Retooling your career during COVID-19

Shelly Gigante

By Shelly Gigante
Shelly Gigante specializes in personal finance issues. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications and news websites.
Posted on Oct 9, 2020

There’s nothing like record-level unemployment to send job seekers back to the drawing board.

With millions of Americans out of work amid the coronavirus pandemic, or fearful that their industry may never recover, many are giving serious thought to a new line of work. Others, who are still collecting a paycheck but working from home, are reevaluating their work-life balance.

“A lot of my clients are just using this time to figure out what they want and to get ready for going back to work in person,” said Lynn Berger, a career counselor and coach in New York, who works with professionals contemplating a career change. “I just think a lot of people have been hunkered down for a while, and they are examining what it is they want from their career.”

The national data bear that out.

Roughly 61 percent of U.S. workers who are looking for work report that they have broadened their search to a new industry due to the pandemic, and roughly one-third said they view learning new technical skills as key to landing their next job, according to a recent Morning Consult survey commissioned by Amazon.

Some 27 percent of respondents expect that some or all of their job skills will become irrelevant in the next five years, and roughly half said they would quit their current job to go to a different company if the new employer provided company-funded skills training. Most job seekers surveyed were attempting to transition into fields with stronger growth potential, including health care and technology.

“With stores and shops forced to close, it made many retool their resume or skill set or even consider careers in a completely different field in which they would normally seem overqualified for,” said Harris Fishman, chairman of Coastal Wealth in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. “Some of my clients have deleted their advanced degrees from their resumes to increase the probability of being hired for lower-paying jobs, so as not to be passed over as ‘overqualified.’”

The costs

Changing careers can be a great way to protect your job security, if demand for your skill set is on the decline, but it can also be a costly affair, especially if you are forced to start back down on the bottom rung of the professional ladder for less pay.

A lower salary will likely crimp your lifestyle today. It could also limit your ability to save for future long-term financial goals, including retirement and college tuition for your kids.

The financial implications of a career change are greater still if you quit your job (resulting in a short-term loss of income) and take on loans so you can go back to college for a different (or first-time) degree. (Learn more: Can you afford a career change?)

For those reasons, Fishman said, it is often best to begin your search for a new career by exploring other employers or industries that may value the work experience and education you already have. Indeed, a few online training classes may be all you need to reposition your resume.

“If someone who is a chef in a restaurant is now learning to be a roofer or landscaper, this changes their experience level, and thus, their pay,” said Fishman. “It would be easier to stay in the same industry and gain additional experience, certifications, or licenses than to change completely.”

Bear in mind that the cost of retooling your skill set may be less (or free) if your employer offers benefits that reimburse for continuing education. Typically, those benefits only apply to coursework that relates to your job. And, in some cases, reimbursement for college credits may be tied to a commitment to remain with that employer for a minimum number of years.

Another way to potentially offset the cost of starting anew? You may have a stay-at-home spouse who would be willing to rejoin the workforce to supplement your household income, at least during the years when you experience an income drop. If you’re going back to college, you could potentially juggle classes while serving as the primary caregiver for your kids.

Researching careers

As you consider alternate career paths, take a moment to define your goals. Perhaps you seek better job security, more work-life-balance, or a fatter paycheck.

The career options you explore should, at the least, check those boxes.

Next, do some research to determine job growth prospects in the fields you feel are a fit, and identify possible employers that are located within a reasonable commute. If none exist locally, would you be willing to relocate?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics provides an “Occupational Outlook Handbook” that provides an in-depth analysis of hundreds of careers, including industry growth projections, median annual wages, education level required, work environment, and a summary of daily job responsibilities.

“By 2029, the last of the baby boomers will have turned 65 and, as a result of the aging population, the job market of the future is likely to slow somewhat in certain industries, while rapidly growing in other sectors,” said Fishman. “Manufacturing jobs, for example, may slow due to advances in robotics and technology, while anything related to the health industry — such as nurses, physical and occupational therapists, speech therapists, and lab technicians — are likely to continue to be in high demand. I believe our industry, including financial analysts and financial planning, have tremendous opportunities for growth, as well.”

Finally, reach out to your personal and professional network to connect with others who are already working in that field(s). Ask them for their perspective on the pros and cons (no weekend work, cranky clients) and for their insight on the types of personalities that tend to thrive in their work environment. If possible, ask if you can shadow them on the job for an afternoon, or volunteer in some way to get a better feel for the job.

Recasting your resume

If you are starting over in an entirely new career, it’s a good idea to explain your new professional goals in your cover letter as you apply for jobs, especially if you don’t yet have enough direct work experience.

Clearly define how your personality (people person, problem solver) and your existing skill set may benefit their organization, using the job description as your guide. Be specific.

Perhaps you previously managed concession stands for a major concert venue and are excellent at multitasking and customer service, or you balanced the books for a local restaurant, which demonstrates organization and reliability.

On your resume, emphasize your key strengths, work experience, and transferrable skills that would be most useful to that employer.

You should also communicate commitment to your new career by joining professional organizations, both in person (when available) and online, subscribing to trade publications in your quest to continue learning, and volunteering in the field where possible.

“If you’ve taken classes and done some volunteer work in the field, tell them that,” said Berger. “They need to see that you are committed. You can simply explain that after X number of years in your prior field, you realize that these are the new skills you wish to deploy as a professional.”

If you’re among the millions who are weighing their options this year amid an unprecedented job market, and can afford to make a career change, now may be the time to put your plans into action.

“This is a wake-up call if you aren’t satisfied with your career and it isn’t going anywhere,” said Berger. “Or, if you were satisfied, but can see that this job isn’t going to work out long term, this is a good opportunity to learn something new and reassess.”

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The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. MassMutual and its subsidiaries, employees, and representatives are not authorized to give tax or legal advice. You are encouraged to seek advice from your own tax or legal counsel. Opinions expressed by those interviewed are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of MassMutual.