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Newsletter: How to build new career skills without breaking the bank

Piggy bank wearing a graduation cap
Want to grow skills that will help you enter a new career? Don’t start by quitting your job and going back to school. Try these routes instead.
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Good morning. I’m Rachel Schnalzer, the L.A. Times business section’s audience engagement editor. Last week, we discussed career transitions and how workers can pinpoint their transferable skills. Experts shared tactics for identifying your strengths and researching what skills are required when making a career pivot. Now it’s time for the next step.

In the course of researching a new career, job seekers often learn they need to build on their skills before making a switch.

“Doing an internship, a personal project or taking an online course, or even going back to school, can really help set you up for success in terms of getting the attention of a future employer,” says Sarah Stoddard, career expert and corporate communications program manager at Glassdoor.

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Here are ways to gain new abilities when pursuing a career change.

Stay with your current employer and learn new skills

Do you like your employer but dislike your job? Consider whether you can gain new skills and make a career transition without quitting.

For example, if you’re hoping to get into product management, “the best thing to do is to stay at the company and try to talk to the people in product management,” advises Louis Song, co-founder and chief executive of Proven Recruiting, a company that connects employers with job candidates. “The relationships you’re typically going to have are better in the company than outside the company.”

After speaking with people in your desired career path at your employer, you may be able to parlay your past success into a new role. “If you’ve got a great reputation, if you’ve done a great job ... the company overall will want to keep you,” Song says.

To explore this possibility, speak with your manager to get their thoughts on a potential shift, Song says. Ideally your manager will be supportive, but use your judgment here — if you fear your manager wouldn’t respond well, it may be better instead to broach the idea with whomever in your organization could help you best. That might be a different manager who is known for discretion and savvy, a co-worker who has made a similar transition and could offer insight into how to navigate it, or the human resources department.

This is a particularly promising path if you work for a large company or organization with many kinds of workers. If you don’t have colleagues who do the kind of job you want, you’ll have to look externally.

Use personal projects

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Hoping to launch a career in graphic design or public relations? Take on some personal projects — perhaps to help a friend or family member’s business — that will enable you to gain experience and showcase your abilities to potential employers.

“The objective of a personal project is to demonstrate mastery of skills that transfer to the career that you’re hoping to go into,” Stoddard explains. “For instance, if you are interested in transferring into a role that requires some coding, code a website or build an app.”

Once you have a personal project or two under your belt, you can highlight them in a separate section on your resume, with information explaining the skills you used and the project’s results. With a few projects, you can create an online portfolio.

Consider freelance and short-term jobs to gain exposure and experience

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Sometimes short-term roles lead to bigger opportunities. When career coach Angela Copeland worked with an unemployed job seeker considering a switch from retail to advertising, she suggested taking a two-week role at the front desk of an advertising agency. The job seeker could use the time to act as a “fly on the wall” to see whether she was really interested in joining the field.

The story has a happy ending, Copeland says: In addition to being a valuable learning experience for the job seeker, “by the end of the two weeks, they had fallen in love with her. And she’d fallen in love with them. And they actually created a job for her.”

Once you begin building skills in a new field, Song recommends using those skills on a consulting or freelance basis to grow your experience. “There are sites like UpWork, where you can start to make yourself available as a freelance consultant to companies that are looking for people with specific skills, and you can determine your own rates.”

Consider an internship

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Internships aren’t only for college students: They can be valuable for people with more experience as well, Stoddard says. As you research a career field and conduct informational interviews, ask whether an internship would give you a leg up when applying for a full-time role. People working in the field should be able to advise on the value of an internship in a specific industry.

In addition to building your skills and professional network, an internship can be a way to determine your actual interest in that career.

The potential downsides? Although internships can help you get your foot in the door with an employer, Stoddard notes that they usually don’t come with the guarantee of a full-time job upon completion, and they are often low-paying.

That’s not true across the board, though, especially when it comes to sectors such as technology and finance. “There are some internships that actually paid very handsomely,” Stoddard says. “We published a list of the 25 highest-paying internships in the country. And some interns are actually earning upwards of $8,000 a month.”

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Pursue more education

If it’s not possible to build skills with your current employer or with a side job, you may want to think about going back to school for an advanced degree — but affordability remains an important consideration. “Graduate school is expensive,” Copeland says. “It is certainly not the first thing that I would recommend.”

In general, “the ability to change careers is somewhat limited by your financial situation,” Song says. “Typically, I see that most people will take somewhere in the neighborhood of two to three years minimum before you get back to the same [salary] level.”

However, there are circumstances in which “education can help you to pivot if you’re struggling,” Copeland says. “When the economy is down, when it’s hard to get jobs, that’s a great time to be getting additional education.” Experts suggest going back to school during an economic downturn because when few companies are hiring, building skills can be a better use of your time than filling out mountains of job applications.

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Instead of going back to school full time, you may want to consider taking a class with Coursera or a community college, Song says. In addition to gaining exposure to a particular field, taking affordable classes can help demonstrate to employers that you are serious about pursuing a career that includes your new skills.

Aric Jeon recently pivoted from bioengineering to software development. He credits taking classes from Coding Dojo, a technology education company, as “the pivotal point to actually getting my foot in the door to my first software engineer role.”

“I was self-teaching myself a lot of C# and other coding languages” while learning troubleshooting skills as an IT professional, he recalls. He said the Coding Dojo classes gave him a boost “because self-teaching, although it is possible, it’s very, very difficult to find the time and motivation to do it.”

Jeon now works as a software engineer at Microsoft. However, he emphasizes, his journey was far from easy. “I think I put out around 800-plus applications” for jobs before landing this one, he says.

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◆ The Federal Emergency Management Agency can help cover funeral costs for people who lost loved ones to COVID-19. Madalyn Amato explains who qualifies and how to get assistance from FEMA.

◆ Attention, operators of live music venues, theaters, museums and more: If the COVID-19 pandemic slashed your venue’s revenue, you may want to apply for a Shuttered Venue Operators Grant from the Small Business Administration. The online application portal reopened this week.

◆ President Biden wants to raise the capital gains tax. The wealthy will fight him to the death, columnist Michael Hiltzik writes.

A 401(k) vs. an IRA: Which is better? Certified financial planner Liz Weston explains why one of those retirement savings accounts has some advantages over the other.

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One more thing

Found your California dream home? Good luck with that — it may be gone by tomorrow.

My colleague Andrew Khouri recently reported that homes are selling at warp speed across the U.S. The pace is particularly noticeable in California, where houses haven’t sold faster in at least three decades. “It’s almost like you speed date and then you are expected to marry someone,” one prospective home buyer told Khouri.

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Why are homes selling so quickly? Record-low mortgage rates, people seeking out more space and an influx of property investors are all contributing to the trend. Read the full story here.

Have a question about work, business or finances during the COVID-19 pandemic, or tips for coping that you’d like to share? Send us an email at californiainc@latimes.com, and we may include it in a future newsletter.


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