Jobs That Are Harder Than They Look

Save yourself some time and learn before you leap into these four careers.

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When you're out of work or considering a career change, there are certain careers you may think of as relatively easy to get into—fallbacks in case you can't figure anything else out.

Everyone's Plan B is going to be different, of course. Some people might think truck driving looks like a pretty cushy career—driving all day with the music up—while others might see their fallback position as writing that best-selling novel.

But some of these "easy" jobs aren't exactly easy to do, or easy to get. Here's a look at a handful of careers that have this reputation, and a rundown of what career searchers are actually in for if they give these jobs a try.

Real estate agent. Why you may be considering it: You're kind of your own boss, with finding your own clients, setting appointments, and roaming neighborhoods making up much of your job; no being trapped in an office cubicle for hours on end. And especially as the housing market starts to rebound, the commission—the national average is 5 percent—is enticing.

Why this career is harder than it looks: It takes time to get established, and as a result, "the ability to be paid can be many months from the start, and even so, may not replace the prior salary for years, if at all," says Ron Throupe, an assistant professor at the Franklin L. Burns School of Real Estate at the University of Denver. "It's a misconception to think one can switch careers or think one can easily move into a real estate career in sales."

[See: The 100 Best Jobs.]

What takes so long? You'll have to get your real estate license, which involves passing state and national exams, and there are fees for those. Experts suggest prospective real estate agents have $1,500 to $2,000 on hand for start-up costs, including exam fees, the necessary courses to get a license, and liability insurance, in case some client feels you wronged them in a sale. After all that, you actually have to make a sale, and consistently earn enough to support yourself.

Insurance agent. Why you may be considering it: Again, those commissions can be appealing. They vary from state to state and company to company, but generally, life insurance policies can pay an agent most of the first year's premium—anywhere from as low as 20 percent and as high as 90 percent. Meanwhile, health, auto, homeowners, and other policies offer the insurance agent a steady monthly commission of generally 10 to 15 percent of the monthly payment (of course, it may not add up too much; reports that the average insurance agent salary is $45,191). Like the real estate market, there's also a lot of freedom as you set up appointments and drive around the city to chase leads.

Why this career is harder than it looks: You'll need a license to sell insurance, and to get it, you'll have to spend money (it varies, but odds are, at least $100 and probably several hundred) and time in classroom training. Not everyone passes the test.

If you do get your license, after searching for all of your friends and family who are willing to change insurance plans, you'll realize that finding additional customers is extremely difficult. This is when plenty of people give up. In a best-case scenario, you earned a decent bit of money, enough to pay your start-up costs and then some, and you had a good experience; in the worst case, you've just spent a lot of time and money to get your now-former employer a bunch of new clients.

"I think the biggest mistake people make when going into insurance is thinking, 'I've got a good personality,' and that's important, because you have to network, but you really have to study insurance. It's a complicated product, and most clients have no idea what's involved in an insurance product, so you really know what you're talking about," says Matt Knox, who spent 10 years in the industry before starting, an online classifieds site for the home-improvement market.

Adds Knox: "You really have to get rid of your Xbox or whatever your hobbies are for the first year, so you can succeed in insurance. You need to become an expert."