Switching careers in midstream once was considered a setback. And moving from one company to another often meant that a worker had to start over in terms of salary, benefits and vacation.
But a changing economy has made career diversions more commonplace than ever. And most workplace experts said the stigma once attached to transforming a career is all but gone as corporations downsize, merge and push employees to do more with less.
"People don't stay with one company throughout their career anymore," said Don Spatner, senior vice president of global marketing and communications for Korn/Ferry International, an executive recruitment firm based in Los Angeles. "Companies are acquired and merge, management changes, companies downsize. You can't always count on your employer being there."
A 2002 study by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the average worker born during the latter years of the baby boom - between 1957 and 1964 - held 10 different jobs through age 38, meaning they likely will switch employers again as their career matures. And those in mid- and higher-level positions can still transfer their skills and expertise to other places without giving up everything they have worked for, experts said.
Change often can mean better opportunities, experts said, whether it's voluntary or a result of corporate cutbacks. And there is no need to wait for a downsizing to make a change. The key for workers is staying connected to colleagues within their industry, pushing to upgrade their talents to remain competitive and knowing what skills they have or will need to have to move to another field.
Regardless of your role in an organization, experts said, cultivating relationships and networking is important to building a circle of support within and outside your workplace.
"Don't wait until you are out of work to build your net," said Melissa Giovagnoli, co-author of Networlding: Building Relationships and Opportunities for Success and a career coach in Chicago. "The more options you have, the more you can get perspective on your career.
"The higher people climb the ladder, the more vulnerable they are," she said. "They tend to not take the time to build key relationships. By having a network, people have choices when the rug is pulled out by downsizing, or they are not happy with a new boss, or they have relocated for a position and are not happy where they moved."
Corporate recruiters said they like to see job applicants from various industries because they may have skills that can transfer well. It helps to keep their staffs competitive and promotes a diverse kind of thinking in their workplace.
"We look at diversity of experience," said Linda Olin-Weiss, director of staffing services for Lockheed Martin Corp. in Bethesda. "We look at their career goals and development. Did they change fields? Did they go from human resources to communications? What was that individual trying to do?"
Even leaving a company is not necessarily considered burning a bridge.
"We put up an alumni network as a way to communicate with people that left for whatever reason," Olin-Weiss said. "These are folks that know Lockheed."
Before making a change, experts said a worker needs to understand his or her current salary package by breaking it down into cash and noncash components, meaning medical benefits, stock options and other perks. When considering a job offer, remember to consider factors besides money - weigh quality of life, intellectual challenge and balance of work and life, according to Korn/Ferry International.
Many factors can be negotiated, Spatner said. For example, if the cost of living is higher in the city where you plan to live, make sure the salary and benefits will meet your expectations, he said.
Molecular biologist Harshawardhan Bal has held five jobs since moving from India in 1997 to work on a research fellowship on gene therapy.
He has a master's degree in pharmacy, a doctorate in molecular biology and a strong background in software development. He joined management and consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton in Rockville about a year ago and is working with the National Cancer Institute on a Web-based system connecting 60 cancer centers.
He also has worked at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, OSI Pharmaceuticals, Millennium Pharmaceuticals Inc. and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute.
"It's all been a career progression," Bal said. "Different skills allow me to approach any problem from different points of view. How you assemble your skills is a lifelong process. How you apply your skills is to help your employers succeed."
He said networking and keeping abreast of the job market are important components to his career. He also belongs to the International Society for Computational Biology and the Project Management Institute, which are both industry trade groups.
"It helps keep me plugged in," Bal said. "Apart from skills, it's also important to know people. If I have a specific problem, I can call upon people to give their suggestions to develop solutions.
"Even if I have a job, I keep on thumbing through job boards and magazines to understand the skills employers are looking for," he said.
Face your fears
There are some fears that people need to address when making a job change.
Financial security and upward mobility were on Douglas Crocker's list of needs when he took the leap from a full-time, salaried systems engineer for a Roslyn, Va., firm to working as a contract employee for TAC Worldwide Cos., a technical staffing company.
The change took place about two years ago after the birth of Crocker's son. He took time off to be with his newborn and was told that he would be moved to another division upon his return, he said.
"I was working as a systems engineer and was being transferred to the communications group," said Crocker, who lives in Columbia. "[The move] didn't fit with my career development goals."
He posted his resume on job search Web sites and received four or five calls a day from prospective employers, he said. When Crocker compared salaries, he realized he could make more money as a contract employee even after paying for his own benefits.
"The advantage is there is much more flexibility," he said. "If a company tells me they need me to relocate and I'm not interested, I can ask for a new contract. I also get to see from the inside what it is like to work for a company before I make a decision about taking a permanent position if one is offered.
"The down side is there is no security," Crocker added. "I wouldn't do this if I didn't know there was a high demand for my profession." Still, Crocker said he always keeps a lot in savings as a backup.
Most experts said workers can upgrade their skills by taking advantage of tuition reimbursement plans at their job. They also can visit free career centers throughout the state to learn more about job trends, attend resume and interview workshops and look for positions with other companies.
"We help people focus on their transferable marketable skills," said Rosemary Woren, senior program development specialist for the Mayor's Office of Employment Development in Baltimore. "We can help them look at labor market information to see what the new trends are and help them extrapolate what will be needed in the future."
She said more people are visiting the centers in hopes of switching careers.
"We are seeing more people [in mid- to upper-level career] come in now based on changes in the economy," Woren said. "We see banking" and other professionals, she said. "Some see the handwriting on the wall. They want to do their own career exploration and look at labor trends," she said. "There is a constant need for change."
Know your market
That's why workers should always be looking for ways to make themselves more competitive and identify the next post for themselves by knowing the job market well, experts said.
"There are many good ways to hear about new positions," said Carol J. Vellucci, director of the Career Center at Towson University who also has a private practice as a career coach. "Reading the business sections of local newspapers, business journals and magazines provides some up-to-the-minute information that can help the creative job-seeker. The No. 1 complaint of employment recruiters is that candidates do not do enough research about the company.
"When you set up an interview, Google the name of the manager [to get his background]," said Randy Block, a career coach in San Francisco. "If you know anyone [at the company], ask them what they can tell you about the company."
Spatner, the recruiter, has changed executive positions three times. He first worked as vice president of corporate communications for Nissan North America Inc. and later moved to a similar role with Sun America, which was bought out shortly after he started.
Besides networking, Spatner said workers need to make sure their bosses know about the passion they have for their work and their hobbies. Offering their expertise to help make the company more competitive can only be seen as a plus by an organization, he said.
"It's just like high school," Spatner said, "You have to raise your hand."
Tips for branching out
To find an executive search firm, visit the Association of Executive Search Consultants at www.aesc.org or phone 212-398-9556.
To find a career coach, visit the International Coach Federation at www.coachfederation.org or call Terry Shafer, president of the Baltimore chapter, at 410-728-2522.
To find a career center in your county, visit the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation at www.dllr.state.md.us/county.
Contact the university you attended to take advantage of the school's career counseling services.