As director of a career center at a community college, I see a wide array of clients ranging in age from 15 to 59. Lately, I've seen an increase in 40-something individuals seeking career counseling and assessment services. Some have been the result of downsizing and are now reevaluating their lives and looking at other options. Others are women facing a pending divorce, or are just recently divorced, and need to get back into the workforce (or enter it for the first time). During the course of career or job search counseling, I too often hear these clients lament, "I always wanted to be a teacher", or "If I had it to do over again, I'd be a counselor- but now it's too late, or I'm too old, or it will take too long, or cost too much."
Making a lifestyle change can be a frightening and difficult thing for many people. This is especially true for individuals who do not like their jobs but feel stuck or are afraid of change. Given today's changing workforce demographics, I have begun to develop a new perspective when working with adult career changers. Doing work that you enjoy for the remaining working years of your life, even if it means going back to school to obtain it, is a "coachable" alternative to staying in a low-paying or unhappy employment situation. The following is a repertoire of responses to offer clients when faced with a string of "buts" to the prospect of returning to school.
Responses to Possible Objections
▪ School takes too long. The time is going to go by anyway, whether or not you go back to school. Think of school as an investment in you, or your children's, future. Discuss weekender programs, accelerated courses, fast-track programs, or on-line degrees. Refer them to your local college or university's admissions office for more information.
▪ The program I want is only offered during the day. Discuss the possibility of working at night or applying for enough financial aid to allow you to go to school full-time. Are there any other colleges in the area that offer a more flexible program?
▪ What if I can't find a job when I graduate? In today's economy there is no guarantee that anyone will get a job, but there are ways to dramatically increase your employability. Again, how tolerable is doing nothing and staying at your present job?
▪ I can't afford to go back to school. This is a very realistic concern. Has the client applied for financial aid? Can they work and go to school part-time or on weekends? Ask the client to investigate possible funding sources offered through your local career link, assistance agency, or your local college's financial aid office.
▪ I'm too old. Discuss the changing workforce trends and number of adult students going back to college. Look at professions that are more elder friendly - health care, business, consultant work. Discuss ways to effectively market yourself (compared to younger competition).
▪ I can't stand my current job, but I don't want to go back to school any longer than I have to, and I want to make the same salary I'm making now. Discuss the possibility of being in the right job, but with the wrong employer. Consider jobs that do not require additional training (sales, customer service, and entrepreneurship). If these options are not acceptable, then explain the relationship between education and salary, and the skills needed in the marketplace. If all this fails, you may have to use gentle persuasion: "You say you want a new career, but you are not willing to do what is necessary to achieve it. That doesn't leave you with many options." "Can we adjust any of these constraints?" Unfortunately, there are no perfect solutions in situations like these and there's a downside to every option. Ask the client what they are willing to do today to create the life they want tomorrow. Shift the focus back on the client by encouraging them to empower themselves by making a decision and taking action.
Our role as career counselors is to hear our client's stories, clarify desires, present options, and brainstorm possibilities. We can help clients build skills to manage the uncertainty when stepping out into the unknown. Nothing is easy when you make the decision to return to school, but the temporary adjustments are often worth the investment in the long run. Since we're all going to be living and working longer, we might as well make the changes today so we can prepare ourselves for the future, without the "buts."
Helfand, D. P. (1999). Career change: Everything you need to know to meet new challenges and take control of your career. Chicago, IL: VGM Career Horizons.
Pelsma, D. & Arnett, R. (2002). Helping clients cope with change in the 21st century: A balancing act. Journal of Career Development, 28, 169-179.
Zeiss, T. (2006). Baby boomers: An encore opportunity. Community College Journal, 77, 39-41.
Mary E. Ghilani is the Director of Career Services at LuzerneCountyCommunity Collegein Pennsylvania. She is also the author of Web-Based Career Counseling. Correspondence about this article can be directed to: firstname.lastname@example.org.