Desperate for a Career Change? How to Start Over With Zero Experience

Mar 11, 2015 -
You’ve realized it’s time for a career change. First of all, congratulations, because you’ve got a self-awareness and willingness to pivot that sets you light years ahead of the average employee. Plenty of people get stuck in careers they don’t love for decade because they don’t have the guts to admit something feels off or the courage to do something about it. But finding your way through brand-new territory can feel tricky and overwhelming. Starting over in a new industry isn’t as easy changing the headline on your LinkedIn profile and the title on your business cards -- especially if you’ve been in the workforce for several years and no longer have the “fresh out of college” excuse as to why you don’t have any experience for the jobs you want. So how do you break into a new career when all your past experience relates to your old one? Here are six things you can start doing now to lay the groundwork for a career in your new field. (Click here to tweet this list.)

1. Learn everything you can

You don’t necessarily have to go back to school for a new degree, but you do need to take a crash course on the ins, outs, ups and downs of your new industry. Read books, industry blogs and magazines. Take some online courses. Get a certification or two. Tap your network to find someone who works in your target industry, and ask if you can conduct an informational interview with them. Potential employers won’t expect you to know as much as a candidate who’s worked in the industry for years, but they will want you to demonstrate a solid understanding of industry standards, practises and trends, as well as a willingness to learn fast.

2. Volunteer

Not only is volunteering a great way to get your foot in the door of a new industry; it gives you an inside glimpse into what working in that industry will be like. You may find it’s not the right fit for you after all, which frees you up to find another avenue for your skills and interests. Or you may find you love it, in which case you’ll gain some real-world experience (and references) you can show potential employers.

3. Network, network, network

Research shows that anywhere from 70-80 percent of jobs are filled through networking and referrals, not through job boards and classified ads. Your network can help you make connections with hiring managers and decision-makers you might not normally have access to. Plus, they can help talk you up to anyone who’s a little doubtful of your current lack of experience. While your resume may not stand out from the pack on a computer database, a personal referral by a trusted colleague can help get you noticed and can vouch for your ability as a competent, dedicated worker able to work through any gaps in your experience.

4. Focus on your soft skills

Everything you did in your old career wasn’t a total waste; you just need to learn to reframe what you did in terms that will fit your new industry. This is where you hone in on your transferable skills, those talents and abilities that transcend position and industry. Identify those transferable skills and be sure to play them up on your cover letter, resume, LinkedIn profile and during interviews. Let’s say you used to work in marketing, but you realized you’d be happier doing nonprofit work. Both fields call for creativity and the ability to inspire people to take action, so focus on that when talking about the work you’ve done previously. Or maybe you were in corporate finance but want to get involved in the startup world. Your ability to analyze data, solve problems and communicate complex ideas can come in handy in an environment where everyone wears many hats and funds are often limited, so make sure to highlight that when explaining why you’d be a great hire.

5. Be honest

Hiring managers and recruiters will notice if your resume is light on experience, and they’ll also notice that you seemed to be building up steam in one industry, only to make an about-face and start applying for positions in their industry. Don’t leave it up to them to guess what might have happened. Be upfront and explain that you’ve decided to switch careers, then briefly tell them why, focusing on what drew you to the new industry. Why are you passionate about it? Why do you feel it’s a better fit for you? Showing them your enthusiasm for your new field can help win them over.

6. Humble yourself

You might have been a mid-level manager (or higher) in your old field, but in your new one, you’re back at the bottom of the totem pole. Be prepared for some less-than-exciting work at first. Be prepared to make some coffee and make some copies, and to do so with a right good will. Remember that everyone has to start at the beginning, and that every bit of experience you’re getting now (even the menial and mundane kind) will one day lead you to bigger and better things. Kelly Gurnett is a freelance blogger, writer and editor who runs the blog Cordelia Calls It Quits, where she documents her attempts to rid her life of the things that don’t matter and focus more on the things that do. Follow her on Twitter @CordeliaCallsIt.