5 Steps to Starting a Second Career

If you crave a midlife career makeover, here's how to get started.

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Who doesn't fantasize about a second career? Especially if you've worked in the same field for 20 or 25 years, been there and done that, accomplished most of what you set out to do, and run out of fresh challenges. Maybe you feel you have talents that are going to waste. Or there's something you've always wanted to do that's calling louder and louder. Or like millions of others, you're simply worn down by the corporate routine. There must be something out there that's more rewarding, right?

Probably so. But after 40, it can be daunting to start a second act. The mere thought of going back to school, learning new skills, or starting over at the bottom of the ladder stops many people from trying something new.

That's where you need to rely on the prudent planning you've learned over years of preparing budgets or managing a sales force or giving PowerPoint presentations to the higher-ups. Forty-somethings who plunge spontaneously into a new line of work, looking for career salvation, will probably end up asking for their old job back in a couple of months.

So prepare for a new career as if it's your first meeting with the CEO. It will take legwork, foresight, time, and patience to get it right, but carefully calculating a bold career shift could be one of the most rewarding things you'll ever do. Here are some steps to help plan your transition:

Assess your likes and dislikes. Maybe you already know that you want to open an Italian restaurant or help run a nonprofit that serves children suffering from AIDS. But if you're not sure what you want to do, don't despair: Many people know they need a fresh start, yet they grapple with just what it is they're looking for in their work and life.

If you're not sure, step back and take stock. Make an honest assessment of your skills and interests. Much of what you already know is transferable to your next adventure, but it will take some digging to see what truly suits you and your background.

The key is to match your job or career to your interests and personality. To help get you started, brainstorm ideas for career alternatives with friends and family. Check out self-assessment quizzes at Careerpath.com and Monster.com's career advice section.

Research. Identify career fields where there's opportunity for growth. Careerbuilder.com is a great place to start. Read as much as you can about the businesses that appeal to you. Consider volunteering or moonlighting to get a sense of whether working as a chef, for instance, is as romantic as you imagine. (Maybe—if you're willing to work evenings and nearly every weekend.)

Finding the best job for you is a highly personal endeavor, but it helps to look in fields where there's healthy job growth. Given the housing downturn and economic uncertainty, for instance, it may be a lousy time to try out a career in real estate or retail. But fields like healthcare, education, and technical consulting services are growing rapidly, with new niches and specialties popping up all the time. You'll find useful details about specific jobs in the Department of Labor's [www.bls.gov/oco] Occupational Outlook Handbook.

Network. Get in touch with people you know in jobs that intrigue and inspire you. They can help you find leads when you're ready to get your foot in the door, but more important, they can give you a real sense of what the work is like on a day-to-day basis. What are the challenges and rewards? How about pay, hours, and the work climate? What training or additional education will you need? Use these as relaxed, informational interviews to get a sense of what the work entails and what opportunities might be out there for someone with your background.

Upgrade your skills and education. In fields with a scarcity of workers, such as elder care and teaching, there are sometimes streamlined training programs that let you bypass a lengthier indoctrination. Chances are, though, you'll need to bone up on new skills and maybe even earn another degree. If possible, take required courses before you quit your current job. Professional programs, grad schools, and community colleges offer evening and weekend classes that you can fit into your existing schedule without having to make a radical move. Your current employer might foot the bill, but make sure you check the fine print; you might have to repay tuition expenses if you leave your job within a certain time frame.