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How to use your existing skills and experiences to change careers

You probably know a lot more than you think.

How to use your existing skills and experiences to change careers
[Photo: Chivalry Creative/Unsplash]

To be successful in your career, you need to align what you do with who you are. Sometimes, that means moving into a different field of work. But how do you move into a new industry when you’ve spent your professional life working in another?

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Don’t lose hope. You have skills, education, and training that will transfer to your new career or sector. Let’s explore each of them and consider how you may be able to use them to become limitless in your career.

Transferable skills

Which of your skills are transferable? That depends somewhat on your field and your position, but the simple answer is all of them. You can use every skill you apply in your current job in another area of work that matters to you.

Yes, you’ll probably need to pick up some new skills if you want to excel in a different role. But for the most part, you’ll find that you already have most of what it takes to get started. Whether your tool kit includes hard skills like management or knowledge of the law or softer skills such as empathy and organization, transferring your skills is less about changing content and more about changing your context.

Although you may need to learn some new rules or technological points, most duties that fall under the operations, administration, and finance functions are easily transferable. Other skills, like community building and fund development, transfer well after a bit of tweaking. Selling stocks may not be the same as raising money for a nonprofit, but they both require you to do the research, be the steward, ask, and follow up.

Skills that are heavily reliant on subject matter expertise are much more challenging to transfer, but this is still not an impossible route. For example, a marketing director focused on selling to educational outfits may be able to bring a quiver full of both functional and subject-matter arrows to a job raising money for a charter school association.

Formal education

If you don’t have a great deal of work experience, your formal education determines what—substantively speaking—you are qualified to do. This is critical if you’re a recent graduate or don’t have a long working history under your belt.

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If you’ve been in the working world a bit longer, education is only one part of the equation. In some cases, like medicine or the law, a formal degree is a state requirement. Social workers and teachers must be licensed, and stock traders and accountants must pass specific exams. In other cases, like fundraising or association management, a degree or certificate is not a requirement, but it can give you a leg up against other candidates.

In some roles, in-depth, substantive knowledge of the field is vital to a candidate’s success. This is often borne out by a long career. Medicine, for example, requires many years of training. It might not make sense to start medical school when you’re 45, although this has certainly been done before.

In other cases, degrees that teach skills and not subject matter expertise—like nonprofit management, fundraising, accounting, and operations—are easily attainable and make sense strategically. It’s merely a matter of determining whether the investment will deliver the returns you seek.

On-the-job training

Many job seekers have received enough on-the-job training to write a doctoral thesis on the work they do. Even if this is true in your working life, you probably don’t realize how much you’ve learned along the way. You need to think about where you came from, your goals, and your career trajectory to figure out how much expertise you’ve acquired. The following questions might also be helpful:

  • What did you hope to get from your career? Are you there?
  • What changed along the way?
  • What do you do now that you never imagined you would be doing?
  • What do you know more about now than when you started this job/career?

As you take a deep dive into your memory, don’t forget about the community service, nonprofit volunteering, or board work that you’ve performed. Each of your days has brought a lesson, and every experience is valuable to your job search in some way.

Changing careers can be a daunting prospect, but don’t underestimate the value that you bring. Ultimately, the key to a successful career change is perseverance, determination, and a desire to never stop learning.

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Laura Gassner Otting is the author of Limitless: How to Ignore Everybody, Carve Your Own Path, and Live Your Best Life. You can take her quick quiz to see what’s holding you back and what you can do about it.

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