Changing jobs to suit skills, interests

The fortyish chemical engineer was being phased out of the company after 17 years. He had been a terrible salesman. But before he could transfer to a new career, he had to identify his capabilities and skills.

Testing showed that his analytical and research skills were much higher than his persuasive skills, but he hadn't realized how misplaced he'd been in sales. Today he's the director of research and development at another company, holding a higher-paying job and one that matches his talents, personality, and interests.

Another case of misplacement was the operations director in the European office of an American electronics firm. Too autocratic as a boss - he fired at will, hired the wrong people, and had too great a turnover - the company was ready to let him go. But under German law, which imposes high penalties on firing, the firm would have lost at least $100,000. The economical and happier solution was to transfer the manager to another function. He lacked leadership skills, but he was excellent with materials. In short, he was a ''things'' person, not a ''people'' person.

A career is not one job title, or a set of job titles. A career is a combination of skills, a whole package of abilities, accomplishments, interests, hobbies, and traits that can be arranged and presented in many different ways.

Robert Ehrmann, director of the Career Planning Unit at UCLA's Placement and Career Planning Center, says people should look at jobs in terms of the skills involved rather than actual duties. It is those skills, properly identified, that can transfer you into many different occupations. ''Try to categorize your skills into three major areas that are definable: managerial, organizational, mathematical,'' he says.

Or you can use the most basic breakdown: people, data, things. ''Skills can be defined as to whether they relate to working with people, working with information, or working with inanimate objects, tools, and machines,'' Mr. Ehrmann says. ''The whole concept of transferability of skills from one occupation to others begins to make sense once you present yourself on the basis of your skills, not on your former or present job duties.''

The two cases of occupational transfer described above are examples of a new business trend called ''out-placement.'' They were the work of Right Associates, a corporate out-placement company. Large corporations are hiring such firms as an alternative to the pink slip, and they're finding the transfer process more economical than just letting people go; no lawsuits for discrimination result.

But what out-placement counselors are doing for the employees of companies that use them (a large number of the Fortune 500) is what should have been done from the beginning. They're finding that all-important good match between a person's skills and what the marketplace needs - what the experts call occupational congruence. Many of those about to be fired, retired, or let go due to cutbacks are finding themselves for the first time and transferring to better positions.

According to Dr. Keith Jewell, director of the Right Associates office in Los Angeles, people don't go back to square one when they make a career change. ''We get them a 15 percent increase on average,'' says Dr. Jewell. ''We tell them this is an opportunity, a blessing in disguise, a challenge to find out what they really want to do. We help them uncover their skills, accomplishments, interests, values, and priorities and point them toward careers that suit them.

''The era of emphasizing the young graduate with an MBA degree is over,'' says Dr. Jewell. ''These 'Harvard hot-shots' have proven to be nonproductive. They just don't have the necessary experience. That's why there is a big demand for seasoned executives, people over 55 with practical knowledge and a track record.''

Identifying and transferring skills into new careers for those over 60 is a specialty of the Second Careers Program, sponsored by the Los Angeles Volunteer Center. The jobs program is both a corporate service to companies, from 20th Century-Fox to Atlantic Richfield, and a placement office for retirees, part-time workers, and those who would like to reenter the career market in a new capacity.

Marketing director Hugh McKeller says the jobs are out there: ''Everything from clerical to a hobby lathe operator to a $60,000-a-year vice-president is wanted. We are getting the job orders. Companies know the kind of people we have - workers.''

Second Careers looks at skills, interests, and hobbies and often creates a career more compatible with the person than the original occupation.

''Our changing economy is impelling people to make job changes at all ages,'' says Dr. Anthony Pascal, human resources economist at the Rand Corporation. ''Whether it's the manufacturing sector, where some jobs will never come back, or the office, or sales, those who are flexible - who know their skills and capabilities and can repackage them for an employer - will survive.''

''The rate of technological change is so enormous now, faster than it's ever been in history,'' says Dr. Pascal. ''And it will be even faster five years from now. Yet these are just new tools created by man. I think the most important point here is that people shouldn't feel terrorized by change. It's always happened. The pace is faster now, but so is our ability to cope.''

Even someone at 30, who might have trained for a particular career, can find the demand for that career has dwindled. But those skills may apply elsewhere. Where should you go to find out about transferring your skills? Most large universities have reasonable counseling services. Or try your state employment-development agencies, where information is almost always available for free.

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