After 20 years serving in the Air Force, Julie Chickery was working as a project manager for a government contracting firm. It was the kind of stable career so many strive for after being in the military. Then, one day, her husband, who was two years away from his own 20-year anniversary in the Air Force, walked into the room and asked if she wanted to move into a recreational vehicle (RV) and travel around the country.
"There was a podcast about these people — the husband had been in the Navy, and they were retired and living in their RV — and my husband was just thinking, I think you could still do it and be working,” she recalls.
Over the course of six months, the couple sold their possessions, bought an RV and hit the road. About two years later, Chickery decided that if she was making such a big lifestyle change, she should change her career, too, merging this way of life with how she made a living. For a few years, she had written a blog about healthy eating. Through that project, she had learned about how to make blogs profitable. She created one about RV life, then began doing speaking engagements around the country at RV shows and rallies. While on the road, she had found the path to a new career.
Many people change careers
The traditional narrative goes something like this: You prepare for a career, work hard, then reach some pinnacle after you've achieved goals, eventually retiring in that field. But, due to the ways the workforce and the economy have evolved, that linear progression is changing. Instead of sticking with one field for most of their working lives, many midcareer professionals are making big career shifts. According to a 2019 survey by Indeed, roughly half (49 percent) of employees surveyed said they had made at least one total career change.
What motivated them to do so? The top reason (88 percent) was to make more money. But career switchers had other strong reasons, as well. More than three-quarters made the change because wanted to either continue learning and moving forward professionally or because they no longer felt satisfied in the field they were in.
Whether you're considering taking on a new role in the same industry or, like Chickery, switching careers entirely, be sure you're doing it for the right reasons, says Dawn Graham, author of Switchers: How Smart Professionals Change Careers and Seize Success, who is also director of career management for the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School executive MBA program. Shifting careers is a big undertaking and may bring setbacks in addition to triumphs. “I think it's really important to run to something versus running from something,” she says. When you're unhappy in your job, everything may seem appealing, even if it's not right for you. But if you truly find something you want to embrace, you'll be ready to stick with it, she says.
Different ways to find a new path
Significant career transitions typically aren't overnight stories. According to Indeed's research, those who changed careers took roughly a year to complete the switch, on average. However, they could easily take longer, depending on the endeavor. And that exploration phase is important, Graham says, because sometimes those tempting new roles are not all they appear to be. Some people find, “'It's really not what I would have expected it to be,’ and, ‘Hey, maybe there's something closer to what I was doing before that has some of the qualities that appealed to me about this job,'” she says.
Sometimes the changes come from necessity. After decades in finance, Shaun Gilley left his job as a financial analyst in a Fortune 500 company when his wife landed her dream job in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. As he looked unsuccessfully for a job in finance, his mother-in-law suggested he look into teaching. “I hadn't thought about this at all,” he says. But, as he began to investigate, he was intrigued. Mississippi had a program with an “alternate route” to a teaching license. He began working in the field and, after a year, he was eligible for a permanent license. He also earned a special education certification and found he loved teaching biology classes, so he earned a certification in that area, too.