Research, networking and training pay dividends when it comes to career changes

If you're thinking about changing careers, you're not alone: according to some recruiters, this is the busiest time of year for job changes, prompted by months of summer reflection. However, a total career change demands more than planning a valedictory leaving do: research, networking and training or voluntary work experience will boost your chances of standing on the other side checking out the colour of the grass.

But before any of that, make sure change is what's needed. "Think about why you want to move," says Lee Durrant, managing director of the recruiters Resource on Demand. "Is it money, has your job role changed, are you not getting on with a colleague? If it's something that can be fixed very quickly, it might not be necessary to move on."

Even if you're confident that this is more than Monday morning ennui, be patient, secure a new position, and handle your notice sensitively. "Some marketplaces are very small and incestuous," Durrant cautions. "Leave a good impression of yourself, because you never know when things might come back to haunt you."

Before you can leap, though, you need to look for that new position. It's time to focus your mind. To help, employ the time-honoured ritual of listing your dream jobs and deciding where your passion lies. Don't dismiss areas out of hand – speak to recruiters to see if any of your existing skills will transfer across. "Some people might not know that the skills they currently have will translate really well into a particular position," Durrant says.

Some old-fashioned networking can also pay dividends. When Jonny Buckley left the Army after nearly a decade to become an apprentice programme manager for Network Rail, networking with former colleagues led directly to hearing about the vacancy for his current role. "Networking lets you find out what you really want to do," he says, "and talking to other job-hunters or recruiters helps you place yourself within a market."

If your research exposes gaps in your CV which networking alone can't bridge, training is the key. Buckley took this approach, with courses in project management and commercial financial awareness. It's a wise move. "Getting qualifications shows a potential employer that you're committed to changing paths," Durrant says.

Training can come in many forms. Voluntary positions as the producer of a youth drama festival and on the boards of a local theatre venue and performance group contributed to Robbie Swale's successful career switch from a "demoralising" finance role in the Civil Service to centre manager of Otley Courthouse, a West Yorkshire arts venue. "It was very inspiring, and I realised that a job in a theatre would be better for me," he says. He signed up for job alerts, and, when his current role came up, "I met all their criteria, because of all the voluntary work I'd been doing."

While courses, work experience and voluntary work appeal to some career changers, others prefer to retrain entirely. Areas such as teaching and law offer a formal structure to facilitate this. "Law is easier to shift into than possibly any other profession," says Professor Richard de Friend, director at the College of Law. "Someone with expertise in almost any area can carry a significant premium into a law career."

Changing to law doesn't require an existing law degree. Postgraduates can obtain the graduate diploma in law (GDL) and legal practice course (LPC) or bar professional training course (BPTC) qualifications with two years of study. After that, a two-year training contract with a law firm or a year's pupillage with a barristers' chambers will complete their training (See www.college-of-law.co.uk).

The GDL/LPC route was the one Helen Murray chose when she left her role as promotions manager at The Times. Now a fully qualified solicitor, law was originally far from the front of her mind. "I had no idea what solicitors did, and I'd never had any interest in it," she says.

Further investigation (including a vacation placement with a large commercial firm) showed that law offered a path to a challenging career. Once on that path, her previous skills and life experience were invaluable. "Simply being a bit older helped. You manage your time better, and manage yourself better."

De Friend concurs. "The experience people have accumulated in terms of their maturity and ability to deal with clients can make them enormous assets to a law firm, compared to a relatively inexperienced recruit."

In fact, employers across the board can value the experience and transferable skills a career-changer can bring them, as Adrian Thomas, head of resourcing at Network Rail, confirms. "Most employers will be looking for people with the right personal attributes, such as having a team philosophy, a positive can-do attitude and a willingness to learn. If you can demonstrate how you've got these skills, you'll go a long way towards impressing them."

Ultimately, changing career paths requires a dedicated approach that embraces networking, training, voluntary work and a willingness to make that leap of faith. Perhaps most importantly, it demands an open mind. "I thought law was antithetical to who I was and what I wanted to do, but it turned out to be a really good choice," Murray says. "It was the right decision for me."

And did the grass turn out to be greener? Buckley thinks so. "I loved the Army, but I look at the opportunities and the quality of life I have now, and I have no regrets whatsoever."

Swale agrees, saying he feels valued and fulfilled in his new career. "I didn't want to spend my days doing something I didn't like. I know everyone hates their job some days, but I didn't want that to be the default position. Now I know the value of doing something that I care about."

Make no mistake, changing careers demands work, research and no small amount of courage – but when you're lying on that greener grass, it may just seem worthwhile.

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