Making a Career Comeback

Whether you’re 26 or 60, looking for work is intimidating.  Perhaps you left a good job to care for a loved one or you followed your spouse to a new community.  Have your finances been turned upside down because of death or divorce?  There are so many different reasons why we start or change careers.  But the basic question remains:  What will I do?

Your career is more than what you do for a living.  It impacts your financial, emotional and physical well-being.  These days, a successful career involves more than completing an application at Montana Job Service or posting a resume on and waiting for the phone to ring.

Statistical Realities

According to the 2010 census, 42,836 women (ages 16 and older) lived in Billings.  Nearly 40% of those women weren’t in the workforce because of unemployment, school, family caretaking, disability and other reasons.  In that same period, the average annual pre-tax wage of all women in the Billings workforce was $19,445.  For women working full-time, the median pre-tax annual income rose to $30,825.

Let’s say the statistically average Billings woman earning $19,445 before taxes tries to keep her housing budget under one-third of her income.  At $347.00 per month, housing is going to be tough.  In 2010, the median monthly rent for apartments and houses in Billings ranged from $680.00 to $911.00.

A comparison of our statistically average woman’s earnings and the median rental costs in Billings exposes a stark reality.  Too many Billings women are financially vulnerable.  They can’t support themselves on what they earn, let alone a family.

Where Do You Want to Be?

It doesn’t matter if you are starting out or starting over.  Skilled jobs pay better.

Sandra Feralio, Program Manager of the YWCA Billings Employment and Training Center, cites a lack of marketable skills as the #1 barrier for women seeking employment in Billings.  At a recent Economic Development meeting, Sandra learned that jobs are plentiful in these parts.  She also heard that employers can’t find applicants with skills they need.  Health care, computer and technical skills and energy field trades are in high demand.  Employers also look for “soft skills” such as flexibility, emotional intelligence, relationship wisdom and resilience.

But don’t plug yourself into a job or career track just because there’s demand or better pay.  Your work needs to be a good fit with who you are.  Interest inventories, personality tests, positive life experiences, areas of interest, academic success and girlhood dreams should all be part of your decision-making mix.

“It’s important to take time to investigate careers,” says Marsha Riley, Dean of City College at MSU Billings.  “It’s easy to get impatient. Don’t limit your options because of the time commitment necessary to earn a degree or obtain credentials.”

Dean Riley knows about patience.  She enrolled in Sheridan College at the age of 30.  While juggling work, moves, school and family, she graduated from the University of Wyoming.  Then she earned a master’s degree from MSU Billings and a Ph.D. from Colorado State University.  She became Dean at City College in 2011.

Pat Reuss, Director of MSU Billings Career Services echoed Dean Riley’s view that careers take time and hard work.  “There's no one right choice. There are multiple and equally good options, but we sometimes get stuck seeking that one answer," she says.  She describes discovering one's career path as a constant process of reframing, clarifying, taking chances and finding balance.

How Do I Get There?

Dean Riley suggests we look at our careers as an investment in our personal and financial future.  “It takes time, money and personal effort,” she says. “Reaching your goal provides a great sense of accomplishment.”

You have to have support, whether in the form of good day care, a reliable car pool, academic tutoring or flexible work hours. Knowing your support structures can alleviate those obstacles that seem insurmountable.

“Before you start adding things to your plate, find out what you can take off your plate,” Dean Riley says.

“Ask others how they did it,” suggests Pat Reuss.  “People love to talk about themselves.  Most people are naturally inclined to want to help.” Personal interviews with people in your field of interest reveal what others may have done differently, what works, who else you might talk to and ways to avoid obstacles you may not foresee.

With more than two decades in career advising, Pat tells college students they can’t pick a major in twenty minutes or less and expect it to lead to career satisfaction.  She also tells them to be persistent and strategic in their pursuits. Volunteer positions, paid and unpaid internships, workplace partnerships, professional organizations, academic advising and personal networks all lead to better career options.

“Don’t expect overnight success,” says Sandra Feralio.  “It’s a process.  Resources are out there.  Expect to get discouraged.  Treat looking for a job or finding a new career as if it were your job.  You will get there.  Don’t give up.” 

Career Seeker’s Top Ten List

Pat Reuss, Marsha Riley and Sandra Feralio offered many helpful ideas for women seeking or re-directing their careers.  During their respective interviews, without knowing it, they often repeated what each other said.  Here are their “top ten” ideas:

Visualize Your Dream.  Read What Color is Your Parachute by Richard Bolles or Tom Rast’s Strengths Finder 2.0.  These books will help determine what makes your heart sing and can be life-changing, as they put us in touch with our dreams and passions.

Know Your Network.  Who has helped you in your life thus far?  Who might help if you asked?  Who can vouch for your work ethic?

Assess Your Skills.  What are your strengths and weaknesses?  Find your baseline.  Look for ways to improve your skills and broaden your strengths.

Identify Support.  After you identify who you can count on, look for ways to expand your contacts and connections in areas where you need educational or professional advice and social or financial assistance.

Look at your Limits.  Are you bound to Billings?  Do you have family members with special needs?  Do you mind getting your hands dirty?  Limitations affect your employability.  Determine yours.

Evaluate Your Experiences.  If “experience is the best teacher,” what has it taught you?  Women tend to underestimate how their personal experiences transfer into workplace skills.

Find Your Niche.  In the work world, there isn’t one answer, a right answer or a wrong answer.  You are looking for a “good fit” that’s consistent with your strengths, values, interests and dreams.

Make a Plan.  Dream big.  Write down where you want to be or what you want to do. Then break it down into manageable tasks.  Re-frame setbacks as learning experiences.

Ask for Help.  This is not a sign of weakness.  Most people are flattered when asked to help.  When help is offered, accept it graciously.  Keep asking until you get what you need.

Put Yourself Out There.  Taking risks is never easy.  It may feel like you are jumping off a cliff, but most likely, you’ll land on your feet.     




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