If you’re starting on a new career track (whether “fresh out of the gate,” i.e. perhaps just having graduated from college or graduate school, or particularly if you’re thinking of changing careers in midlife), it’s incredibly frustrating to peruse job postings that require years of experience for what are essentially entry-level positions. How does one acquire experience in a new field if the only jobs available require previous experience in that field?
In order to work around this chicken-and-egg barrier, there are several possible solutions:
Identify a well-run organization in which you believe and see if there are volunteer opportunities to undertake the functional work most similar to the kind of work you are looking to move into. For example, if you are interested in event planning or project management you might volunteer to help plan and orchestrate a fundraiser for an NGO. If you are looking to go into digital marketing you could offer your services to a not-for-profit that is looking to refresh and update its web presence. If you are attracted to finance, perhaps you could offer your labor to a “life skills” organization that instructs the poor on financial literacy. Don’t overlook the possibility of contributing your efforts to a community governance or improvement group (for example DC has Advisory Neighborhood Commissions that deal with a variety of local issues such as recreation, health, and budgeting).
Two key objectives to keep in mind as you embark on the volunteering path: a) to the best of your ability make sure you are involved in a project that will allow you to claim a specific accomplishment (e.g. “organized a silent auction that netted a record $26,000); b) look to identify and bond with a senior mentor who can both teach you valuable skills and perhaps connect you with people in a position to hire you as you acquire those skills.
N.B. – If the skills you have to offer are minimal, and your primary goal is to build up those skills, you may need to start off by “shadowing” someone so as to gain an understanding of exactly what it is they do, and then gradually begin to contribute as you learn.
I recently helped a young man acquire a data analytics job with a professional football team, an exceptionally desirable and highly competitive position. He did this primarily on the strength of a blog that I urged him to write which demonstrated his knowledge of data analytics and posed provocative questions about the current state of game management.
If blogging is a route you wish to follow, you need to make sure that the quality of your writing, as well as of your insights into the chosen field, are outstanding. If you’re not sure about your ability to consistently create interesting and thought-provoking content, you can curate and organize the writings of others to illustrate your conclusions (although creating original content would be preferable).
Landing an internship (most likely unpaid) is probably the most traditional way of gaining experience in a new field. Interns are traditionally younger, so this is most likely not a route that someone in mid-career can pursue, and of course, the lack of pay tends to be more problematic the further into working age one is. But for younger career shifters interning can be a great first step. Just keep in mind that most internships attract quite a few applicants, so you will need to make a persuasive case on why you should be selected, highlighting abilities the internship involves by citing past experience and accomplishments. In other words, what you bring to the table.