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How to plan for—and manage—a mid-life career transition

This story is part of Resilient America, a series in which people share stories of how they've rebounded from personal challenges—and lessons for us all. It is presented by Chase.

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The Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics has calculated that, on average, Americans hold about 12 jobs between the ages of 18 and 50. But the economy is changing quickly, and technology is disrupting entire industries and eliminating certain job categories. There's no question that some people can be forced to change not just jobs, but careers, too.

Changing careers—especially after you've become established in one line of work—can be challenging, and scary. The key to success is to be prepared, and resilient. "Career transition doesn't just happen overnight," says Kerry Hannon, an expert on career transitions and author of the bestselling book, "Great Jobs for Everyone 50+: Finding Work That Keeps You Happy and Healthy and Pays the Bills." She adds: "You don't just say, 'This has always been my passion, I hate my job, I'm going to go do this,'" she says. "It really takes a minimum of three years to make a transition."

Here are five steps to plan and manage a midlife career transition:

1. Figure out where you want to go

Ask yourself three key questions: What am I really good at? What do I really want to do? And why do I want to make a transition?

Even if it's because you're feeling bored and burned out in your current role, or that you're hungering to do something more impactful, you need to think about what you're transitioning to, not just what you're moving away from, Hannon says.

This is true, even if your transition is motivated by a crisis. "Many of the people I profile in my book were motivated by some kind of crisis, whether it's a health crisis, or they lost someone they loved, or even a big crisis, like 9/11," she says. "It's still a time to pause and say, 'Okay, this is what it's all about.'"

2. Figure out what you're good at

Do some research, figure out what jobs are out there, and figure out what skills you have from your current career that might be transferable to a new one. "We often take our own skills for granted," Hannon observes, adding: "You might have to ask people you know, 'What am I really good at?'"

Start by taking just one class, to see if it's something you really want to do. You probably won't need entirely new training, or a new degree. But bumping up existing skills, perhaps with a certificate course, can help. For many new careers, she points out, skillsets transition easily.

3. Moonlight

Don't jump into a new career without being sure it's right for you.

"If there's any possible way you can get out and do the job as a volunteer, do it," Hannon says. "You get a sense of whether it's something that, on a day-to-day basis, will appeal to you, whether it's as dreamy as it sounds."

Also, temporary or volunteer work in the field you want to transition into helps you make connections that can lead to real jobs down the road.

4. Get yourself financially fit

This is the biggest reason Hannon recommends giving yourself at least three years to plan for your transition.

"Initially, when you make a transition, you're probably not going to make the same amount you made in your previous role," Hannon says. Plan ahead. Create a budget. Figure out where you can save money, both to bring your living costs down and to build a cushion to help you through your transition.

When Hannon talked to people who made successful midlife career shifts, she found that people whose kids were already grown were able to move into a smaller home in order to cut back significantly on their housing costs.

"Look for ways you can get lean and mean, because that's going to give you the best opportunity for success," she says. "Debt is a dream killer."

5. Go forth—and network

"You can't be afraid to reach out and ask people for help, and tell everyone you're looking for work," Hannon says. That's especially true if your transition has been forced. But the key is to make real connections with people.

"I'm not a fan of scattershot applying to a job," she says. You should look online, see who's hiring and what kind of things in your area of interest are available.

Make phone calls. Go to informational lunches. Think about alumni career centers, industry groups, chambers of commerce, networking events. "There are opportunities out there," Hannon says, "and it's up to you to connect the dots."

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