Fast Track: New labour, new life

Switching careers as recession looms may seem like an insane gamble. But if you're in the wrong job, it could save your health and offer a new direction in your working life. By Annabelle Thorpe
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Rob Kay, a successful 27-year-old director of his own IT company, recently joined the ranks of the unemployed - out of choice. A contract with a large company had come to an end and, despite the offer of a lucrative promotion, he tidied his desk, drank his leaving beers and is currently living with one ear to the phone waiting for offers of new work.

"I have a fear of getting trapped in a company where the salary and responsibility are so much that I can't afford to leave, even though I don't actually know if the job is right for me," he explains.

He is not alone. "Feeling that you are in the wrong job is a very common problem for people in their twenties," claims Ben Fletcher, dean of the business school at the University of Hertfordshire. "Many people are unsure as to what career would suit them best, and many take the first job that comes along which sounds vaguely interesting and has a decent salary. Years later they find themselves stuck in a career that doesn't suit them, trapped by their position and salary."

Managing IT projects is certainly something Rob had never imagined doing at university. But like many students, he had never really imagined doing anything in particular. "I just sort of fell into banking after I graduated. The money was good and I had huge debts to pay off, so I progressed into IT without really meaning to. The problem is I'm not sure that this is what I want to be doing for the rest of my life, and the only way to find out what I do want is to break with routine and try different things."

An insane gamble? Not according to Professor Fletcher, who maintains the risks are bigger if you stay. "On a superficial level, unhappiness at work can cause frustration and stress, but it can also lead to depression and even physical problems such as heart disease." The best time to make the break, he adds, is during your twenties; a time when money and status are not as critical as they tend to be in later life.

But with the job market slowing down and more candidates becoming available for fewer jobs, the decision to change one's career can seem ludicrous to even the most daring of people. Angela Edward, a policy advisor at the Institute of Personnel & Development (IPD), however, claims a recession may actually be beneficial to career-changers. "Recruiters are saying at the moment that they need people with good interpersonal abilities, who can cope with change, who are flexible and who have good transferable skills. A recession means uncertain times so employers need people who can adjust to different needs. There is less requirement for particular kinds of experience or qualifications."

It is a myth, she adds, that employers think badly of people who have done two or three different jobs. "It's quite the opposite, in fact. As long as you don't switch professions every six months, most employers understand that as we grow older and develop, so we may change what we want to do with our working lives."

The leisure industry is particularly honest about this. No surprises, then, that it is currently a top option for twentysomethings looking for a career change. The graduate Sarah Milne found herself running a busy Harvester outlet near Wolverhampton despite the fact that her degree and experience are in interior design. "Companies are more interested in your future capability than your past," she explains.

Cindy Jeffries, who left her legal career to become a bar manager, never looked back. "After I graduated, I took some temping work with a legal firm. They turned out to have a lot of showbusiness clients, and at first it seemed quite glamorous and exciting. When they suggested I took legal exams, I went for it without really thinking."

But over time, Cindy became cynical. "One night I was moaning away about work when one of my friends said, `Since when did you want to be a solicitor anyway? You always wanted to run your own bar.' It was like a complete bolt from the blue. I'd got so caught up in passing exams and moving up the career ladder that I'd forgotten about my real dreams and ambitions."

"There are two aspects to a job," explains Professor Fletcher, "Motivators and hygiene factors. Hygiene factors are things like money, working conditions, travel time, colleagues; all the superficial things that most of us value incredibly highly. But it's the motivators that are far more important - responsibility, satisfaction - aspects of your job that make your day worthwhile and make you satisfied with how you have spent your time."

The psychologist Clara Johnson says that it isn't always necessary to leave one's old job before looking for another. "Often the best way is to research a new career while you're still in the old one. Read up about it, learn about companies who could be potential employers. If there are qualifications you can gain, do them by distance learning or at night school. Take a week off work and try and get some work experience or work shadowing."

In any case, adds Johnson, if all else fails, you can always go back. "Some people need to leave a job before they appreciate what they had, and that doesn't have to be a bad thing. You may not be able to get your old job back, but there will be other similar jobs. The most important thing is get some perspective on what you're doing and make sure its what you really want"

A career break is another safe alternative. "Increasingly available in larger companies, career breaks provide the opportunity for staff to take unpaid leave for several months at a time, giving them an excellent chance to try out a new career path," says the careers advisor, Charlotte Ashby.

"I may have no job or money," concludes Rob Kay, one week into his enforced unemployment, "but what I do have is possibilities. As long as I stayed at the bank I had one possibility, the bank. Now that I'm free, the possibilities are endless. It's a scary prospect. But it's also hugely exciting."