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When You’re Working in a Career Disaster Area

What to do when your field is imploding or changing dramatically


I’m a career coach working with two clients who are 65 and, figuratively speaking, living in a Career Disaster Area.

A massive earthquake called Creative Destruction has hit the career world where they lived for many years. Although creative destruction isn’t new, technological change has caused not just job categories, but entire industries, to disappear or change dramatically. (If you’d like to learn more about Creative Destruction, read my Career Pivot post, “Surviving Creative Destruction in the 2nd Half of Life.”)

Can my two clients living in a Career Disaster Area recover? Sure.

Will they ever go back to the good old days? Probably not.

I’ll tell you their stories; you may see yourself in them. (My clients’ names and identities have been altered to protect their privacy.)

Name: Sally

Career Disaster Area: Marketing

Sally, 65, has been the consummate marketing professional. She’s worked in a variety of industries over the span of her career, sometimes freelance and sometimes for some major agencies.

Like many of her peers, Sally took a hit in the Great Recession. Then, her spouse passed away suddenly. So she decided to move across the country to be closer to her children. These days, Sally is trying to reestablish herself in a new city, where the culture and job market are very young and vibrant.

Sally is taking courses in social media and digital marketing, but the skills required to be a productive marketing professional have made tectonic shifts in the direction of technology and analytics.

(I can relate. I spent much of the 1990s working in IBM marketing or in an executive briefing center, which was a marketing and sales support function. I produced presentations, marketing collateral and web content that supported the sale of IBM hardware and software. That world no longer exists. When I made the decision to leave the world of technology marketing 15+ years ago, I left a place that looks NOTHING like it does today.)

Creative destruction has wreaked havoc in the traditional marketing world and most of this transformation has occurred in the last five years. For Sally to shift into this new technological marketing world, she needs to buy some time.

So Sally has shifted her job search away from the traditional corporate world to the world of nonprofits. Most nonprofits can’t afford modern digital marketing, but given enough time, they will.

Sally is currently in the running for a marketing manager position at a nonprofit that focuses on youth. To demonstrate her technology savvy, we discussed how she could suggest removing geo-targeting information from photographs of children before they’re posted on social media platforms like Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook.

I believe that by shifting to the nonprofit world and continuing to upgrade her skills, Sally will be able to find a job and support a cause she truly believes in.

Name: Larry

Career Disaster Area: Engineering

Throughout his career, Larry, a 65-year-old engineer, has worked for some of the top companies that designed and manufactured computers. He was a program and project manager for a huge, multinational and handled multicompany development projects with huge scope and complexity.

That world is disappearing fast. Companies like HP, IBM and others have seen their hardware businesses almost completely disappear. Firms like Sun and DEC have been wiped off the map in a very short period of time.

There are many people like Larry who built their careers around designing large and ever-growing, complex hardware systems. But the hardware market has become commoditized in the last 10 years. The iPhone sitting next to me has more computing power and function than huge computers of just a few years ago.

There have been tectonic shifts in his field, too. Consequently, the market now demands skills in things like mobile app development and cloud computing software.

Recently, Larry interviewed for a position with one of the leading cloud infrastructure companies for a program management job. The first thing he was asked to do: take a coding test.

WHAT?!! A coding test??? This is a program management job!, he thought to himself.

(I relate to Larry, too. I haven’t written a line of code in over 15 years. Could I pass a coding test? Probably not.)

Does it make sense that employers want to see if Larry can code? Probably not. But that’s the world Larry is living in.

Creative destruction of the computer hardware industry has been swift and devastating. Like Sally, Larry could retool; but can he do it fast enough and be accepted in a young, fast-moving market?

It is possible, but Larry also needs to buy some time.

So Larry is now repositioning himself as an IT project manager. IT project managers use all the skills Larry developed over the years, but on much simpler projects. Rather than working on one massive complex assignment, Larry might need to be a project manager of 10, 15 or 20 smaller projects simultaneously. He will not be working on leading projects; his work will be far more operational.

He will be turning the crank, rather than leading the project to design the crank.

At the same time, Larry will be retooling to learn leading edge software tools and technologies.

How to Retool When You’re in a Career Disaster Area

People can and do rebuild after a disaster. Sometimes, though, they have to walk away from the disaster scene because it is too risky to stay.

Do you see your industry or profession in decline? If so, you may want to:

  • Attend a industry conference at your own expense
  • Take free or inexpensive online courses from providers like Lynda.com, Skillshare.com, Udacity.com, Coursera.org, Edx.org or Udemy.com
  • Form a group of like-minded individuals to help you track industry trends
  • Get help from an industry veteran to perform a gap analysis so you can learn which skills you need to acquire
Marc Miller
By Marc Miller
Marc Miller’s career journey has included 22 years at IBM; several tech startups; a painful stint as a high school teacher; raising funds for the Jewish Community Association of Austin, Texas; training employees in 35 countries and a near fatal bicycle accident that changed his perspective forever. Miller now works as a career design expert for boomers and is the author of the new book, Repurpose Your Career: A Practical Guide for Baby Boomers.

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