6 Tips on Planning a Second Career

Moving into a new field later in life can be fulfilling. Here's how to do it.

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A New York investment banker becomes a small-town chef. A techie turns acupuncturist. An entrenched corporate exec accepts an early retirement package and converts to the ministry. Longer life spans, concerns about outliving retirement savings, and a desire to stay productive are inducing more and more workers nearing or in retirement to launch second careers.

As many as 8.4 million Americans between the ages of 44 and 70 have already launched "encore careers," positions that combine income with personal meaning and social impact, according to a recent survey on boomers, work, and aging by the MetLife Foundation and Civic Ventures, a San Francisco think tank. Of those workers surveyed who are not already in second careers, half are interested in them.

People are working well beyond the traditional mid-60s retirement age for a variety of reasons. "Very few retirees start a second career purely for the money," says Marc Freedman, founder and CEO of Civic Ventures and author of Encore: Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life. "They're searching for work that is fulfilling and gets them out of bed in the morning." For some, the income is essential. For others, it's an added insurance policy against dwindling retirement accounts.

While many of these work transitions involve following a dream or a calling, you don't want to get caught up in the romance of it all. "There is a blitheness that all you have to do is embrace your passion and the rest happens magically," Freedman says. "It's not that easy. You don't open the doors to your bed-and-breakfast and the cheering crowds arrive." Here are six key steps to planning your next career.

1. Prepare yourself. Many people know they want to keep working or even need to, yet they wrestle with just what it is they're looking for in their job and life. Start by making an honest appraisal of your skills and interests. Much of what you already know is transferable to your next undertaking. The key is to match your next job or career to your interests and personality. To help get you started, toss around ideas for career alternatives with friends and family. Check out self-assessment quizzes at CareerPath.com and Monster.com's career advice section.

If you're not sure what you want to do, don't despair. "The hard part for some people is figuring out what it is that interests them," says Betsy Werley, executive director of the Transition Network, a New York City-based networking group for women over 50, which offers lectures on career change. "They dabble with vague ideas, but it's important to really work toward something to make it happen."

Many late-life career jumpers are eager to start their own entrepreneurial adventure. But if you aren't ready to put yourself out there financially or personally, that can be risky, Werley says. "It all comes down to your mind-set."

It's important not to think of your new career as a brief hiatus before you retire in earnest. Approach the venture as if you would be doing it for the next 10 or even 20 years, if you opt for an early retirement payout. It will take groundwork and fortitude to get it right. Ideally, you should plan this transition in your 50s and early 60s, before you leave your current job.

Things rarely fall into place right off the bat. The longer your time horizon is, the better your chances of success. You will have time to weather the setbacks and ups and downs of learning the ropes in a new field or even testing out a few careers before you find the one that clicks.

2. Research where the jobs are. It helps to look in fields where there's strong job growth. The current housing slump and economic uncertainty may make this a miserable time to try out a career in real estate or retail. But fields like healthcare, education (particularly preschool through 12th grade), 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 Occupational Outlook Handbook. In healthcare, for instance, there are home and personal care jobs helping people with special needs such as autistic children and Alzheimer's patients, as well as a growing need for elder care. The aging population is also driving up demand for nutritionists, physical therapists, speech and language specialists, and activity aides.