If you're thinking of a career change, the health and beauty sector has plenty to offer, says David Fickling

The past 50 years have brought plenty of benefits to our daily lives: appliances to help us clean our houses and clothes, televisions to relax in front of, cheap air travel so we can get away when it all gets too much.

But our working lives still seem to be stuck in the dark ages. A generation ago, people dreamed of the leisure paradise that rising affluence would create for their children. Nowadays, most of those children would rather turn the clock back.

The trouble is that workers have been asked to give ever more to justify the increases they have seen to their incomes. As a result, more and more people seem to be quitting the mainstream workforce.

It's one thing to sit at your desk thinking about a better job, but making the move can be nerve-racking. How can you give up security for an uncertain future? If you're thinking about taking a leap, it's worth knowing that you're not alone. According to the City and Guilds, one in 10 of us is considering a career change at any one time, and the proportion will rise to one in five by 2016.

If you're around 30 or in your mid-40s, you're in even better company: experts see marked spikes in the number of people jumping ship at these ages. The younger group has often become disillusioned with their careers after 10-odd years in the job market. The older group are normally over the most exhausting stages of child-rearing, and are wondering what else they can do with their lives.

Dai Williams, an occupational psychologist and career consultant, estimates that only a third of his clients are forced into career change. The remainder are making an active choice to change jobs.

"It's actually very healthy for people to make this sort of decision. Thirty years ago people expected to have a job for life, but these days a job lasts two years and a career lasts five," he says.

It helps that the UK has not seen a recession for 13 years. This period of uninterrupted growth, the longest since 1701, leaves people feeling buoyant about the future economy.

It also gives people more disposable income to spend on things like health and beauty. According to a 2000 NHS study, one in 10 of us had visited a complementary medical practitioner in the previous 12 months.

That creates a booming market: the same study found that there were 50,000 complementary practitioners in Britain and 10,000 mainstream doctors offering alternative therapies. But there's still good reason to have your eyes wide open if you make a career change. For one thing, all but a handful of people working in health and beauty are part-timers or self-employed - not a comfortable position to be in if the economy starts looking more sickly.

For another, with at least 60,000 competitors already out there, you could be entering a crowded market.

"People can spend a lot of time and money retraining, and if there's no work it's a big problem," says Dai Williams. "You can end up with a huge number of people who are very talented but are struggling in areas where there's just not full-time employment." The costs of training can be a major stumbling block, especially if you're going to see your basic salary shrink or disappear as you spend time studying. But there are ways to mitigate this: the Government subsidises career development loans of up to £8,000 which do not accrue interest while you study.

Many practitioners end up with a portfolio of jobs to pay their way through training and to balance out the risk once they're qualified.

Sophie Rafters gave up her £45,000-a-year marketing job more than five years ago when she was 30, and has since worked as a temp and a part-time office manager and marketer while she studied and built up her experience as a masseuse.

She's now been self-employed for 18 months but still does occasional freelance marketing jobs. She has no regrets about making the change. "When you have a career transition you suddenly realise you'll only be good at something you really enjoy," she says. "After 10 years of my previous job I thought, 'I don't want to play this game any more.' I wanted to feel that the money I made came from my efforts and was dependent on my efforts." Of course, sacrifices have to be made. Having completed her first self-employed tax return, Rafters reckons she will walk away with a profit of only £5,000 this year. But she expects her income to increase and admits that money is no longer such a priority.

"The thing is, I love my job and for eight hours a day office people aren't loving their jobs," she says. It's also worth remembering that a career change doesn't need to be an all-or-nothing leap of faith. Just as people no longer expect to have jobs for life, so employers have grown more used to the idea that career changers can be as good, if not better, than those who have stuck in the same job since university. Indeed, Gill Wilson, chief executive of the Career Research Advisory Centre, says that switching can even be an advantage if you can present it in the right way.

"To have a portfolio of transferable skills is regarded as an asset by employers these days. You don't want a real grasshopper CV, jumping around everywhere, but at the same time it's quite pleasing to employers to see a number of moves upward and laterally.

"You shouldn't come in and say: 'I thought I'd do that but it didn't work out.' The critical thing is that whatever you do is a planned move, a planned change, and you know why you did it and you can tell someone else why you did it."

'Being a bit older is an advantage. You're able to empathise with people much more'

Helen Newbury-Helps had never thought of changing jobs until her sister told her she was good enough at massage to go professional. She gave up her job as an NHS project manager in 1997, and spent two years studying holistic aromatherapy at the Tisserand Institute in London with a £4,000 career development loan.

"It wasn't a massive frustration with what I'd been doing. I just felt, 'been there, done that, it's time for something different'," she says.

Newbury-Helps studied for her course at home during the week and at college during the weekends, supported by her husband's income. Now she works two days a week in a fitness spa and two days a week in the cancer unit of a local hospital, and spends her other day with private clients in a room above her garage.

At 49, she has developed a keen eye for the market and is working with a colleague to develop a training programme for aromatherapists.

She thinks she is a better therapist for the fact that she didn't start at 19. "Being a bit older is an advantage. You've had more experience of life so you're able to empathise with people much more, and clients like that so they relax and open up more."

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