When I decided to change careers, I had been working in the media industry in client-facing account management and business development roles for 15 years. Having made considerable progress up the career ladder I considered myself successful, but I was permanently exhausted and spent all my time, energy and focus on my job. I had no work / life balance and found very little enjoyment in my work which put a huge strain on my mental health and wellbeing.
During my time in management roles however, I had found something that came very naturally to me and that I loved: dealing with people and the challenges they face in the workplace. I spent more time than I should have done (given my actual job descriptions) on tasks such as recruitment, on-boarding, training, managing poor performance, personal development, dealing with long-term sickness and managing a redundancy programme. These challenges gave me such a buzz and I really enjoyed working with the business and individuals to find solutions. I was lucky to meet and work with some truly amazing HR professionals who were compassionate, pragmatic and inspired me no end.
I was drawn to their job roles and wanted to do it myself, but I didn’t have the self-confidence or courage to say it out loud. At the time I didn’t work in an environment that encouraged learning and development, and the idea of shifting careers, having already made significant progress in my current one, didn’t seem feasible, and studying for a qualification seemed out of reach.
Following a redundancy in early 2016 my wife and I spoke briefly about the possibility of me pursuing HR as it seemed like an ideal time, but I was consumed with securing another senior role to maintain my career trajectory and I dismissed it as quickly as we had discussed it. I achieved another management role in similar vein but after 18 months my mental health was suffering again and I realised I needed to make major changes. I took 3 months off while I slowly made the decision to follow my ambition to build a career in HR, and in early 2018 I was ready to start my job hunt.
I was confident I could secure a role related to HR (such as an Office Manager with HR responsibilities) fairly easily as I had a substantial list of transferable skills and a range of HR-related experience gained from working systematically on HR tasks for the last 7 years. However the rate of return on my applications through jobsites and LinkedIn was very low. It seemed I was too senior for entry level HR jobs, but my lack of experience in an “official” HR role made me unsuitable for more senior HR roles. I was stuck in the middle.
I didn’t have any more success with recruitment agencies who, while sympathetic to my situation, largely didn’t put me forward for HR roles as I had no HR administration experience. I became frustrated and wanted to do something that would be solid progress towards my future HR career. I began researching CIPD qualifications and settled on a blended learning course (workshops and self-study at home) with MOL for a Level 3 Diploma in Human Resources Practice.
Alongside applying for jobs and studying, I signed up for as many learning events as I could, most of which were free. This included webinars, CIPD talks and networking events. The biggest event was the CIPD L&D Show where I attended lots of free sessions on current HR topics. Talking to people at this event felt very natural to me, and when listening to experts in the field I was immediately engaged with the subject matter and felt alive listening to HR professionals debate and throw ideas back and forth. This was further confirmation that I was heading in the right direction with my career change and fuelled my motivation in my job search.
The most valuable advice I received was to establish a PLN (Personal Learning Network) in the HR field. I had hundreds of contacts on LinkedIn but only a small handful of them worked in HR. Multiple people highlighted Twitter as a powerful networking and learning tool, and they were kind enough to give me some pointers and introductions to their networks. The HR community were very welcoming and I started following HR and L&D people, and actively participated in every HR-related Twitter chat I could find. Soon enough I was making my own connections and building my PLN.
While I was successful networking on Twitter, real-life networking was a huge challenge for me. I went to a CIPD event with a short networking session beforehand but it seemed very cliquey and I felt overwhelmed and spoke to no-one. I then forced myself to attend a summer party networking evening, and the introductory exercises got me talking to a few people. I then circled the room looking for other people on their own to approach. This seemed to work and I made a handful of new connections. I felt a sense of accomplishment afterwards but I was a long way outside my comfort zone and not keen to repeat it!
Six months into my job hunt I secured my first HR interview which was more of an informal chat, and although it didn’t result in a job offer, it boosted my confidence that I was on the right track and that I would succeed in my chosen field.
Over the next few months I had a few interviews, mostly as a result of my networking efforts, but none of them resulted in job offers. Well-meaning contacts and recruiters offered the same advice over and over, and I became really disheartened as I was doing all the right things but not getting anywhere. It was at moments like this I had to remind myself of the passion I felt when attending talks at the L&D event, or took part in discussions in my Diploma workshops.
In September I took a job in the media industry that was nothing to do with HR but I needed to return to work. This would be the first time I had worked in nearly a year and I gradually re-adjusted to early mornings and commuting into London. Shortly after this I met a senior member of staff who had built a career in the public sector and I was fascinated to hear about her career path.
I learnt that the recruitment process in the public sector is often based on skills and competencies rather than previous related experience. I applied for a role at the House of Commons and spent many hours on the application form, determined to showcase how I displayed the core competencies. I was invited for a skills assessment and after successfully passing I was invited for an interview. Unfortunately I didn’t get the job and I was upset and frustrated as I had put so much effort in to the application, but then I realised that this was the furthest I had got in an application process for an HR role.
Squeezing in job hunting and CIPD Diploma studies around full time work was very challenging and my job search had to be much more focussed. Following my experience with The House of Commons recruitment process I decided to concentrate all of my job search time and energy on applying for civil service and government roles. In January 2019 I applied for a role in the Learning & Organisation Development team at The House of Commons and after a skills test and interview I was offered the job! I had made a connection with the line manager in the interview and everything about the role seemed to fit. I was so relieved and grateful to finally be offered an opportunity in an HR role.
In the year I spent job hunting I applied for over 120 HR jobs and had just 6 interviews. Those figures are hard to stomach when I see them in black & white. It was frequently an uphill battle and I often questioned if changing career in my late thirties was the right thing to do, but every time I spoke to an HR professional or participated in a webinar or Twitter chat I felt energised and motivated to carry on. So many people gave me their time, shared their knowledge and cheered me on. It made a huge difference to feel part of a community and to have people who believed in me. I have gained new skills, had lots of new experiences and I have now completed my CIPD Level 3 Diploma.
I am on week 4 of my new job now and I have no doubts that I made the right decision to change career. The skills that were always seen as “nice to have” or “soft skills” in management roles, are now front and centre in my job description and some days I still can’t believe I finally secured an HR role!
I recently signed up to be a CIPD Steps Ahead mentor which is a volunteering programme that offers support to young people who are job-hunting for the first time, or people who are returning to work after a break. I hope that I can use my experience of unemployment and extended job searching in a positive way to help others in similar situations.
For anyone thinking of changing career, or who is returning to work, my advice would be:
– spend equal time on your CV and LinkedIn profile; they are both crucial tools in your job search.
– sometimes you will hear completely opposing advice but you have to go with your gut.
– build a network in any way that you can; through friends, family, ex-colleagues, LinkedIn, Twitter and networking events. Make sure you then engage with your network on a regular basis.
– take every learning opportunity that you can; there is so much free content available.
– always ask for feedback from interviews, even if you have to track down and message one of the interviewers on LinkedIn to get it, as I had to once!
– keep believing that your job is out there.
This guest article has been written by Ruth Reynolds, a Learning & Organisation Development professional who has recently changed careers. Ruth champions mental health and wellbeing, and also has an interest in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion. You can find her on Twitter and LinkedIn