There is a time-tested way to get into certain careers. Generally speaking, It’s to take a menial job in a particular field. Depending on the structure of the industry or the period of your career, this could be perfectly appropriate. Examples of this situation include a stint as the classic office intern. Another way to do it is with rotations as part of some medical training. It’s generally Low paid, or non-paid work but at the beginning of your career. You either get something to put on your nascent resume for when you graduate or you make connections in an organization that is continually recruiting, and they are using the time to figure out where they want to put you when you are ready for that full time work. Like I said, this is time tested because it’s been the SOP for decades and it’s a technique still used by many companies, educational institutions, and students.
We now live in a different sort of world. Today we have armies of professional workers who are in continual career transition. These transitions can be fairly easy to make. For example, an HR professional moving from the oil and gas industry into the services industry is not that big of a leap. Human resources is pretty much the same wherever you go. The core functions of the job includes recruiting, discharging, training and benefits management. These elements are universal. Yes there are always tweaks to the process and to the industry. For example some organizations have tremendous churn and others have much more longevity in their workforces. Some organizational recruiting is focused on getting high paid and high demand professionals and in others the HR professional is struggling to find dozens of candidates every week who will just pass a drug screening. But in the end, HR is pretty much HR.
There are other transitions that are much more difficult. This is mostly because many organizations want to avoid the time commitment that it takes to turn a generically trained professional, who may or may not have developed a speciality in a different industry, and re-specialize them into an industry with more complex and nuanced talent needs. Example: You are an electrical engineer with focus on designing programmable logic controls (PLC) for industry and you want to transition to a job doing integrated circuit design. Well all I can say is: good luck buddy. The recruiting professional is usually instructed to get just what management wants, and not something that will fit with a little bit of work and investment on the company’s part, i.e. the hiring manager wants the purple squirrel. Ironically enough it was probably easier for the HR recruiter to get the job at the circuit design house than the people they are recruiting because of, as they say in the business ‘easily transferable skills’.
So what if you need to make that jump? In the United States, as well as several other countries there is tremendous flexibility given to executives to structure their business as they see fit. It doesn’t matter if there is no lack of profitability, if the business case can be made to chop tens of thousands of jobs, the company will do it willingly. There is usually only a token gesture of severance as opposed to one that actually meets the needs of the person in job transition which can be as long as two years. Let’s put aside the needs and challenges for mid career professionals when it comes to supporting their life in that six month to two year window. That is a subject which can be a book unto itself. The thing to keep in mind is that this length of time assumes you are getting a position in a job that is similar to what you have your experience in. But what if you have had enough and want to do something completely different? Maybe the job loss forced some sort of breakdown. Maybe there was too much stress and you decided a life and career change is in order. If you are mid-career how do you transition?
Transitioning careers isn’t easy, in fact it’s nearly impossible. Even if you have a strong savings, transitioning to a comparable level of status will take years and most likely outlast any nest egg you have. It’s a problem that’s been discussed by some of the world’s best researchers. Most companies just aren’t all that comfortable with the idea of bringing on a forty something year old intern, and let’s be honest here, Just by looking at the law of averages we can be pretty confident the middle aged professional looking to do a career transition is probably smarter and a more dedicated worker than ½ the people working in the new environment. The ‘start at the bottom and work for free to get experience’ model just doesn’t work for the mid-career professional.
So how exactly does a professional transition? Well there is always luck… the idea that some hiring manager wants fresh eyes and a new perspective. Although rare that does happen from time to time and the professional will transition to a full time job in a new industry. Realistically, the more time honored tradition to transition finds the professional looking for ways to “ get their foot in the door” and that’s the point of this dialog. Sometimes the foot can get stuck and the person who wants to transition never actually is able to move all the way into the new environment.
Let’s start with looking at that phrase for a second. When you are getting your foot in the door literally it’s only a tiny little piece of you which is physically in the area that is your goal. Your foot is being used to keep others from slamming the door in your face which is where the origin of the saying comes from. You are are using the foot as a wedge to force the door open and get inside. That’s not exactly a warm and fuzzy analogy when you think about it.
So let’s take a look at what ‘getting your foot in the door’ looks like for the mid to late career professional:
In some cases it starts with a job that you are overqualified for. This route, like all routes for getting your foot in the door is very difficult. The challenge here is that employers of all types have an ‘overqualified’ filter in their hiring. They don’t have the time to really get to know the job seeker, so they just assume that the job seeker needs money while they look for another job which will pay them more. This mentality stems from the short term thinking and on-demand corporate rightsizing reality of business today. It is a very practical methodology because, let’s be honest, who wants to hire someone and then have to go through the same process just a few months later if the overqualified professional jumps ship. But some organizations are always looking for a deal, even in their hiring process. I have often heard the phrase ‘we got him cheap’ which again is practical from a purely business and financial perspective, but not really a good sign that the company values its people. So let’s assume the professional is able to snag the job they are overqualified for in their target industry or job category. Maybe they were a senior director in textile manufacturing but they’ve decided to take an entry level marketing role in some technology integration firm thinking tech would be a safer bet than textiles. The problem is that they will almost never get promoted into a job they are qualified for, at least not quickly. The analogous job in this case would be a senior director of marketing. Since most organizations don’t have predefined career tracks, let alone fast tracks, there is a high probability that the professional will just stagnate in the entry level job. It will be up to them to plan their own career path to jump as quickly as possible from organization to organization to get back to where they want to be from a career standpoint.
There are some industries where you can volunteer your way to get your foot in the door. Think health care or human services. Even some educational institutions have large numbers of volunteers. When an organization is heavily reliant on volunteers then there are a few things to keep in mind. The first salient point here is that if they are heavily reliant on volunteers then they most likely have very limited opportunities for the actual full time jobs. If they had the capitol for staff, then why recruit volunteers? Volunteers, for anyone who has worked with them, can be a tricky bunch to manage. It’s hard to get fired when you work for free. The second point is that since there is most likely limited funds to hire full time employees then the jobs that do exist are low paid. Assuming the job seeker is good with the lower salary of the new human services track, they still have to volunteer for an extended amount of time and maybe even with a bevy of organizations to network themselves into a full time position.
A third way is the part time and/or temp position. As a part timer you work during traditional off hours from a regular job. Maybe you are an audio engineer, photographer or cinematographer for a local production studio. Maybe you are a freelancer for a magazine or local publication. The quintessential act of getting your foot in the door for education is ‘teaching a class’ as an adjunct at your local college or university. The good news with the part time job is that you are most likely getting paid, even though it’s usually for a very low wage in comparison to the skills you are bringing to the organization. The negative is the relative paucity of full time jobs that are available. On average, over half of community college faculty are part time. If there was enough business for a full-time person, they would have been hired already.
Then there is the full time but still temporary position, typically known as a contractor. You see this with business that have a great deal of expansion and contraction. The organization uses this classification of worker to keep costs low and flexibility high. Generally the promise of regular full time employment is one of the tools to keep people working well beyond what their contract status should allow. A great example of this is the misclassification of workers in the video gaming industry, a massive problem with no real solution in site. This may actually seem like the worker in question has made it. They are in a full time professional in their industry of choice making what can seem to be a great wage. That makes this entrance into an industry seem much more legit than the other options discussed here. The problem with contractor status is volatility. The entire point of organizations hiring contractors is to eliminate them the second they are no longer needed. If you choose a life as a professional contractor you will never have all the traditionally employer provided benefits that are required for a stable life in the modern world.
There are some ‘part time’ positions that should be avoided at all costs. I’m talking about straight commission sales jobs. The most well known of these are multi-level market jobs which are in a class by themselves. Putting those aside, there are other straight commission sales jobs that are available in just about any industry. Want to get into woodworking and furniture? There is a straight commission sales job for you, just go to your local custom furniture house. Ditto for media sales or public relations. Think of these types of positions as a cross between volunteering and regular part time jobs. You have to work your tail off to get any sort of traction and there is relatively little chance you can land a salaried position without a combination of a ton of time, a ton of luck, and a ton of work.
So what’s the best way forward? When my daughter was a young teen and she didn’t like that we were monitoring her social media, she would use the password ‘bullcrap’ to express her frustration at a system she despised. In her case the system was parental monitoring. Typically I would end an article with a rant that has that same expression of frustration. I would call ‘bullcrap’ on the situation and the structure. I would argue that the cards are stacked against you and really it’s to not follow the common belief that you should ‘try to get your foot in the door’ in the more traditional ways listed above.
The argument i’m going to make this time around isn’t that any of these approaches are necessarily bad. Excepting for straight commission sales and being a full time contractor they aren’t. The argument i’m going to make is that getting your foot in the door does not lead to the end goal of the job in the new industry, at least not easily nor automatically. My main point is to underscore that getting your foot in the door in these ways is the end itself, it’s not a step on a path that will propel you forward.
Getting your foot in the door by teaching, or volunteering, or working part time means just that. Your an adjunct, a volunteer, or a part timer and nothing more. If you think that first step will naturally or quickly lead to the full time job in the new industry you desire, then their is a really good chance that belief will lead to tremendous frustration and wasted time. Just like the intern at the beginning of their career, you are starting at zero, but unlike the intern who’s position exists to catapult them into a full time job, the ‘foot in the door’ options don’t exist for anything other than their own needs. That means if you are not careful you will get stuck there for all of the reasons I have detailed.
So what can you do? I would advise an alternative strategy. Step one, pretty much for everything you want to accomplish in life, is to research. You need to research, really research, what is needed by that industry in the position you are targeting. In this age of social media, then you can do a Linkedin analysis. You can interview people in industry and define exactly what it’ll take to get you there. Maybe start reading industry journals and go to industry conferences. You must clearly understand different options and paths.
Now that you have a template, you have to figure out where you find shortcuts. As a mid-career professional there is a high probability you don’t have the decade and financial reserves to work your way up to the higher level job in your new industry all the while keeping your standard of living at the same level from the old industry. Interestingly enough one of easier paths is the gatekeeper credential. At first it may seem daunting to have to go back to school for 2-4 years, but if there is some sort of highly in demand credential, then go for it. Four years in school to get a EdD in higher education management will get you to where you want to go much quicker than working a decade as an adjunct waiting for that coveted full time tenure track assistant professorship to open up, not to mention the additional decade needed to rise up the ranks.
A senior director or VP of facilities management at a production plant can pretty much do the same job in a hospital. Getting into healthcare facilities management is much easier with an RN under your belt, or it should be. If that’s what I wanted to do I would be sure to really research the careers of several senior directors of facilities management at larger healthcare institutions.
Getting your foot in the door is nice in that it gives you exposure to something new, but the door isn’t going to open just because your foot is keeping it cracked open. The reality is that the door is always trying to be closing and it’ll be a long time before you can get inside. My recommendation is to see if there is another way in. Maybe there is a backdoor that is open. That’ll at least keep you from getting a badly bruised foot from it being stuck in the door for so long.