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Changing paths in mid-life

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Venessa Lee on 28 Aug 2016

The Straits Times

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Making a big career move in your 40s and older is possible with some planning and a dose of realism

 

At 47, Ms Anna Tan has gone through at least five career shifts and worked in sectors as diverse as charity and IT.

 

Her family and friends have had doubts about her decisions, but that has not stopped her from taking the plunge each time. Neither has she been concerned about being labelled a job hopper.

 

Instead, she says it is because she dabbled in so many fields and gained so much experience that she is able to run a coaching business, which involves helping people to reach their personal or professional goals.

 

The Malaysia-born Ms Tan spent most of her working life in London, where she grew up. The Singapore permanent resident, whose late father was Singaporean, moved here five years ago when work opportunities started drying up in Britain. There, she had worked on government and community projects.

 

In their own industry, they may have been at a middle or senior level.Now they have to re-establish themselves. It can be hard to establish networks.You have to eat humble pie at times.

 

MS JOVIAN KOH, co-founder of a coaching and training consultancy, on how older people can prepare themselves before they switch careers

 

She felt she needed a change and took a job here on a four-month contract, to help a local company put its retail arm online.

 

She found jobs here in project management and change management, fields she had experience in. She has a diploma in leisure and recreation studies and the course included sports coaching.

 

Last year, the accredited coach co-founded Coaching Go Where, which matches coaches in areas such as life or career coaching with people seeking such services. She also set up Barrage Vision, a change management consultancy.

 

"I love doing different things every few years. I don't have to play office politics," she says.

 

Her family members and friends have questioned her, asking, for instance: "Are you sure? You've never done this before."

 

She feels they were projecting their fears and insecurities onto her.

 

But when she was mulling over setting up her first company in Britain about 12 years ago, she had support from fellow entrepreneur friends who told her to go for it.

 

She feels the risks have paid off. "It's because I've changed so much that I had the breadth of experience to set up Coaching Go Where."

 

She adds that people sometimes underestimate "the power of transferable skills" in changing jobs or even careers.

 

Mr Douglas Foo, co-chairman of the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices, says that while not everyone is as comfortable embracing changes in his working life, making career moves in one's 40s is no longer uncommon.

 

"As the workforce shrinks, employers need to adopt more progressive approaches and mindsets to ensure they attract a diverse pool of talent to maintain a competitive advantage," says Mr Foo, who is also chairman of Sakae Holdings, which owns the Sakae Sushi restaurant chain.

 

He says employers can enable a smoother transition for staff making a mid-career switch by exploring options such as redesigning their jobs to suit their strengths and tapping programmes and grants available at agencies such as Spring Singapore and the Singapore Workforce Development Agency (WDA).

 

A WDA spokesman says that since 2007, more than 7,000 professionals, managers, executives and technicians have participated in Professional Conversion Programmes, which help them get skills for new jobs.

 

These are targeted at a range of industries, such as early childhood care and education, retail, intellectual property and food services.

 

Older workers considering a career change should prepare well before taking the plunge, say experts.

 

Ms Woon Peng Ziady, who runs coaching business Chai Coaching, says: "Understand how long you can survive on savings and passive income.

 

"If you don't have enough, build up your savings first. Be willing to accept a pay cut."

 

Nursing dream fulfilled at 44

 

As a child, Ms Suguna Tambusamy dreamt of being a nurse, but it was an ambition she fulfilled only last year, when she was 44.

 

She was drawn to the white uniform, which suggested to her a "pure and noble" profession. She joined the Red Cross as a co-curricular activity in primary school and enjoyed learning first aid.

 

In secondary school, her housewife mother objected to her career choice because she viewed nursing as "a dirty job" that involved washing people's bodies, says Ms Suguna.

 

The youngest of three children adds: "She wanted me to have a proper office job."

 

Her late father, a motor mechanic, shared his wife's sentiments.

 

Ms Suguna felt she had "no choice" but to obey her parents and studied commerce in secondary school and, later, accounting at Ngee Ann Polytechnic. These were subjects she liked.

 

Her first job was doing accounting and administrative work at an advertising agency. Four years later, she moved on to similar work, which she did for about 10 years.

 

In the early 2000s, her father died, aged 64, after a blood vessel in his brain burst.

 

Around that time, her mother was suffering from a host of ailments such as rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes and high blood pressure. She went to the hospital often and the care she received prompted a change of heart.

 

Ms Suguna says: "My mother told me, 'Sorry, I shouldn't have stopped you (from pursuing nursing). It's a noble job. If you have the chance, go for it.' I was happy, but I didn't know when I would get that chance."

 

After her mother died in her early 60s of cardiac arrest, Ms Suguna, who is married to a 49-year-old warrant officer, quit her job to care for her two children, now 19 and 13. She did not work for five years.

 

She was glad to leave the world of accounting as she had gradually found handling money to be stressful and felt that a desk-bound job was not for her.

 

Five years ago, she saw an advertisement for a Professional Conversion Programme targeting would-be nurses. Her husband was supportive and her children were older by then.

 

She says: "I thought it would motivate them to see mummy studying at the same time as them. We could compete to see who could score better."

 

Under the programme, she took a full-time accelerated diploma in nursing at Nanyang Polytechnic, which took two years instead of the usual three.

 

The costs, including the course fees and a monthly training allowance, were borne fully by the Singapore Workforce Development Agency, Ministry of Health and Singapore General Hospital.

 

Now a staff nurse in the neurology ward at Singapore General Hospital, Ms Suguna says it has been challenging to adjust to the hectic pace and shift work.

 

She adds, however, that "when you start doing something you love, you won't think about feeling tired".

 

She advises mid-career switchers to consider taking small steps initially, such as joining a course in cooking if one wants to go into the food and beverage industry, or co- investing in a business first.

 

Ms Jovian Koh, co-founder of ConnectionQ, a coaching and training consultancy, says the preparation is also mental. Middle-aged and older people should do an ego check first, she adds.

 

"In their own industry, they may have been at a middle or senior level. Now they have to re-establish themselves. It can be hard to establish networks. You have to eat humble pie at times," she says.

 

"Some people have the mindset that they just want an easier work life. If this is the attitude, they cannot go far - there will always be people more hungry than them."

 

Ms Peng Ziady says once they have embarked on a new career, they should be mindful to give themselves time to succeed and not have overly high expectations in terms of money and accolades.

 

Once they overcome the challenges, she adds, the leaps they take can be rewarding.

 

Some of her clients have found greater meaning in their lives.

 

She says: "Many people start their career without a direction. When they are in their mid-40s and older, making a switch is like getting a second chance."

 

More satisfaction in social work

 

It was when his wife was undergoing treatment for breast cancer that Mr Alan Wong, who had worked 25 years in the retail industry, thought about a career switch.

 

His wife Jennifer Long, 66, was diagnosed in 2001.

 

The couple, who have three adult children, went to the National Cancer Centre Singapore frequently for her chemotherapy, radiation, hormone therapy and other forms of treatment, before the disease was declared to be in remission about 10 years later.

 

When they were there, Mr Wong, 57, heard cancer patients talking about how they did not want treatment because it was costly and they did not want to burden their families. He also found out how some of the patients' anxiety was eased when they spoke to medical social workers, whose services include counselling and referring cases to the right places for financial assistance.

 

Mr Wong, who had worked at companies such as Watsons, Guardian and Bata, was impressed by the medical social workers.

 

"I told myself this was something I wanted to do."

 

Thoughts of switching to the profession - which meant a complete career change and getting new qualifications - entered his head. He shelved those thoughts for several years.

 

It was only when he saw an advertisement for SIM University that he took the leap, signing up, at the age of 50, for a bachelor's degree course in social work in 2010. He says: "At that time, I thought I had a good 17 more years to contribute actively. I thought I would work until 67."

 

After he completed the three- year course, he went on to a master's degree programme in gerontology at the same university, which he completed last year.

 

He had to attend 7.30pm classes about three times a week for both courses after knocking off work at 6pm, which was tiring for him. He was then working as a mailroom operations manager.

 

But one advantage of retraining in his 50s was that he and Madam Long, a private tutor, were able to afford the school fees, about half of which were covered by government and other grants.

 

Switching to social work also meant a pay cut.

 

"We have no financial worries and we have saved enough. I knew that in social service, it is not the pay, but the fulfilment of the work that matters," he says.

 

In his first job as a manager at a non-profit organisation that supports people with disabilities, he took a pay cut of about 50 per cent.

 

After three years there, he worked for six months as an assistant director at a welfare organisation that helps the elderly.

 

But he was not happy. "Instead of hands-on social work, I ended up doing managerial work," he says.

 

This year, he joined welfare group Awwa, where he is part of a team whose services include home- based therapy and care for people with multiple disabilities.

 

He also arranges outings for those with severe disabilities to help reduce their social isolation.

 

He has encountered clients who had not left their homes in years and those who saw planes for the first time on an outing to the airport.

 

"Finally, I get to do what I wanted. Finally, I'm a social worker. I interact with clients. I can see a client's face glow, his smile, his appreciation. I can actually touch a life," he says. "I should have got into this earlier."

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.