Switching streams: teenage career choice not a lifelong ball-and-chain

JUNE 23, 2016

Number-crunchers estimate that a person will change careers about 5-7 times during their lifetime. Often, these changes will occur within the same discipline, meaning the issues that forced a person to re-assess their life path may simply transfer to the next phase.

That’s why those who want to change careers should not only consider an upwards or sideways move, but possibly also entering a new field entirely, an education expert says.

“Decisions on career choices are made as far back as our Grade 9 year at the age of about 15, when matric subjects are selected with the aim of gaining entry into the qualification that will prepare you for your career,” says Nola Payne, Head of Faculty: Information and Communication Technology at The Independent Institute of Education, SA’s largest and most accredited private higher education institution.

“However at this young age, decisions are often based on influences from parents and peers, and with little insight into the actual rewards and demands of a specific career. After graduation and a year or five in the workplace, it is therefore not uncommon for people to find that their chosen field is not the one they want to pursue for the rest of their lives.”

This realisation will manifest as a loss of passion, days turning into constant drudgery, difficulty getting out of bed and participating fully at work and possibly even depression, says Payne.

But a choice made in one’s teenage years need not impact the rest of one’s life, she adds.

“It is never too late to make a switch, but deciding to go from teacher to IT technician, or accountant to art director is a major move, which should not be made lightly.”

Payne says that before leaping into the great unknown, people should watch out for the following pitfalls:

  1. Don’t switch careers without a solid plan.
  2. Don’t change careers because you “hate” your job. Perhaps it’s the environment and the people at work that you can’t stand, or it could be that you’re feeling bored. Figure out why exactly you want to make a change.
  3. Don’t change careers based solely on financial matters or perceived status.
  4. Don’t make a change because of pressure from family and friends.
  5. Do consider all the possibilities and requirements to make the change.
  6. Understand that you’ll probably need to spend money and time gaining the necessary qualifications and experience.
  7. Make sure you can survive on the money you’ll earn as an entry-level employee in the new career.

“Having said that, taking the plunge for the right reasons may have a dramatically positive impact on one’s life, and examples abound of people who have started from scratch in a new career and have gone on to great heights of success,” says Payne.

After having made the big decision, she advises the following process:

  1. Accept that your first choice of career is coming to an end, and give yourself a timeline to switch disciplines. Don’t keep vacillating – commit to the new challenge with full focus and energy.
  2. Identify where you’d like to be in 5 years and what you’d like to do. Do your research. This may be reading up on your preferred career choice, taking leave and job shadowing for a few days, and finding out what your options are at various public or private institutions’ careers centres.
  3. Determine what mode of studying you are able to commit to in order to qualify in your new field.  There are various options available. You could attend full time classes on a campus, part-time classes offered in the evenings, or distance/online study. For working adults – especially those with families - the part-time or distance options may be most suitable, even if it means taking longer to complete a qualification.

Payne says that while studying for a new qualification, people should already start networking and immersing themselves in their new field, so that they are ready to hit the ground running after graduation.

Additionally, upon graduation, CVs should be given a proper overhaul and not just recycled from the previous career.

“CVs should be reworked to emphasise key skills, experience and qualifications you have which meet your new career objectives,” says Payne.