Lisa Eaves, 56, a former technical-support manager at Fannie Mae, went through the process. She is now a board-certified acupuncturist with her own thriving practice, Heal from Within, in Washington. She’d turned to acupuncture treatment years before, partly as a way to help alleviate stress in her life, and began reading about the ancient science. Meanwhile, she had started to feel that she couldn’t stay with Fannie Mae indefinitely without it “totally killing my spirit.” It dawned on her that a career in acupuncture might be the right next step. She took classes at night while she continued to work. Then, when she set up her practice, she reduced her hours at Fannie Mae to part-time for three more years, the time it took for her business to gain enough traction to support her.
Today Eaves says she is happier than ever and has more control over her life. She has also teed herself up perfectly for a career that will stretch easily into what was once considered the retirement years.
The secret to her success is twofold. She had the foresight to start a second career in a booming sector—health care—and she made the transition in stages. “Start working at age 50 on a career you might not get around to until age 55 or 60,” advises Beverly Jones, a career coach with Clearways Consulting in Washington.
If you think a second career could be in your future, the first step is to know where the best opportunities will be by the time you are ready. (Read “10 Second Careers With Staying Power.” ) That way, you can start preparing now to become an attractive candidate later. Here are the key steps you should follow to get the process started:
- Do a self-assessment. Ask yourself: What are you best at, what do you enjoy doing, and what did you enjoy as a child? Ask friends and colleagues, too. They might see things you shine at that you take for granted. Also go to websites such as Encore.org, which is designed to help people in midlife launch “second acts for the greater good,” and Retired Brains, a job and information resource for boomers. There are also simple, free self-assessment quizzes online at Monster.
- Scan your past for clues to your future. Think about how your skill set may be transferable to other fields. After three decades in the retail business, dog lover Linda Waitkus retired from her position as a store manager for Bloomingdale’s and opened her own retail pet shop, Great Dogs of Great Falls, in Great Falls, Va. Her experience in retail business management, customer service, and product marketing were all brought to bear. “I’m good at retail,” Waitkus says. “I just transferred my skills to a different stage where I can work for myself.”
- Take baby steps. You don’t want to act rashly and spend a lot of money on a degree or on starting a business that turns out not to be a good fit for you. Volunteering or attending workshops can give you insight into a particular second career before you commit to it. It’s wise to make a list of the job attributes you know you want in your next career. Call someone who works in a field that appeals to you, and pepper them with questions about their work. It’s a way to make sure your new career meets criteria important to you, such as whether you can work from home.
- Get financially fit. Economic strength gives you freedom of choice. Begin by drawing up a budget, cutting back on expenses, and making sure you have a cushion of at least one year of living expenses set aside for transition costs. Pay down expenses as much as possible.
- Learn before you quit. Take courses or workshops while you are still working. Your employer may even cover some of the cost of tuition. Look at job boards such as CareerBuilder, Indeed, and Monster for positions that interest you, and read about the certifications and educational requirements. Check to see whether your employer will cover tuition reimbursement, and make sure you take advantage of educational tax breaks.
- Network. Find a mentor working in your new field. Reach out to your colleagues to see whether they can make introductions for you. Two heads may be better than one, and together you can explore possibilities for collaborating in the future. Also check out career centers at area colleges, and sign up with LinkedIn to meet others in a field or job that interests you. If there’s a particular industry you’re intrigued by, join an association affiliated with it and attend conferences.
- Apprentice, volunteer, or moonlight. Volunteering is a great way to see whether a job is really something that you want to do day in, day out. “I thought about being a landscape designer because I love to garden,” says career coach Jones, a career switcher herself. “I quickly realized that I got lonely in the garden all day.”
- Stay physically fit. Starting a second career is stressful, and exercise, as well as eating nutritious foods, can provide the ballast you need. Then, too, ageism is alive and well in the workplace. When you’re physically fit, you exude energy and give a positive vibe that lets potential employers know that you are up for the job and that you have the stamina to take on new challenges. And that’s better than Botox.