I Want to Switch Careers but I Can’t Afford a Pay Cut

I hear the statement above from dozens of clients a year. The sad news is that marketplace realities virtually guarantee that you CAN’T switch careers WITHOUT taking a pay cut. Most likely a significant one. That’s because employers pay for the value they expect you to bring to the job. If you have little or no experience in a new field, no matter how transferrable your skills, an employer is going to be unwilling to pay the same amount that you’re earning at a job in which you’ve demonstrated significant value. Not to mention the fact that, in most situations, being up against more experienced applicants, your chances of even being considered are small.*

I wish I had a solution to this dilemma. But instead let me suggest that you examine the costs of staying in a career that no longer works for you.

1.   Emotional health

Going to work and feeling something between dislike and dread wears down even the most resilient of people. It’s hard to escape some form of depression when you feel trapped.

2.   Physical health

The stress inevitably involved in coping with an undesirable career situation can negatively impact your health both because of the deleterious long-term effect of the stress hormone cortisol and, for many, the  coping mechanisms they may use to deal with the stress (alcohol, tobacco). Also, the depression that usually accompanies these situations tends to interfere with healthy habits like proper diet and exercise.

3.   Career progression

If you don’t like what you’re doing it’s going to be very, very difficult to excel. Most probably you’re “phoning it in.” Keep in mind that you’re ultimately likely to be competing with people who DO enjoy their work, and will in the long (or perhaps not-so-long) run outperform you.

Too many people take their current living arrangements as a given – mortgage payments, tuition payments, and lifestyle choices such as travel and entertainment. The thought of cutting back is so contrary to their internal narrative (equating compensation with success) that they’re unwilling to even explore alternative career possibilities that would most likely result in a reduction. But over the years I’ve seen time and time again that individual and family well-being improve when career satisfaction goes up. Yes, you may have to sacrifice in the short run. But longer-term you will not only feel a lot better but very possibly be earning more than if you stay on your current dead end path.

One final point – Don’t let preconceptions about how much a certain career will pay prevent you from exploring it (primarily by talking to people who are doing what you are contemplating). First of all, you may be mistaken in your assumptions. Second, the process of exploration may uncover associated possibilities that you initially weren’t even aware existed. There are many excellent books that provide case histories of these situations, among them “Life Reimagined” by Richard J. Leider and Alan M. Weber; “Designing Your Life” by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans; and “Roadmap” by Roadtrip Nation and Brian McAllister.

*The exception to this “rule” is that if you have strong personal contacts who can vouch for your abilities to a potential employer you have a chance get in the door for an interview and sell your abilities. A strong interview, plus lobbying by your contact on your behalf, would significantly improve your odds of landing a job without taking a big hit to your salary.