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On Labor Day, readers seek some work advice

This week's column opens up the Labor Day mailbag and doles out some career counseling.  Your Career, by Eve Tahmincioglu.
/ Source: contributor

Happy Labor Day, everyone! Time for me to open up the mailbag and answer some of your specific questions:

I was laid off from my computer programming position four years ago after the company was bought out and downsized.  I looked for another position but even the headhunter I used for years was getting out of the IT-only recruitment because IT jobs had dried up so badly here in Cincinnati.  My husband works for GM. and we were OK without my paycheck.

Then GM started failing.  Needless to say we needed another paycheck two years ago to make up for the lost overtime and no yearly increases at GM.  With my parents' needs growing I was able to find a part-time position as an office assistant that is very flexible.  Now GM is still not back on its feet, and the plant my husband works at is unsure of its future.  He is pressuring me to find a better-paying job.  That means back into the career field I left four years ago.  I realize my programming skills are not up to the requirements for PCs since I did mainly mainframes.  So I modified my search to find a better fit.  Business analyst seems to fit the bill as I speak fluent computer and I can also speak fluent business, so I know I can bring the two worlds together and provide value for any company.

I feel I am shut out of IT completely.  I tried talking to the headhunter I used, but he says it is nearly impossible to find a job after being out of the field for ANY length of time and said good luck.

I can’t believe all employers believe that you forget everything the minute you take time off.  I was told I had to lower my salary expectations, which I also did by $10,000 a year, but that does not help either.

What does it REALLY take to get back into a career?  Should I just give up and keep plugging away at being an office assistant?  I know I’m more talented and skilled than that but I can’t seem to catch a break.  Am I looking at the wrong issue with my search?  Could it be my age instead?  I am 55.
—K.C. from Cincinnati

One of the hardest things to do is get back into an industry you’ve been away from for more than a year. But it’s not impossible.

You must be ready to take a step down and enter the world of the entry-level worker, says Tom Gimbel, CEO of staffing firm The LaSalle Network. “You have to take one step backwards to take two steps forward,” he explains.

You’ve already accepted that you have to expect less money, but you also have to accept a lower-level position such as a help desk employee. Business analyst may be aiming a bit too high, Gimbel adds. “If you really have the passion for the job” and the drive to prove yourself, he says, you’ll move up the ladder quickly.

When applying for job, if a hiring manager says you seem overqualified just stress that you’re looking to learn and get back into the industry you love.

And you could be onto something about the age bias issue. There are employers who shy away from older workers, but you can’t let that get you down. Focus on what you can bring to the table and make sure to show your enthusiasm for the job.

Your best bet, Gimbel advises, is to go to a temporary staffing agency and get a position to get your feet wet.

I am working around the clock for a company for the last three years and I am only being paid as an art director.  Each time I mention a raise the manager says that the company cannot afford it.  What shall I do?  I have two sons, am divorced and make only $48K clear.  I am a college graduate and now have taken in a boarder in my home to help defray some of the costs of keeping my house.  Have you any suggestions?
—Looking for Direction

This is the type of question I get often. People are wondering when their hard work will pay off, especially as they struggle to make ends meet.

You have to be assessing your job and career all the time. If you keep banging your head against the wall and it gets you nowhere financially or experience wise, then why stay?

Unfortunately, that is easier said than done. You sound like you’re going through serious financial pressures, and just walking away from a job isn’t an option for you. So you have two options: Start looking for a new job, or try a different tack at your present one.

If you want to try out the latter first, Rob Bennett, author of the Financial Freedom blog and author of “Passion Saving: The Path to Plentiful Free Time and Soul-Satisfying Work,” suggests getting on your networking hat right away. Connect with other managers in other departments if you can. Get friendly with them. Ask them to lunch. “By knowing the right person at the right time you can make big leaps in your career,” he says.

Don’t go overboard and start muscling your way into other managers’ offices. Feel people out and see if there is an opening for you to get to know them. For example, say, “I like what you’re department is doing and I want to learn more about it.” Also, take advantage of any mentoring programs at your work; or approach a manager you admire and ask them if they’d mentor you. But be sure not to alienate your present boss.

This type of relationship building can take time to pay off, Bennett stresses, but when a new position comes up at least you’ll be on the radar screen of more than just your boss.

If you see no room for advancement, you have to decide when it’s time to move on. Only you can answer that question.

I hope you can offer some advice to my "never-ending college degree dilemma." I'm a 30-year-old administrative assistant in Chicago. Prior to joining my current employer (a large consulting firm) I worked in a small investment company also as an administrative assistant. I've been wanting to go back to college for my undergraduate degree for some time and I've been postponing it for one reason: I don't know what degree to complete. I know for sure that: I don't want to be an administrative assistant for the rest of my life, I can't go for accounting or finance because I'm not good with numbers and never have been and I would like to stay in the business field.

Everyone I know advises me not to do business administration degree because it is nothing specific and won't take me anywhere.

At the same time I would like to incorporate my administrative experience with my new degree so they could complement each other. I really don't want to start at entry level again :(
—A.B. from Chicago

Go to college, my friend, and get there fast.

While I do know a few CEOs in the business sector who never went to college, for most of us, that route will only lead to dead-end or lower-level jobs in that field.

“No matter what position a person has, whether it’s entry level, or senior level, there is great value in continuing education,” says JP Sakey, president of recruiting company Headway Corporate Resources. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be connected to the industry you see yourself in. So go head, become a history major.

“If someone is constantly reading and improving education, that’s the kind of employees we want,” he adds. “To be successful you have to be good learner.”