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Considering changing careers? Expert advice on making the move
published July 29, 2010

Alison Chafe (MBA ’04) wanted a change. The 30-year-old had been working in information technology for nearly 10 years. IT was well aligned with her commerce degree, but, she explains, “A career is a really long haul and I thought ‘OK, for the next 30 years I want to be doing something I really care about.’”

Sound familiar? In 2006, Statistics Canada reported that one in 12 Canadians are unhappy at work. “Most people never really figure out what they really want to do,” observes career transition expert Tim Cork (BA ’81), president of NEXCareer. “To figure it out, you have to look at your greatest successes to date, because success is built on success. Build from a position of strength.”

If you need help, many experts suggest trying a career coach. “Coaches help you figure yourself out. They force you to look forward,” explains Dayna Patterson (MBA ’05), a career coach and a part-time instructor at York’s Schulich School of Business. Most, she says, begin with an aptitude assessment and a discussion of your values and long-term goals. From here, your coach will help you explore good job matches and help you develop tactics to position yourself.

Chafe considered several options before landing on corporate sustainability. “I was trying to change without starting over completely,” she says. “IT gave me transferable skills like project and performance management. Corporate sustainability was a way of using what I had.”

Her transition tactic was accreditation. “I decided to do my MBA in sustainability,” says Chafe. It had some unexpected hurdles: “My first semester midterm grades weren’t very good. I was surprised it took a while to remember how to study, retain information and focus.” To afford school, she cashed in some RSPs and took a job at a pub. “I had to curb my expenses a lot,” she admits, “but it was absolutely worth it. School is a completely different experience when you’re 30 than when you’re 22. You care.”

Little did she realize the hardest part was yet to come: the job hunt.

When you’re looking for work, stresses Cork, you should be focused on your “PFFs” – prospects, face time, followups. “Companies don’t hire people – people hire people,” he says. And you’d better have a 30-second speech prepared to sell yourself, he advises.

Chafe found most postings required an engineering or environmental science degree as well as an MBA, a hiccup that could have been avoided had she enlisted a career coach. After four months, and facing mounting debt, she returned to IT. “I realized opportunities might arise if I effected change from within, so I started to learn more about the company in order to make the case for integrating sustainability,” she recalls.

Over three years, Chafe discussed her ideas widely. Finally, she got a break. “I presented a case to senior executives on how sustainability made sense profit-wise,” says Chafe. This led her to collaborate with the company’s strategy team.

In 2008, she got a job with a member-based sustainability organization. It led to a job with a sustainability consulting firm, but not without sacrifice. Chafe had to relocate, but doesn’t regret it. She’s finally got the job she set out for over six years ago. Despite the long road, Chafe has no qualms about taking a chance in pursuit of passion: “It was the best decision I ever made.”

originally published in YorkU magazine, summer 2010