Duane Hoffmann / msnbc.com
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/10/2009 2:49:05 PM ET 2009-03-10T18:49:05

In this economy, there's a lot of talk these days about the importance of reinventing your career, especially if your industry or profession is dying.

But where the heck do you begin?

In 2001, Sheila Keahey was laid off for a second time after 11 years in the financial sector, this time from her job as a financial analyst for a telecommunications firm in Dallas.

“I was fed up,” says Keahey, who had relocated to Texas from New Jersey for the job a year earlier. “I knew I had to do something else.”

Unfortunately, she didn’t know exactly what that “something else” was, so she embarked on a journey to find out.

She tried substitute teaching and even worked as a sales associate at Neiman Marcus, but she couldn’t find her niche. The full-time retail job wasn’t paying the bills, so she started looking for a temporary position to supplement her income.

In the back of her mind, she had always been interested in health care, so she took a temp job at a local teaching hospital as a senior administrative assistant. There she was exposed to a profession she knew little about: medical coding.

“Here I am with an MBA doing administrative work, but I knew it would be a stepping stone for me,” she says.

Indeed, her step down paid off. Today, Keahey is a medical coder helping to manage health information for Parkland Health & Hospital System in Dallas.

Her story shows that it’s not always a direct route from your present career to a new one. Sometimes you may have to try lots of things in order to find out what’s right for you, and you may also have to swallow your pride and pay some dues along the way.

Identifying your transferable skills
“There’s an idealism in this economy that you should be making decisions out of passion, but that’s not always how it works,” says Marci Alboher, author of “One Person/Multiple Careers.”

Depending on your financial situation, you may not have the luxury to sit around waiting for a career eureka moment. That means you have to be proactive, realistic and take a structured approach when figuring out what to do.

“Start investigating yourself and identify your transferable skills,” says Alboher. “You should do an inventory of your skills and talents and go with the opportunities available to you.”

Once you come up with four or five ideas, Alboher suggests you find out more about what those careers or jobs entail and whether they’re right for you. Then you can assess what you need to do to reach your new career goal, such as whether you need to relocate to a new city or go back to school for more training.

That’s just what Keahey did. She had a strong foundation in numbers and data, but she knew she’d need further education to become a certified medical coder. She wrote out a map for her new career aspiration, including everything from the schooling she’d need to how she’d be able to survive financially in the interim.

She e-mailed all the health information management departments at hospitals in her area and ended up getting hired in yet another entry-level position by Children’s Medical Center of Dallas. One of the perks there was tuition assistance, which allowed her to take online courses from the University of Alabama. Because of her already extensive educational background, she was able to complete her four-year degree in one and a half years.

“I love what I’m doing now. I have no regrets,” she says about leaving finance career behind.

David Robillard, a former autoworker at Ford Motor Company, didn’t have a lifelong dream to teach, but today he’s an electrical technician instructor at Kaplan Career Institute in Detroit.

At age 50, with three decades of experience in the auto industry, he decided to go back to school and get his bachelor’s degree while still working at Ford. It took him six years, but he graduated magna cum laude from Wayne State University in May 2007.

He retired from Ford in February of that year. After he graduated, he got help from a job-hunting group at his church and was able to prepare a resume and attend job fairs.

“In the past, many friends told me I should be a teacher because I had patience and experience,” he says. “I took their advice and applied to several junior colleges in the area to teach in their vocational trades classes.”

“It’s never too late,” Robillard says. “Instead of focusing on the negative of the economic state we are in today, see this as the opportunity to go back to school to enhance your job skills.  You will be required to make sacrifices, but anything worth having is going to require work.”

If you just can’t see yourself doing anything other than what you’ve done for years, then read books, take temporary jobs or sign up for an online seminar, says Alboher. She’s also a fan of career groups, career buddies or mentors who are honest with you and can help you hone in on what you do best.

David Van Waldick of Vista, Calf., got some outside help.

After 25 years in the mortgage industry, he was sick of the ups and downs. “I asked myself, ‘How am I going to change?,’” he says. “I decided I needed a plan, and I did a lot of research online.”

He came across a coaching service called OneCoach and attended their free seminars. The service helped him come up with a list of his strengths and weaknesses.

“I said, ‘What am I really good at? How do I apply that to where I want to go?’ And I realized my strength was sitting down with people and making sense of financial things that are really confusing,” he says.

His decision at age 52: become a personal financial planner.

He’s now taking classes through the University of California at Irvine's extension program so he eventually can get certified. He estimates it will cost him about $10,000 and will take close to three years to get his license.

“It’s exciting to think about something new,” he says. “My conclusion was, you can build on what you’ve done instead of doing something completely foreign to what you were or did.”

Fitting in to a new career
One of the hardest things for people to do, says Nancy Salzman, assistant director of business, management and legal education at UC Irvine Extension, is to visualize how you’ll fit in a new career.

“Whether you just lost your job or see the handwriting on the wall in your industry, you have to step out of your industry and say, ‘What’s my skill set?’ in general terms, not industry specific,” she says.

If you’re in the mortgage industry, for example, you are probably good at reading and understanding regulations or have a great attention to detail, she says. Or if you were on the assembly line in manufacturing, you probably have some mechanical, technology or quality assurance skills.

Make a list of your skills and plug those keywords into a search on the major job sites to see what you come up with, she says. That can be a great starting point for your reinvention exploration.

And stay positive, says Keahey, the medical coder from Dallas.

Looking back, she says she wasn’t scared or nervous about her decision to change careers. “I knew I was going to be able to do it.”

Eve Tahmincioglu writes the weekly "Your Career" column for msnbc.com and chronicles workplace issues in her blog, CareerDiva.net.

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