'Am I too old for a new career? And, I have no contacts. How do I start networking?'

Try something you enjoy

Q. I am a 56-year-old mechanical design engineer and was made redundant a week before Christmas. Since then I have applied for many design roles but rarely even get a reply. I am now contemplating a career change, but to what? Is it too late to retrain, and do you have any advice on how to go about this?

A. It's not too late to change direction – often our interests do change as we get older and as an added bonus we have accumulated a huge range of experience that can be very useful in a new arena. Jessica McGregor Johnson, one of the coaches on a new site for career changers, www.career shifters.org, says the main thing is to find something that excites your passion. "If you are going to retrain and put all your energy into a new career then make it one you will enjoy", she says. "To find this out some research is needed – first re-acquaint yourself with your key interests in life.

These sometimes get lost along the way." Careershifters itself aims to help with this process and runs exercises on rediscovering interests as well as articles and advice. Experts on the site will also answer questions. The diagnostic tools on www. prospects.ac.uk and www.learndirectadvice.co.uk might also help.

Do also make sure you've explored all options in your old field. The Institution of Mechanical Engineers has a helpline for those seeking advice on continuing professional development - 020-7973 1280.

IMechE says engineers today, like those in other industries, need transferable skills. It is, for example, rolling out a business management diploma with the Chartered Management Institute, which might be useful if you were thinking of branching out into consulting. Education and lecturing in your area is another option.

I need networking advice

Q. If you are a student without any contacts to start with, are there tips for making the sort of contacts who could help you get a job? I don't feel I can just ring up an organisation.

A. Just remember, the key thing when first making a contact with someone you don't know is not to actually ask for a job, but for information and advice. Being too pushy won't work. The University of Derby Career Development Centre ( www.derby.ac.uk/Careers/students/careernetworking.htm) has useful tips. Celia Beizsley, the centre's manager, says networking is vitally important not only when moving into a career but at any stage of your working life. You don't have to have friends in high places, or useful contacts at all, to start. But to succeed job applications you need a clear idea of what the work is like – hence the importance of finding out through networking. And as most job vacancies aren't advertised in newspapers, but filled through personal contacts or specialist publications, you need contacts to hear about them.

The people most likely to be helpful are those whose job involves providing advice. Professional bodies are a good starting point, as they often employ information officers or training advisers. They may publish careers information and a directory of members, or have a local branch you can join. Courses and events like career or trade fairs are a good way of meeting people. Take a copy of your CV with you.

You could also identify adverts for jobs you'd like to aim at and contact the employer for advice on how to get into that particular line of work. It's best to approach people for whom you have a definite name, clarify how you got the contact, and outline the help you need.

Send your queries to Caroline Haydon at 'The Independent', Education Desk, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or email to chaydon@blueyonder.co.uk