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."
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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; Salary.com 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 DiggersList.com, 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."
Selling insurance is also a long slog, he says, because you really have two sales you're depending on for each policy: "First, you have to get the client to say, 'Yes, I want that.' But then the second sale is getting the insurance company to approve it."
Knox says he has seen a lot of people quit after not getting that second sale. It just becomes too demoralizing.
Substitute teacher. Why you may be considering it: The hours are pretty good, and if you have kids, you'll likely be home when they are. If you're looking for extra money, it can be a nice gig, and if you need a transition career, it can look good on your resume. Plus, getting a license for substitute teaching often isn't that difficult, assuming you have a bachelor's degree and can pass a background check. This is a career that often doesn't take much time to get into, unless you start looking into it at the beginning of the summer.
Why this career is harder than it looks: There's the stranger-in-a-strange-land issue. Unless you're subbing for someone on, say, maternity leave, each day you'll rub elbows with new teachers and stand in front of a new class of kids. It isn't easy, says Joanne Larson, chairperson of the education school at the University of Rochester: "Even when the students are cooperative, teachers sometimes don't leave plans, and the substitute is left to figure out what to do on their own."
But substitute teaching isn't dull, except when it is (you're instructed to have kids open their books or turn on their tablets and read). Paula Cohen is a retired special education teacher in Middletown, Ohio, who substitute teaches regularly. In the last two weeks, among other things, Cohen has sent a child home with lice, called the school nurse for two children with bed bug bites, welcomed a transfer student who was homeless and hungry, and encountered a student who was extremely defiant—a kindergartner. But Cohen says she loves substitute teaching, adding that there are plenty of opportunities to still make a difference in a child's life.
Still, it can be difficult for some people to adjust to substitute teaching. You're on-call day to day, often not knowing until the last minute whether you're going to be subbing or not, which will make your income unpredictable. Your schedule also varies: One day, your lunch is around 10:45 a.m., and the next, 1 p.m.
Voice-over artist. Why you may be considering it: You can do your work in your sweatpants. The pay can be pretty nice, although it's impossible to say how much one can make since there's so much varied work out there, from radio commercials to corporate videos to video games. A good rule of thumb is to expect to make between $200 to $1,000 per gig. You might make $150 for 30 seconds of work, but the rate goes down as the time goes up, so if you do an hour's worth of voice-over work, like for a corporate training video, you might make $500, says Mary Catherine Jones, a Burlington, Vt., resident who has been doing part-time voice-over work for several years.
Why this career is harder than it looks: Yes, it may sound like you've hit the jackpot—making $150 for 30 seconds of talking—but you have to remember that it might take you weeks or months to land that 30-second commercial.
"I remember reading somewhere that doing the voice-overs isn't work—it's getting the voice-over work that is the work. Very true," says Jones, who formerly was a director of sales and marketing at a small publishing company and then a stay-at-home mom before going into voice work.
This isn't a career you start doing one day and within a few weeks are making a full-time living. "Think of it like getting into acting," advises Jones. "You may be the next Meryl Streep, but you could spend your life waiting tables nonetheless. Luckily, it's very possible to start this kind of work up as a side business and let it grow until you feel comfortable in letting it support you."
But first, you have to support your voice-over career. The start-up costs really add up, and it will soon become very clear that voice-over work isn't just you talking into someone else's microphone.
If you're going to have a real career as a voice-over artist, it helps to have your own equipment to produce and edit your voice-overs, says Jones, who adds that good headphones cost around $300 to $400, and recording and editing software can be anywhere from $500 to $1,500, assuming you have a good computer to run it on. Sound treatment (materials that help with the acoustics) can cost anywhere from $100 to $1,000, and she says, "I also think it's critical to have a professional-done voice-over demo, and that can cost between $500 to $1,500." You can produce your own, but if you're new, she says, "You won't know what you're doing yet."
So if you're desperate for cash, this isn't a get-rich-quick career. If you want to ease into something, and don't mind spending serious time learning the craft, it may work out as well for you as it has for Jones, who says: "I've grown busier every year. This year has been amazingly busy so far."