By Deborah Noel
originally published May/June 2011
Leann (not her real name) didn’t know what hit her. An office administrator at a Toronto manufacturing company for over 20 years, Leann started at the bottom and gradually worked her way up. She assumed she would retire from this company.
Then, one day she got the news that her company had been bought out by a US based company and the Toronto operation was shutting down. Suddenly, at the age of 52, the ever competent Leann was lost. As Leann said when we met, "I thought I had gone through my midlife crisis, but this was something else!”
What Leann experienced is a common problem in the 21st century labour market. People in mid-life who, through choice or consequence , are changing careers. Whether a decision to pursue a life dream, or, as with Leann, the consequence of being downsized, mid-life career changing has its own unique set of choices and challenges.
Initially, Leann could only feel grief. Money wasn’t an immediate issue as she received a generous severance and was financially secure. However, emotionally, Leann was in crisis. Having faithfully gone to her job every day for years, she missed eating lunch with her old friends and the familiarity of her routine. For over a week, Leann laid under the covers and cried. Finally, one of her friends told her about community resources available to help her find a new job. Initially, the process was daunting.
Her computer skills were out of date and she found that there was little available in the manufacturing area. On the plus side, she was invigorated learning new skills and heartened to meet other people at the local Employment Centre living through the same job search frustration. A friend suggested that she start volunteering at a local woman’s organization. Initially hesitant, she told me “I couldn’t understand how this would help me. I was terrified to take time away from my job search but I agreed to give it a chance. I now think it was the best thing I ever did!”
Her volunteer work invigorated her. She loved the environment and gradually started taking on more and more responsibilities. The organization also provided training opportunities and Leann jumped at the chance for every new learning situation.
Gradually, Leann realised that the non-profit field was where she would love to spend the second half of her working life. Although no employment opportunity existed at her current organization, she decided to focus her job search on similar agencies. She knew that her volunteer organization would provide a great reference. Added to that was her newly upgraded computer skills along with the soft skills training she took while volunteering.
Although it didn’t happen as fast as she would have liked, Leann was soon working in an administrative position with another non-profit agency. She states she found she enjoyed this new workplace so much she has enrolled in night classes to work towards a degree in social work.
Laughing, Leann told me that in her “first” career in manufacturing she had never once felt stimulated enough to stay late, let alone go to night classes. Her biggest surprise, she said, is that learning is much easier in her fifties. She now wakes up in the morning, eager to go to work and put into practice her new knowledge.
Leann’s story is fairly typical of many mid-life career changers. The path from job loss to career change can seem like one strewn with rocks and detours. Being aware of some of these challenges and the choices offered can make your mid-life career change a little less daunting and, ultimately, a process with great rewards at the end.
* First – allow yourself to grieve. Most people spend more time at work than they do at home with their family and close friends. For many people, their social circle and support group may be around the people they work with. Give yourself a little time to adapt and adjust to the change but not too long! Leann was lucky to have a friend who told her to get up and out!
* Keep to a schedule. Suddenly you don’t have to get up at 6 am and the temptation is to stay up later and take advantage of the newfound freedom, but don’t! Use the time in the morning to add some exercise to your schedule or walk to your favourite coffee shop. And while we are on the subject, get to bed at your usual time.
* Take advantage of community resources. Throughout the GTA, there are community employment centres and programs offering job search support, fax machines, photocopiers and state of the art computers. There, you will also get the chance to find out what is happening in your community, upgrade your skills and meet other people who are also going through the same experiences as you are. Leann told me that her local Employment Centre was a godsend and she would never have known about it had a friend not got her to one. INSERT LINK
* Volunteer. I cannot emphasise how much this helped Leann. Studies show that volunteering has a direct effect on increasing self-esteem and reducing depression. Volunteering provides you with the opportunity to practice skills, learn new skills and explore future work opportunities.
* NEVER SAY NEVER! There are many people who have changed careers in mid-life and discovered their true passion. There is an old saying that when one door closes, another one opens. Well, the process between one job and another is often like a hallway. Take some time to really explore how you would like to spend the second half of your work life. Look around and ask yourself some questions. Is it more money, more time or more passion? The choice is yours.
Deborah Noel has a background in Human Resources, Public Relations and Human Services. Her passions are Career Coaching, Vintage Stores and Chocolate Fondue (not in that order).