.” Be willing to dive in and take on a multitude of roles.
If you’re still working full-time or part-time in a long-term role, you can also take small bites into your new potential career. “What can you do that is small and low pressure?” says Davies. “Not necessarily ‘quit my job and move on.’ The fear we’re feeling with COVID is so large. What are the ways we can try things with a small amount of time and money invested? Little experiments are best.”
You have skills, right? Whether you have experience or not is beside the point. Consult. Ask to intern. “People are looking for those who are able to contribute their expertise, and people are quite willing to listen,” says Davies. “Of course, this may or may not be paid — and not everyone has the privilege to work without pay.” But maybe a pay cut will work, or proposing an idea within your company. “You can even ask to work on a cross-functional project within your company before deciding to ask for the transfer,” says Davies.
Reaping the Rewards
At the end of the day, there’s never an easy time to change jobs. It is always hard to step out there on your own, or completely decide on a new path. But if you’ve been contemplating a move, when everything is in flux, it might be the right time to redesign your life.
Hannah Nieves knows what it’s like to take little steps toward a new career. She knew she wanted to make a full-time change after taking a burnout-induced trip to the hospital in 2019 while working as director of marketing for a national home interiors company. When 80% of Nieves’ company was laid off due to the pandemic in March, she dove into her consulting business full-time, and has grown the business to six figures this year alone. “If COVID has taught me anything, it's that you can pursue your dreams and make an impact,” she says.
Henderson still has fears about her new path, but reminds herself all the time that she’s capable and well-equipped. With every new i3 partnership she signs, and every client she positively impacts, the “toxic thoughts dissipate more and more,” she says. She’s conquering challenges, one by one. Next up? Facebook marketing. “I‘ve spent more time developing my hashtag strategy than I care to admit,” Henderson confides. #WeFeelThat