Which doors are open (or not firmly closed) to someone like me?
August 14, 2016 10:21 PM   Subscribe

Which career fields or industries are realistically open, or at least, not hostile, to middle-aged people wishing to achieve professional and financial success for the first time, in the current climate?

For the purposes of this question, “success” is defined as the possibility of earning 70K within 2 to 5 years.

“For the first time” could mean there is a lack of career progression; spotty work history; or time taken out for parenting, caregiving, or (now managed) ill health. It means there is an unremarkable, poor, or non-existent resume.

Assume residence within an English-speaking country, no particular limitations with regard to aptitude or intelligence, possession of a bachelor's degree, and openness to further training or relocation.

This question isn’t about identifying what any individual in this position should actively do, as much as a request for ideally insider views on which industries or fields might be open to 40-something career-changers or beginners in the current economic climate. (Goes without saying, I hope - please consider possible constraints related to age bias when answering; this is sort of the point.) Thank you in advance.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (24 answers total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
Immediately? Sales jobs, or those with a lot of bonuses of some sort. A bartender or waiter/ess at the right place, like the right fine-dining restaurants, can make 100K+, mainly on tips. I've known a couple of waitresses who cleared almost twice that, though that was Manhattan, so your own scale may vary.

Within 2-5 years? There are a lot of technical fields, from plumber and electrician to Python or Ruby programmer, that you could most certainly learn in less than that time, and the starting salaries will be above your minimum requirement. (Those are just two examples, I am sure there are hundreds of others, if you allow 2-3 years for training of some kind first and be narrow, rather than trying to be a construction engineer or a full-stack developer. Be narrow and specific based on your preferred region/market.)

The posited bachelor's degree also opens up a number of other 3-4 year graduate opportunities that will, like the tech jobs above, really vary based on your geography's job market.

Resumes can be fudged and low-paper applicants can succeed. You just have to know your stuff and ace an interview or two. Resumes are a tiny part of the picture, gaps don't matter, and for every ageist interviewer who only wants 23-year-olds, there's another who loves the idea of a mature, responsible person to offset all of those. Have the spot-on necessary skill set, get lucky on timing, be impressive in person, and work the numbers.

[Source: ex tech/media-hiring guy here.]
posted by rokusan at 10:37 PM on August 14, 2016 [8 favorites]

Wow. I could almost have written this question! My own analysis is that climate change and the environment are where sectors are going to grow exponentially as the hysteria (for good reason!) grows. Although it's a new concern to many, there are lots of people who have been working/caring/being activists in the area in some way for ages. Which means there's a broad spectrum of ages, experiences and qualifications in the area.

Depending on your country, the UN's sustainable development goals are where most governments are , at least, pretending to re-centre. If government or NGO work is something you're open to.

(If you want a buddy to moan about this with and bounce ideas around with, memail me. I'm in Australia. But I don't bite. )
posted by taff at 11:01 PM on August 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

Early 50s career changer here, almost finished my terminal master's, about to launch into a (starting wage) $65k pa high school teaching career in Australia. Teaching values (and provides a higher pay rate for) time out for parenting, and it welcomes older people into the profession. Any chance this be comparable in your home country?
posted by Thella at 12:01 AM on August 15, 2016 [4 favorites]

A lot of this depends on the regional job market - for example, from two of the suggestions above - our local teachers' market is completely over-saturated due to it being such a high-paying position, and everyone I know that has gone into trades (pluming, elevator repair, electrician) has got stuck trying to find enough apprentice hours to get (up to and past) journeyman.

That being said, I have never met an unemployed accountant (not bookkeeper), especially one that audits. And in my little region, over 80% of employment is sole-proprietor business (which does require some capital), are there any services/skills you have that are lacking in your area, or an area you would be interested in moving to?

Female-dominated professions tend to be more forgiving of gaps in employment, but also tend to be less prosperous/more precarious; traditional ones like nursing pay very well and ignore prior work history for hireability but can be very hard on the body.
posted by saucysault at 12:20 AM on August 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm 35 and in nursing school, and there are several 40-somethings (and older!) in my cohort. It took me a year to do my pre-requisites at a community college before I could apply to school, but because I already had a prior bachelor's degree I'm now halfway through a two-year BSN program. There are numerous scholarships available to older students who've had to struggle a bit to get where they are. I know other students and nurses who've had health problems, and their ability to empathize from the other side of the hospital gown is valued.

I had a somewhat checkered past that really worked in my favor... I aced my pre-requisites and wrote an admissions essay about lessons learned, and I probably could have written my ticket anywhere. If you can spin your own history similarly, it's no hurdle.

I have zero regrets about this career change and I would recommend it to anyone who has an interest in working with people. I worried it was somehow "too late" to get my foot in the door, but now that idea seems so ridiculous to me. Nursing welcomes career-changers with open arms, in my experience.
posted by adiabat at 1:00 AM on August 15, 2016 [9 favorites]

Another vote for nursing. I'm only in my late 20's but previously worked a string of somewhat dead-end jobs after earning a liberal arts bachelor's degree; entering the nursing field took me two years (one year of prereqs plus one year of accelerated BSN degree) and I earn over 70k in my first job out of school. I went to school with many people in their 30's and a few in their 40's and above.
posted by queens86 at 1:19 AM on August 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

Since "coding" is where everybody _thinks_ opportunities are, the field may become glutted with peopel who have gone to a "boot camp" and have only rudimentary training; people with only this much training may become commoditized, so jobs requiring only that much training could become less attractive, and good jobs could become more selective. Which is to say, if you feel called to do coding, you need more of a strategy than this.
posted by amtho at 1:47 AM on August 15, 2016 [13 favorites]

A relative (younger than you) just finished a two year Masters in Human Factoring. Starting salary 100,000.
posted by cairnoflore at 3:17 AM on August 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Seconding amtho. The market for low-experience coders is fairly saturated in many cases, and those markets will heavily favor the young and those with a lot of hustle. If you go to a boot camp, shoot for one with a refund policy paired with a strong placement pipeline, and don't be too picky about your first job.

(Citation: a spouse I know, who is slowly getting his freelance legs under him, after paying $10k for a coding boot camp and discovering that their good intentions were no match for his age and/or overqualification.)
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 5:09 AM on August 15, 2016 [6 favorites]

Based on what the OP wrote....

Aviation is available to you as a middle-aged career changer - no one cares about your age. If you are medically and mentally sound, your age isn't a factor. In fact, it can help in a few scenarios.

It might sound odd - but it is entirely possible to make the kind of money you're talking about if you pursue it in a certain way, have a good attitude and a willingness to make some sacrifices to pursue the goal.

There are many, many middle-aged career changers flying airliners these days, and just as many flying charter/corporate - although the quality of lifestyle in those jobs varies widely.

It does require an investment in training - quite a significant one, actually - but it's possible to make the kind of money you specify once you reach a certain experience and eligibility level, and that's possible within a variety of years of timeframe.
posted by Thistledown at 5:09 AM on August 15, 2016

The suggestion of being an auditor is a good one. You already have a BA, so at most you need two years to get a Master of Accounting degree (the programs are one year, but I'm assuming you didn't do all the prerequisites during undergrad)

I've known quite a few people who got their MAcc in middle age and were hired at a big four. The only problem with this path is that you will have basically no work/life balance for the first couple of years unless you work for a local or small regional shop, which will not pay nearly as well. After sticking it out for a few years you gain a lot of flexibility if you choose to stay there or can move into industry at somewhat better pay for x years of experience, but without the large wage growth that comes with working at a large public accounting firm. A lot of people who manage to deal with the long hours make the move because they can't/don't want to deal with getting their CPA license, since it is required after a few years at a large firm.

If you can do something a bit more specialized, like IT audit, you'll make more money, but even a "plain" financial audit associate will make in the vicinity of your target either right out of school for within a couple of years depending on your location. Last I saw they were starting new associates around 60 in the middle of the country and 20-50% more on the coasts. Ironically, the pay tends to be a bit better at the non-big four global firms.
posted by wierdo at 6:01 AM on August 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Female-dominated professions tend to be more forgiving of gaps in employment, but also tend to be less prosperous/more precarious; traditional ones like nursing pay very well and ignore prior work history for hireability but can be very hard on the body.

Agreed. From my experience knowing nannies, primary school teachers and child care workers, there are many women who are able to transition to these roles somewhat smoothly whereas men might be viewed less charitably.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:29 AM on August 15, 2016

As with a couple of the first respondents, my first thought was sales, particularly real estate, but my second thought was that these jobs attract people with a lot drive, especially a lot drive to make money. I'm not sure that's something you can switch on in mid-life.

Having been a programmer in a small company, I can say you could not walk into a salary of $75K with a boot camp and no real experience. Coding is the easy part of software development, and any large department should have a QC safety net to shield you from having terrible errors make it to production. The hard part is knowing what to code, and that takes experience.

In the US, health care and health insurance are going to be growth industries for the foreseeable future. I do think that the insurance industry may be turbulent for a while, however, mostly due to Obamacare. The plans, prices, and market penetration of the various big insurance providers is going to be volatile for a least a couple years, or longer if Congress modifies the program (as they ought to) to get the incentives right.

When you think of health care, though, don't just think of hospitals and doctor's offices. There are also all the manufacturers, and the vendors in the supply chain.

In your place, I would consider trying to get interviews at good companies that pay less than your goal, then ask the interviewer what better jobs might look like, and what the requirements are.

A final thought: $70K in NYC is different from $70K in Peoria (sorry Peoria, it's an expression :)). It would be helpful to put your target against a cost of living.
posted by SemiSalt at 9:09 AM on August 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

Nursing is very tough in the first few years. While experienced nurses have many options, fresh out of school nurses do struggle to find their first jobs. Also, depending on your setting the work is hard, physical and stressful. With the shift in insurance reimbursement and the growth of allied care provider roles, there aren't as many nurses working in doctors offices. There are Nurse Practitioners who provide care and Medical Assistants who do patient intake screening. The relatively low stress/regular hour nursing job supporting a family practice doctor doesn't really exist any longer.

That said, health care is a great place to be. Hospitals are large employers and one of the last bastions of good pay, good benefits, good vacations, and real retirement plans. If you are starting your retirement saving now, then you want to get in somewhere and stay for the long haul. This is really different from many careers where retirement and health coverage are your own problem. The big hospital systems still do real retirement (for now, and you want to get there before they stop offering that to new hires).

There are other health care careers that may be a better fit than nursing - dental hygienists average 70K (though many work for solo/small group practices with not-so-fabulous health insurance/retirement). Sonographers are well compensated, and there is a one-year certification that isn't required, but strongly preferred (you'd need prior clinical experience which will take you several years). Radiology technicians come close to your salary requirements (though starting salaries are low).

The other thing in health care is to get into a hospital system and start building your time toward retirement. If you take a few years in school, then consider a side job at a hospital doing, well, anything. One of my coworkers is retiring at 55 - in part because his years working in the cafeteria while he was in college count toward his retirement. If you are 45, then you could easily hit a full retirement package in the years you have remaining to work.
posted by 26.2 at 10:01 AM on August 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

I would look at what you are an expert in. A peer is a former steel stock salesman. He found a job as a recruiter and has earned 70k first year and 90k the second doing the job of finding savvy salespeople for steel stock holders. However, a former manager of mine got another expert, an engineer, to do the same thing. The guy flew. He knew the business and had an eye for candidate excellence that no one else in the business had. Buy he stank at business development. Ultimately, he lasted just less than a year and went back to work as a welder. So you see, you should really look at why your current industry is not providing for you and what the actual cost of the opportunity to make 70K a year will require. I can imagine it is less than the cost of training to do something else.
posted by parmanparman at 12:02 PM on August 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

After being a homemaker for two decades, I got a job at a Fortune 500 company during my divorce. I started at better than minimum wage and there were opportunities there for me to get promotions or move internally.

I will agree with what was said above: $70k is not the same in all places. So, you might want to consider what you mean by that. That probably is shorthand for a certain level of quality of life. There may be other ways to achieve that. You are likely to turn a blind eye to those options if you are too hung up on particular figure.

I have read that by 2020, about 40% of American workers will be doing gig work, freelance work, temping or similar. I left that job to do my own thing. I currently do freelance work and various other things.

Because I do freelance work online, I was able to move someplace cheaper last year and the money I do have is going a lot further these days. That is the kind of thing that, historically, was available to the Jet Set and retirees, not the working stiff.

So, you might consider investigating the gig economy or freelance work or similar. But, first, think about what you mean by "$70k."
posted by Michele in California at 12:40 PM on August 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

[This is a followup from the asker.]
Many, many thanks for your all your careful and considered replies - your thoughtfulness is truly appreciated. I have found your answers insightful and helpful, and am sure that others will benefit from them.

Let us assume that although there are bits and bobs from the past that can (and will) surely be repurposed, there is no “pivoting" from a previous career, and no going deeper into it. I am asking about a clean start, with an ungreat or non-existent record, for someone in their 40s. Thank you.
posted by cortex (staff) at 1:14 PM on August 15, 2016

Yes, this described the majority of my graduating nursing class. Definitely look into it.
posted by pintapicasso at 2:32 PM on August 15, 2016

The federal government. I hire people with no experience in my field all the time; we do the domain-specific training ourselves. A bachelor's degree with certain general science/math credits could start at GS-4 to GS-6.

Which if you look it up, is low, I won't deny it. But, the job itself tops out at GS-10 so starting at GS-5 means GS-10 in five years. That's almost to what you wanted (depending on location adjustment) with pretty good benefits. And that's just base pay, almost nobody doesn't get overtime if they want it. It's easy to get over 100k depending on your money/time off priorities.

And it's not at all unheard of (but not guaranteed) for people to be competitive for supervisory positions (GS-12 and up) after a year as a GS-10.
posted by ctmf at 5:05 PM on August 15, 2016

I would look at large non-profits. Non-profits thrive on people with diverse backgrounds who can wear multiple hats. Plus, they tend to promote internally. I know someone who started out as a receptionist, and ended up in an upper-management HR position.

Last but not least, the large ones tend to offer generous health benefits and PTO (if you want a real-life example, feel free to contact me). And if you're in the DC area, many follow the federal government schedule for inclement weather, so you can easily end up with an extra 3-5 days of PTO every winter, in addition to your regularly-accrued vacation and sick time, plus federal holidays.
posted by invisible ink at 6:15 PM on August 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Depending on your local market, the field of user experience can be ripe for 40s career changers. I say this as a UX hiring manager in a city of 600,000, where I often have to choose candidates with low experience but high aptitude. Especially if they have transferable skills. One time, my top pick for an opening was a former narcotics detective. He had little UX experience, but he had 14 years experience interviewing people and building relationships with informants. Just like UX stakeholder interviews, I tell ya.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 11:54 AM on August 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

ctmf, if you are comfortable with sharing this information, may I ask what field of the federal government you are attached to?

Anonymous, is $70k is a hard figure that you want to earn regardless of what part of the country you live in, or a proxy for a certain level of comfort and freedom in your living situation?
posted by the thought-fox at 9:28 AM on August 17, 2016

[This is another followup from the asker.]
the thought-fox - it’s a proxy. In re standard of living - where I currently live, 70K represents the ability to rent (if not buy) a “decent" apartment, save for my old age (hopefully, making up for at least some lost opportunity, as far as that goes), take one or two vacations a year, and enjoy selected middle-class comforts. It would be lovely if my time could buy me more than that. (It is also - at least in my mind, though only roughly - a proxy for a certain amount of autonomy at work. I realize this correlation doesn’t hold for all jobs paying 70K+, and the inverse isn’t necessarily true for jobs paying less. But further research into suggestions made here might clarify whether this is a realistic expectation, and it may not be important to everyone reading, so, am grateful for really *any* further ideas people have that meet the income:standard of living I mean. And, of course, for the suggestions already made. Thanks so much again to all.
posted by cortex (staff) at 10:16 AM on August 17, 2016

the thought-fox: it's this job (although I'm not in Portsmouth. We're interchangeable and often temporarily lend people from yard to yard between Portsmouth, Puget Sound, Norfolk, and Pearl Harbor. Newport News and Electric Boat have the same thing, as do KAPL and NRF, but those four are private sector on DOD or DOE contract. We share with them too, less frequently, but I'm not sure what the pay/hiring process is for those)
posted by ctmf at 10:27 PM on August 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

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