Once upon a time, the typical working adult began their career right after high school or university and stayed at the same job until they retired. Those days are long gone. It is not uncommon for someone to pursue multiple careers throughout their working life, and employers are increasingly receptive to candidates with varied skills and knowledge. But while making a career transition is more common than it once was, taking that leap can still be overwhelming.
You know that you have desirable skills. You know that you have useful experience. But what you may not know is how to use those assets to tell potential employers a compelling story about how your career trajectory has made you an ideal candidate for the position. Employers will have questions about your reasons for making this career change, and they may need some reassurance that you are the right fit for the job—especially if they are considering other candidates whose career path was more conventional.
It is okay to feel unsure about how you can effectively communicate your skills and experience, but while making a career transition can add an extra level of complexity to your job search it is by no means an impossible feat. A strategic approach can land you a career you will love.
Filled with modern strategies and practical advice, this guide is your ultimate career transition resource.
Maybe you’re moving from a successful freelancing career back into full-time employment, and you’re not sure how to translate your experience into an employer-friendly CV.
Perhaps you’re just starting out in your professional career, and you aren’t sure how your part-time jobs and volunteer roles demonstrate the skills and experience needed for your dream position.
Or maybe you’re planning to make a career jump from one industry to another and you don’t know how to sell your transferable skills and experience to prospective employers.
According to research by the University of Phoenix School of Business, 59% of working adults are interested in changing their careers.
A career transition is when you make a significant change what you do for work. Changing fields, switching industries, or pursuing a new type of employment are all examples of career transitions.
There are many reasons to decide to make a big move:
Whatever the reason for your transition, it’s important to start with a plan. There are two key questions you need to ask yourself as you plan your move:
For the purposes of this guide, we’re going to assume that you’ve already figured out where you want your career to go. (If you know you want a career change but you aren’t sure what to do, check out our guide to How to Get a Better Job.)
Knowing what career you want means you’ve won half the battle. But how do you implement a solid plan of action to make that dream career a reality?
Recruiting consultant and career coach Carly Simms emphasizes that building an action plan is critical to success. In order to build your action plan, you need to research your goal industry or type of role.
Below are some suggested things you may want to consider when building your career transition plan.
Does your ideal role come with any educational requirements? In some industries, a certification or license may be mandatory. In others, education is a ‘nice-to-have’ rather than a strict requirement.
If you are about to embark on a major career transition, taking a course can help signal to an employer that you are serious about making this move. Local universities and colleges often have career-focused continuing education courses, many of which are available online.
You may also want to explore online resources (like Lynda.com or Udemy) to practice your skills or gain specialist knowledge. While it may not be a requirement for entry, this can be a great way to boost your confidence when talking to prospective employers.
You likely already have experience and skills that you can transfer to your new role (and we’ll cover how to talk about this experience later in this guide). However, there may be a chance to complement your existing experience through volunteer or industry-based opportunities.
For example, let’s say you’re looking to break into a new industry as a web designer. You will likely want to build a portfolio to demonstrate your skills to potential employers. In this case, you could start by looking for opportunities to build websites.
Go ahead and offer your services to a local charity or community organization, or a friend or family member. This allows you to practice your skills and have tangible results to add to your portfolio.
If you don’t know where to start, you can find volunteer opportunities in a range of fields at your local volunteer centre (for example, click here if you’re Canadian or click here if you live in the UK).
Undercover Recruiter says “the single most effective way to uncover new opportunities in your chosen field” is by connecting with people who already have your ideal job.
Start by asking friends and family if they have any connections in the area that interests you. Set up a no-pressure, informal learning opportunity with each of them (some call these “coffee chats” or informational interviews). You can also look into services like Ten Thousand Coffees to extend your network.
Research the professional organizations and groups that are relevant to your industries. If possible, join an association, attend events, and look out for volunteer opportunities—these are the easiest ways to make meaningful connections. You can also look for Meetups in your city that are targeted at professionals in your desired field.
If part of your career transition includes changing locations, you’ll also want to plan for this. Moving cross-country or internationally is a huge undertaking, and there are many things you’ll need to have in place before you go. When it comes to your job search, you should understand the market and expectations of your new city.
For example, if you’re making an international move, you’ll need to be aware of how to structure your CV. In many parts of the world, it’s standard to include a photo and detailed personal information on your CV. In North America, however, this is a major no-no, as employers don’t want to risk accusations of hiring discrimination.
If you’re moving, your CV may also need to explain the relevance of some of your positions. Say you worked for the largest retailer in your city, but that retailer doesn’t exist in your new location. How do you put your experience into context for recruiters and hiring managers? A short line can provide hiring managers with the information they need; for example, “As the Regional Manager at Cityville’s largest fashion retailer…”
Once you have your foot in the door and have secured an interview, be prepared to field questions about your decision to move and your intentions to stay in the new location. Companies may be wary, and worry that you’re not in it for the long haul. Have your ‘why’ mapped out in advance, and focus on selling your national or international experience as an asset rather than a drawback.
As you put your action plan into effect, the time will inevitably come where you’re ready to start applying for new jobs. This is where the rubber really hits the road. You may be full of questions at this stage:
Your key tools for managing a successful career transition will be your CV and your cover letter. These are your calling cards: the documents that answer why are you making this move, and how you would excel in the role you’re applying for.
For the most part, the rules that apply to writing a CV for a career transition are the same rules that apply to writing any CV (check out our Free Resume Guide for the best tips on making your CV shine).
However, there is an additional challenge to writing a career transition CV. The key is to translate potentially unrelated experience into something meaningful for future employers. Take some words of wisdom from Allison Green, author of the popular Ask a Manager website. In her advice to a reader looking to move from retail to office administration, she notes: “It’s going to be really important to find ways to use [your resume] to highlight skills from your past work that will be relevant to admin and receptionist work.”
To make sure you’re successfully communicating why you’re a better fit for this new role than the competition, take the following steps:
In our Ultimate Guide to CV Formatting, we identify three types of CV format:
The reverse-chronological CV is the most common choice, and probably the one you’re most familiar with. A reverse-chronological CV lists your most recent work experience first and works backwards. This format is the best fit for people with some experience under their belt and few gaps in their employment history (if any).
Functional CVs prioritize skills and achievements, with less emphasis on a timeline of employment. This format works well if you have no recent or relevant experience for the job you want.
For job-seekers making a career transition, a combination CV is the best choice. The combination CV format highlights your skills while still outlining the chronology of your work history. This format allows you to showcase the qualifications and achievements that are relevant to your desired position without sacrificing your career history overview.
Combination CV Format Examples:
Remember: Design matters. Hundreds of resumes are crossing recruiters’ desks every day, so it’s important to use an eye-catching layout that will set you apart. Ambra Benjamin, a recruiter at Facebook, has a Pinterest board of beautifully presented resumes. She notes that a well-designed resume is preferred when she’s presenting candidates to hiring managers.
Given that the average recruiter spends only 6 seconds looking at each resume, your design needs to make it easy to quickly find key information. Readability is an important aspect of good resume design. This includes legible font choices, distinct sections, and clear headings. As Ryan Galloway notes, white space can also help make your resume easier to digest.
VisualCV offers several clear and eye-catching CV templates. One VisualCV user, Jennifer, told us that “I got loads of compliments on how elegant and readable my resume was from recruiters” when she used VisualCV’s templates.
Take the time to carefully study the job description. Identify the skills the employer is looking for and the problems you can solve for them.
Next, review your work history. For each role you’ve held, identify times when you’ve applied the skills or performed tasks similar to the ones listed in the job description. Take note of any relevant keywords (“self-starter” “team player” “strategic”) and use them to describe your own experience.
If you’re moving from freelancing to a full-time position, you can highlight particular projects you’ve worked on that showcase your transferable skills.
If you’re new to the workforce, use examples from your education, volunteer experience, and early career roles. For example, group projects can be used to demonstrate teamwork, or working as a cashier can be used to highlight your customer service and problem-solving skills.
When making a career transition, you’ll need to clearly communicate your experience to new employers. Skills, roles, and experiences that are important in your current field may not mean anything to people outside of it. Avoid jargon, and clarify how your experience will translate to the role you are applying for.
Career coach and former recruiter Erica Breuer advises using your header, skills section, and summary to communicate how you are hiring managers’ and recruiters’ perfect candidate. You may need to re-evaluate your accomplishments. Learn what employers want in the role you’re applying for and highlight any examples where you have demonstrated these attributes in your career to date.
You should also consider showing your career progression. If you have held a large number of positions or made a number of lateral moves, how do you illustrate the growth you have achieved over the course of your career?
Alternatively, if you have been with one company for an extended period of time, you may worry about looking complacent or risk-averse. In this situation:
Since you don’t have experience in this new industry, it is important to include a cover letter that communicates why you are the best fit for the job and how you will bring value to the organization. You should also be upfront about your career transition. While your instinct may be to omit this detail and hope the recruiter or hiring manager doesn’t notice, you’d be missing out on a powerful opportunity to shape your narrative.
Savvy recruiters and hiring managers will have extra questions about non-traditional candidates like you. Anticipating and addressing these in your cover letter can help you leap over that first hurdle.
In order to communicate how your experience matches the organization’s needs, consider using the STAR method. Someone outside your former field of work may not understand the relevance of your experience. With STAR, you can structure your examples to demonstrate your skills:
Here’s an example of this in action:
“As a marketing assistant at [digital agency], I was tasked with improving email open rates for a large client. In approaching this task, I first analyzed the existing data, and developed a strategy for improving open rates. I then piloted my plan through a process of A/B testing, in which multiple approaches were used, to discover the optimal email subject lines. As a result of this strategy, open rates improved by 40%. My ability to analyze a problem and implement an effective strategy meant that the results exceeded the expectations of the client.”
We could go on about how to write the best career transition CV, but you might be looking for some reassurance from others who have successfully made the leap.
Take Casie, who not only changed careers but moved to a new city. She started her career in finance, but when she relocated to San Francisco she took a leap into the tech industry. Casie realized that relying on the same old resume she’d used for finance roles wasn’t going to work in the tech field; she needed an eye-catching design that would showcase her personality. Using VisualCV to create a new CV, embed it on her website and link to her social channels, her efforts were noticed and she soon found work in her new chosen field.
Carrie is another career transition success story. She worked as a librarian, but her passions shifted and she decided to embark on a new career as an IT technician. Using VisualCV, Carrie put together an updated CV that clearly showcased her qualifications and relevant skills. This helped her to communicate her career trajectory and accomplishments in a professional-looking format—one that she could easily share on social media.
When you first start dreaming of a career transition, it can seem like just that: a dream. But with a little know-how and some perseverance, you will soon be on your way to a career you love.
Discover how to use VisualCV to create a stunning resume that highlights everything you have to offer. Check out some of our clean and modern templates here.