Your Next Career Might Be...

Reinvent yourself to survive and thrive.

An old joke is, "What kind of work are you out of?" Except maybe now it's not a joke. Another old line is, "What are you going to be when you grow up?" But I think, if you have the right attitude, that's still a good question.

One day soon (if it hasn't happened already) you'll wake up with a new goal: Find another way to have fun and make money.

You have a choice of what you do next. And there's a good chance you must do something "next". You might need to change occupations because your current company or industry has a problem. You might need to enter or re-enter the workforce because you need a job and/or money and/or something productive to do. I've done it several times, so feel motivated to offer some thoughts...

Your first inclination might be to find a new place to do your old act. That's an easy path, and might be the right one.

But, in today's reality you might not find a new work opportunity that matches what you used to do -- or matches what you think you know how to do. For many, many people, the need to change skills is the new reality.

Experts say the old days of "one skill applied to one career" are long gone. Some people are able to stick with one skill and find new companies that want it. But more and more, that one skill is an old skill and it isn't worth what it used to be -- if it's worth anything at all.

Consider accounting, one of the better fields of expertise, because the world runs on money, even when there's less of it to go around. You might be skilled at classic accounting, a master of debits and credits. But more and more companies use simplified "bookkeeping" software such as QuickBooks where the user fills in a form and needs to know almost nothing about how the numbers get applied to the general ledger, or even what that term means. Users of such software are willing to bend their business to the strict structure of simplistic software, type in what it asks, and trust what it reports. Since deep understanding of accounting principles and practices is not demanded by the software, having solid experience isn't valued much either.

The same goes for many kinds of jobs where computers now mask the complexity that used to require human expertise. Just look at what happened to travel agents, music CD sellers, telephone operators, VCR makers, photo film developers, milk home deliverymen, CRT television builders, all types of clerks, and any number of other occupations where the march of technology and the crunch of economy has reduced or even wiped out many jobs. Even my early profession of live radio "personality" has been decimated -- a dream job virtually wiped out.

But there are some areas where skill shortages exist right now and are expected to become larger and larger. These shortages are in areas that aren't attracting young people. The need is large and growing, the jobs are there and expanding, yet young people don't know or care. That's where YOU might find BIG opportunities.

For instance, consider all the jobs that involves putting experienced hands on an object that is not a computer keyboard. There's a huge need for skilled hands -- and brains -- to build and repair things. This can range from working with wood to working with wires.

In my early teen years, I seemed to be in a race with friends to build the coolest "fort" -- wood structures that were likely inspired by the "Little Rascals" TV and Saturday matinee re-runs of 1930's "Our Gang" comedies about the adventures of resourceful kids. They always had a cool hangout so we built our version. One friend built a cabin overlooking a creek, another built a multi-story castle-like tower with secret doors. I built both a basic tree house and a useless shack -- nothing to brag about but I got the hang of carpenter tools and techniques that helped me many times in later years.

Beyond building, in tight economic times, keeping expensive machines running is a valued ability.

There's a giant opportunity in electronics, because today's students don't have any notion of how things work. How would they learn, when the common way to "fix" something is to buy a new one? My experience was different. By making things work, I learned how they work. That's a skill that is marketable by anyone who possesses it. But it takes some effort.

As a kid I took apart and modified radios, TVs, and all manner of gear and gadgets. This led me to read books to learn more, to take classes, and eventually to become pretty good at working with what came to be known as "electronics". I earned an FCC First Class License by passing a legendary government multi-hour written test. I then applied my skills in TV and radio stations, recording studios, and eventually, computers. But it all began because I got interested in what went on inside everyday consumer electronic devices.

Today, interest in this area is so low that few high schools offer courses, few college students major in electronics, and many -- maybe most -- of the jobs are filled by people from other countries. But hiring foreigners is difficult and expensive for employers, which is why there are plenty of opportunities for Americans who have the skills. If this is an area that interests you, check it out.

There's a similar gap in the automotive field. I learned how cars work by rebuilding a 1945 U.S. military Ford GPW -- what you would recognize as a World War II jeep (not "Jeep" because the brand hadn't been invented yet). It was simply-built, to be repaired by soldiers in the battlefield, simple to work on. But all the key parts of a car were there for me to learn. I expanded my skills to keep running a Honda 50 motorcycle, 1951 Ford sedan, 1971 Fiat Spider sports car, and other "beaters". I picked up tips from friends who customized trucks and built race cars. It was either learn or walk.

But today's young people, faced with the complexities of today's cars, don't find anything simple to dig into. (Raise the hood of your car and see if you identify anything beyond the battery.) Except for the "tuner" crowd, today's version of "hot rod" builders, few teens seem to be interested in cars as machines rather than "rides". This creates a big opportunity for people who really do know and care about motor vehicles and how to keep them running.

I know what you're thinking: You don't know enough about electronics or cars or machines or construction to be truly useful to anyone. You might be surprised in two ways:

If you've ever done any of this before, even many years ago, you might know more than you think and could get up to speed fast.

AND...

Don't think you can't learn, even "hard" stuff. I meet far too many Boomers and especially Seniors who look at new technology and new practices and don't think it's for them. "I couldn't learn that!"

Witness John McCain. In 2008 he ran for president of the United States, making much of his early career as a Navy jet fighter pilot. That's a complex machine, and flying it in combat takes strong skills. (I have an FAA private pilot license and can know that flying takes serious learning and practice.). Yet McCain admitted during the campaign that he was still struggling to use computers for email and web browsing, while his opponent Barack Obama sported a Blackberry on his belt. Senator Obama was under 50, while Senator McCain was over 70 years old -- was that the problem?

I don't think so. For most "I can't" people, it's a self-imposed barrier. I know many people of advanced years, including far beyond age 70, who are actively learning new skills and even new professions -- taking lessons, pursuing new ventures, and aggressively putting themselves into new situations. A friend in his late 70s is taking piano lessons, for his own enjoyment, and because it strengthens the brain. I play piano in a band, because it's fun, with the wonderful side effect of being good for my health. That's the perfect combination.

In truth, almost anyone can learn almost anything -- it just takes desire, effort, and the right learning situation.

I got proof of this many years ago, when I was trying to learn what I needed to pass the FCC's legendary exam on electronics to get the license I needed to work in TV and radio stations. My teacher was the late William B. Ogden, who had a track record of getting almost anyone able to pass the multi-hour written test. He had a remarkable ability to present complex concepts -- electricity is largely invisible -- in understandable ways.

While attending Ogden's legendary school in Southern California, I asked how he could teach boneheads who just wanted to be radio disc jockies how to earn the FCC's highest license. He explained that during World War II, his Army assignment was to go into China and teach rural farmers how to use and repair radio communications equipment. He need to teach the most modern electronics to uneducated people who lived the same rustic lifestyle as their ancestors had for hundreds if not thousands of years. Few of them had ever seen or heard of a radio, yet they needed to know how to make two-radio systems work and keep working. Mr. Ogden succeeded by teaching with analogies, finding things the peasants understood and showing them how their existing knowledge and skills could be adapted to work with radios.

I later used many of Mr. Ogden's techniques to teach radio broadcasting, electronics, computers, accounting, marketing, and various other business and technology topics to people who didn't think they could learn it.

Want to (or need to) learn new skills. Try these suggestions:

2. Determine your learning style. Do you want to sit in a classroom, or read a book? Do you want to learn from words and pictures, or from getting hands dirty right away?

3. Try something -- anything. A classic way to learn is still one of the best. Find something that needs to be done, and dive in. It can be a no-risk adventure: Before a "broken" device goes in the trash, take it apart to see how it works. Maybe you'll even figure out how fix it.

4. Experiment. Don't be afraid to fail. Pick a challenge that you'll be happy to conquer, but that won't do harm if you don't achieve everything you desire. I learned computer programming by making copies of the code behind database software, then "hacking" it -- modifying it a little bit at a time, trial-and-error, so see what happened and eventually to change how it worked to better meet my needs. Starting with zero knowledge, applying lots of experimentation, I eventually built a custom-software development business with more customers than I could handle.

5. Seek expert knowledge. This is best done AFTER you have already tried to learn on your own. You'll know what you still need to learn, and you'll be ready for the expert to clear the fog and plug the holes in your understanding. In fact, Advisor Media was founded in 1983 to help meet this need. To this day we continue to locate experts and help them share their wisdom and advice with you.

6. Keep at it. Most things worth learning are difficult at first. If they were easy, you'd already know them. But in your lifetime, you've faced, learned and mastered MANY difficult things. Try it again. Try longer. Try harder. Giving up too early just reinforces the "I can't" mentality.

7. Stretch yourself. When you think you have it licked, think again. What else can you learn? What's the next step? Don't stop now!

I know what you're thinking: It's easy to give this advice, but very hard to take it. But I speak from experience. I wasn't sure either, and -- honestly -- there are plenty of things I have NOT pursued with enough diligence, presumably because I haven't had enough motivation. I'd rather play piano than golf, for instance. That's OK too.

Remember the goal: You don't need to learn everything (impossible) or be good at everything you desire or try (impossible). The goal is to learn new skills that you can pursue for pleasure and profit. People all around you are doing it. So can you.

Did you notice my list above starts with number 2? Here's step number 1: Get started!

What's your version of this story? Please share your personal re-invention experiences and tips via Comments to this article.