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Changing Careers: 12 Smart Moves For 2016

Changing careers may sound daunting, but a fairly sizable chunk of the workforce is ready to do just that. A 2014 study by research firm Harris Interactive found that 21 percent of full-time workers were ready to get out of their jobs and find something new, and reports by the U.S. Department of Labor show that the average American spends less than five years in a job before making a change.

If you're in the market for some new occupational stomping grounds, remember that fortune favors the well-prepared. Additional education is often helpful when looking to make career moves, and it's not as hard as it once was to get the training you need — more and more established universities are offering online and hybrid degrees designed with career-changers in mind, and many offer life experience credit for students returning to school after some time in the workforce.

To help you focus your efforts along the right lines, we pulled a variety of information from national occupational databases and laid it all out to look for favorable patterns. You can read more about our methodology at the end of the article, but without further ado, here's a list of the career shifts that can help you take your prospects to the next level.

> Read our full methodology here

1. Transportation Security Screener → Health and Safety Manager

A health and safety officer scoping out a potential worksite construction issue.

Conducting security screens for the Transportation Safety Administration offers a fair amount of stability and salary compensation, but the opportunities for upward mobility can be limited. Health and safety managers, on the other hand — known alternately as corporate safety directors and occupational health and safety specialists, among other titles — can work in a variety of industries with a range of job outlooks and salary prospects.

COMPATIBILITY: High

The primary similarity between transportation screeners and health and safety managers is the focus on standards compliance, although screeners have a fairly narrow set of conditions to which their standards apply. Health and safety managers inspect workplaces to ensure that health and environmental regulations are being met, looking at factors as diverse as the ventilation and lighting systems and the ergonomic factors of each employee's equipment station.

HOW: Bachelor's degree, on-the-job training, optional certification

  • Some colleges and universities offer degree programs in occupational health and safety, and certification programs in certain specialties may increase your earning potential
  • Employers may also accept degrees in engineering, biology, chemistry or another related field, particularly when on-the-job training is also offered
  • If you're working full-time and want to work toward this career shift, online courses can help you get on your way

WHY: Better average salary, greater autonomy

Health and safety managers enjoy more freedom on the job than transportation screeners, often traveling to various work sites and conducting self-supervised analyses and reports. Salary expectations were significantly higher, as well — mean annual wages for occupational safety specialists were listed by the BLS as $70,470 in 2014, while only the highest-paid 10 percent of transportation security workers reported annual earnings of $45,000 or more.

2. Electro-Mechanical Technician → Mechanical Engineer

A mechanical engineer working on heavy machinery.

Electro-mechanical technicians are typically responsible for installation, upgrade, troubleshooting and repair of the vital systems of the engineering profession, sometimes working with schematics and blueprints to accomplish precise tasks. The duties of mechanical engineers involve many of the same devices and documents, but their advanced education gives them the additional insight necessary to design new technologies for public, private and enterprise use.

COMPATIBILITY: High

Technicians in engineering professions often work directly with engineers, so electro-mechanical workers can pick up the basics of the mechanical engineering business while they earn on the job. There's even a fair amount of applied mathematics and engineering theory studied while you train to become an electro-mechanical technician, so it's likely that you'll be able to transfer some of your existing credits into an engineering bachelor's program.

HOW: Accredited mechanical engineering degree, licensing, continued education

  • Not all engineering programs are created equal — make sure that you choose an accredited school at which to study
  • The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) is a non-profit organization that certifies engineering programs that meet a quality standard
  • Mechanical engineers in every state must earn a Professional Engineer (PE) license in order to offer their services independently, which requires an accredited degree and 4 years or more of professional experience

WHY: Exciting professional challenges, more job openings

Not only do qualified mechanical engineers have the chance to work at the cutting edge of technology, they can also look forward to a much more expansive field of career opportunities than what's projected at the technician level. The BLS reports an expected increase of more than 14,000 jobs in the mechanical engineering sector between 2014 and 2024 (and 102,500 job openings over the same decade!) while only about 100 electro-mechanical technician jobs are expected to be created in the same period.

3. Hotel Front Desk Manager → Operations Manager

An operations manager delegating tasks to his team.

Front desk managers at hotels and other lodging establishments are the main point of contact when it comes to overall guest satisfaction. The experience they gain in personnel supervision, customer experience mediation, budget oversight and organizational performance monitoring can translate well to operations management in a variety of industries.

COMPATIBILITY: High

Operations managers take responsibility for aspects of a business both up front and behind the scenes. Their formal education in business administration and management concepts allows them to handle complex situations with confidence and collaborate with departmental managers in accounting, sales, PR, logistics and more.

HOW: Bachelor's degree, work experience, leadership training

  • Business administration, management and related subjects are the most relevant bachelor's degrees for an operations management career
  • One of the primary skills of operations management is decision making, which is best learned and practiced on the job — prior management experience can make a world of difference in your job search
  • If you already have a bachelor's degree in a different discipline, graduate degrees or certificates in management can be earned both online and on campus at institutions all over the country

WHY: Extensive flexibility, double the pay

The BLS counted more than 2 million general and operations managers employed in 2014, while hotel and front desk managers occupied just shy of 32,000 positions the same year. The difference in average pay was also considerable — general and operations managers earned a mean annual salary of nearly $60,000 more per year than those who focused on the front desk.

4. Landscaping Supervisor → Construction Manager

A female construction manager shares a blueprint with a worker.

Coordinating the operations of a landscaping crew can take attention to detail and organizational skill, not to mention cost estimation, personnel management and customer service. Construction managers use many of the same talents on the job, and the rebounding economy is opening up a great deal of opportunity for enterprising landscapers thinking of making the switch.

COMPATIBILITY: High

If you're currently employed in landscaping, particularly as a supervisor, you've likely worked with a few construction managers (also called general contractors or project managers, depending on the company). The activities they coordinate may be somewhat more various than those required specifically for landscaping, but the skills used to make each job come together have a significant amount of overlap.

HOW: Formal construction management training, field experience

  • A bachelor's degree is a common requirement for managers at large construction firms, but smaller companies may require only an associate degree or professional certificate
  • Construction science, construction management, engineering and architecture degrees can each prepare you for the position in different ways
  • Construction processes are becoming more complex, so some on-the-job familiarity with modern building methods can be a big plus

WHY: Faster job growth, massive salary potential

The 5 percent rate of employment growth forecast between 2014 and 2024 is only slightly below the national average for all jobs, according to the BLS, and the 70,000-plus openings expected for construction managers is nearly twice as many as landscaping supervisors can expect. Salary expectations differ quite a bit, as well: The highest-paid landscaping managers earned $70,680 or more in 2014, while the top 10 percent of construction managers took home at least $150,250 the same year.

5. Technical Support Specialist → IT Manager

An IT manager works with a troubled client to fix a server.

Technical support specialists provide remote or in-person troubleshooting and problem-solving services for computer users, both in workplace environments and on personal systems. IT managers work within enterprise organizations to plan, design, install and maintain the information networks and computer systems used by management and employees.

COMPATIBILITY: Very high

Depending on the type of technical support you've done, there may not even be much additional training necessary to prepare you for the responsibilities of the more advanced position. It may be helpful, however, to take some formal education in systems design or network administration, and candidates for top positions may be expected to hold a master's degree in computer science or information management.

HOW: Bachelor's or master's degree, professional certification

  • IT managers often take primary responsibility for the security and stability of an organization's information systems, and organizations often prefer managers with formal education
  • Courses in leadership skills can be helpful as well; some IT managers may have teams of support personnel to supervise
  • Professional certifications from big-name enterprise computing manufacturers like Cisco, Oracle and Microsoft can carry a lot of weight when applying for certain positions

WHY: Salary bump, opportunities for tech-focused advancement

The average salary for network and computer systems administrators in 2014 was $79,770, according to BLS data — about $18,000 more per year than the average user support salary and $13,000 more than the average for a network support agent. The standard upward path from a tech support position tends to focus on customer service management, also, whereas an IT management career can help you stay closer to the technical side of things as you work your way up.

6. Environmental Engineering Technician → Food Scientist

A food scientist studies an interesting mixture of food-grade chemicals.

Environmental engineering technicians are the boots on the ground in the fight against environmental degradation. They execute the conservation and maintenance plans developed by environmental engineers and operate or modify the technical equipment necessary to clean up and prevent pollution. They also conduct scientific tests on specimen samples and maintain detailed records of their operations.

COMPATIBILITY: High

All of our food ultimately comes from the environment (It's true! Let that sink in for a second.), so it's hardly surprising that the scientific approaches to each one tend to share some occupational traits. Food scientists study food on a molecular and chemical level and conduct experiments to discover ways in which food can be shipped, stored and served in a safe and healthy condition, and they do it with similar equipment and methods to those used in the business of environmental protection.

HOW: Bachelor's degree, nutrition study, fieldwork/internship

  • A bachelor's degree in food science is the most direct route to the profession, but employers may accept degrees in biology, chemistry or other related sciences
  • Shoot for courses in organic chemistry, scientific analysis, dietetics, microbiology and logistics or operational management of the global food system
  • Some programs offer an internship or other fieldwork section in the final program year, which can provide a leg up in the profession — seek one out if you can

WHY: Salary increase, more opportunities, greater mobility

The mean annual salary reported for food scientists was $66,870 in 2014, according to BLS data, while the average environmental engineering technician earned closer to $51,000 the same year. On top of that, earning a bachelor's degree in an applied science profession can give you laboratory and fieldwork skills that scientists and science managers need to seize available opportunities for advancement.

7. Customer Service Agent → Physician Assistant

A physician assistant helps an elderly patient out of a clinic.

Customer service agents work in a variety of industries, serving as the primary point of contact between customers and the products or services that a business provides. Physician assistants work under the supervision of physicians and surgeons to examine, diagnose and treat patients whose medical needs have an attenuated degree of delicacy or severity.

COMPATIBILITY: High

Although it may not seem at first as though these careers have very much in common, the reality is that they're similar in many ways. For example, both positions require strong communication, problem-sensitivity skills and the up-to-date knowledge of a range of issues. Once you become accustomed to working in the medical context, the similarities to customer service tend to become more obvious.

HOW: Master's degree, health care experience, licensure

  • Physician assistant programs typically take around two years of study and require applicants to have already earned a bachelor's degree
  • Some experience in a health care setting can help you make the transition
  • Physician assistants must pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) before they can legally practice

WHY: Career security, blazing-fast job growth

Health care careers in general are expected to expand considerably over the next several years, thanks to a generally aging population and recent changes in the availability of care, and physician assistant jobs are a prime example of that upward trend. The BLS projects more than 30 percent growth among physician assistant jobs between 2014 and 2024 — good for a spot among the 15 fastest-growing occupations in the country.

8. Brokerage Clerk → Accountant

An accountant at work is happy to crunch numbers.

Brokerage clerks work for financial services firms, writing purchase and sell orders for stocks, verifying transactions, computing taxes and fees and reporting on the movement of assets. Accountants tend to focus on record-keeping and analysis, but their knowledge of a wide variety of financial operations and techniques tends to give their skills significant value on the job market.

COMPATIBILITY: Medium

Brokerage clerks and accountants both need a good eye for detail and deal often with columns of highly significant figures. Accountants typically need an amount of formal education that isn't required for most clerk positions, but the focus on financial precision and accuracy that's instilled in brokerage clerks can be great preparation for an accounting career.

HOW: Bachelor's degree, professional license (CPA, CMA, etc.)

  • Accountants need at least a bachelor's degree in accounting from an accredited institution, although a business degree with an accounting focus may suffice in some cases
  • Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and Certified Management Accountant (CMA) certification can give your employability a boost
  • Additional certifications may be available after earning your CPA or CMA, depending on your level of experience and area of specialization

WHY: Lateral mobility, more professional challenges, increased salary

There were only 57,240 active brokerage clerks in 2014, according to the BLS, while accountants numbered more than 1.1 million and boast a faster projected growth rate as well. It's also the case that the mean annual wage for accountants in 2014 was $73,670, about $500 higher for the year than the amount earned by even the top 10 percent of brokerage clerks nationwide.

9. Artist → Architect

Architects using technology to review blueprints.

Artists create sculptures, paintings, pottery, textiles, illustrations, jewelry, glassware, clothing and a variety of other objects whose cultural or aesthetic value equals or outweighs their functional capacity. Architects rely similarly on their sense of design and aesthetic balance, but use it in concert with engineering principles and cutting-edge construction techniques to create living and working spaces with a firm artistic dimension.

COMPATIBILITY: High

Architects use many of the same skills that certain visual artists use, particularly illustrators and 3-D modelers, and the focus on aesthetic elements that you gain in an artistic pursuit can bring a degree of liveliness to structural design that may be lacking in architects who come from a pure engineering background.

HOW: Bachelor's or master's degree, internship, professional architecture license

  • All architects need dedicated architectural study at the university level, either as an undergraduate or graduate
  • Architects in all states as well as Washington, D.C., must pass the Architect Registration Exam before practicing independently
  • Internships may not be required for every entry-level architectural job, but they can help you build skills and make the connections you need to get your career off the ground

WHY: More job openings, better occupational security

Architects typically start out by taking positions with established firms, which tends to be more secure than artistic self-employment. Job growth projections for architects are more encouraging as well — the BLS estimates 3 percent employment growth among artists between 2014 and 2024, while positions for architects are expected to increase 7 percent in the same period.

10. Retail Sales Clerk → Corporate Trainer

A corporate trainer leading a business training seminar.

The duties of a retail sales clerk tend to consist of interacting with customers, explaining or answering questions about the merchandise and assessing customers' needs to aid in making recommendations. Corporate trainers work to standardize employee development, designing training materials, scheduling classes and teaching essential skills to employees, supervisors and other training personnel.

COMPATIBILITY: Very high

These two jobs may not seem related at first glance, but the customer service, creative thinking and problem solving skills learned in retail sales tend to come into play on a regular basis in corporate training positions. With some training in instructional design and the principles of human resources, you can parlay your retail experience into a management-track position with much better earning potential.

HOW: Bachelor's degree, relevant work experience, optional certifications

  • A wide range of bachelor's degrees can qualify you for a corporate training position, especially if you've taken courses in business administration, curriculum design or human resources
  • Spending some time in an entry-level HR or employee development position can increase your prospects
  • Professional certifications are typically not required, but earning credentials from organizations like the American Society for Training and Development may be helpful

WHY: Greater workforce value, big salary boost

Every enterprise needs good training policies, whether it's a nonprofit organization, a regional business or a huge multinational corporation, and qualifying for corporate trainer positions can put your skills in high demand. The potential salary increases are fairly large, also — the average retail sales worker earned $25,760 in 2014, according to BLS data, while training and development specialists averaged $61,530.

11. Store Manager → Account Executive

A middle-aged account executive in a business meeting with clients.

Store managers oversee teams of retail, service or restaurant workers, often taking responsibility for inventory control, budgeting, scheduling and organization. Account executives work with customers, often business-to-business (B2B) clients, to help them keep their business running by providing essential products or services that meet their needs and budget.

COMPATIBILITY: Medium

The experience you gain managing a store can provide insight into the perspective of purchasing managers and other B2B customers. Knowledge of the day-to-day challenges that managers face can help account representatives better understand the needs of their clients and be more accurate in their product and service recommendations.

HOW: Sales experience, product familiarity, sometimes a bachelor's degree

  • Customer contact and sales are each big parts of account executive jobs, so sales experience can be a big plus
  • Account executives often receive on-the-job training that covers their employer's specific offerings
  • Employers who sell products or services with a strong scientific or technical element may require candidates to have a bachelor's degree in a field related to the business

WHY: Doubled average salary, faster job growth

The BLS reports a mean annual salary of $42,190 for the average store manager in 2014, while the average account executive took home a salary of $86,750 the same year. The expected rate of job increase for account executives was nearly double that of store managers, as well — estimates for the period between 2014 and 2024 show projected gains of 7 percent and 4 percent, respectively.

12. Preschool Teacher → Family Mediator

A family mediator negotiates a happy ending for a couple out of court.

Preschool teachers are often the first point of contact between children and the organized school system, working with the little ones in groups or individually to deliver play-based learning experiences and aid their emotional and mental development. Family mediators work to facilitate effective communication between family members in order to assist in resolving disputes outside of the legal system.

COMPATIBILITY: Medium

Working with children requires a heightened sensitivity to the emotional and material needs of individuals, and that sensitivity can be a big plus when working to guide multiple parties to an agreeable resolution. Creative thinking, information ordering, problem solving and acute social perception are helpful traits in both positions.

HOW: Bachelor's or master's degree, expert listening and communication skills

  • Depending on the nature of the disputes being mediated, you may need training in law, family counseling or conflict management
  • Non-degree coursework in group mediation and dispute resolution can help you ensure that you have the right tools for the job
  • Membership in professional organizations can help you fine-tune your approach and stay on top of new developments in the field

WHY: New challenges, salary increase

Switching from child development to family mediation can give you a whole new set of problems to solve while still relying on your ability to tap into the emotional needs of human beings. There's also a jump in salary between the two professions, with the mean annual preschool teacher salary reported as $32,040 in 2014 and the mean annual mediator taking home $70,740.

______________________________

Methodology

Using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), we created a list of target careers, which are aspirational jobs that meet specific criteria:

  • 2014 average annual salary greater than $60,000
  • Positive projected job growth between 2014 and 2024
  • More than 2,000 job openings, including both new jobs and existing jobs that will need to be filled, between 2014 and 2024
  • Typical entry-level education is a bachelor's degree or higher
  • Minimal experience required in a related occupation

We then created a 3-point weighted compatibility scale based on criteria from the Occupational Information Network, including:

  • Each career's primary, secondary and tertiary mental processes, which refers to the type of cognitive activities (such as organization and planning, problem-solving, or analysis) that are most important to daily tasks
  • Each career's primary and secondary work styles, which are the individual characteristics that can have an impact on how successfully an employee does his or her job

Using the compatibility metric, we matched starter jobs, which have average annual salaries below $60,000 and require less than a college degree, with corresponding target careers.

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Sources:
1. May 2014 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, March 25, 2015, accessed Nov. 10, 2015, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm
2. Occupational Outlook Handbook: 2014-15 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Jan. 8, 2014, accessed Nov. 10-11, 2015, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/
3. Work Activities — Mental Processes, Occupational Information Network, accessed Nov. 10, 2015, http://www.onetonline.org/find/descriptor/browse/Work_Activities/4.A.2/
4. Work Styles, Occupational Information Network, accessed Nov. 10, 2015, http://www.onetonline.org/find/descriptor/browse/Work_Styles/
5. "Typical U.S. worker now lasts 4.6 years on job," MarketWatch, Quentin Fottrell, January 12, 2014, accessed Nov. 15, 2015, http://www.marketwatch.com/story/americans-less-likely-to-change-jobs-now-than-in-1980s-2014-01-10
6. Employee Tenure Survey, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed Nov. 10, 2015, http://www.bls.gov/news.release/tenure.nr0.htm
7. About ABET, ABET, accessed Nov. 10, 2015, http://www.abet.org/about-abet/
8. Fastest Growing Occupations, Occupational Outlook Handbook: 2014-15 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed Nov. 10, 2015, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/fastest-growing.htm