Figure Out What's Next

Five Great Second Careers

career change mark miller Oct 06, 2009

by Mark Miller

photo via pixabay

The tough economy hasn’t forced boomers to give up their dreams of second careers with meaning.

Before the economy crashed, millions of midlife adults already were starting new careers in fields where they hoped to make a difference—areas like teaching, health care and the nonprofit world. The new economic realities are making career reinvention mandatory for many millions more—but the tough economy hasn’t forced boomers to give up their dreams of second careers with meaning.

So where can you find those jobs in tough times?

Some researchers have tried to pinpoint the best growth fields. For example, a book by career experts Michael Farr and Laurence Shatkin ranks careers that employ a high percentage of baby boomers by analyzing data on industries employing high percentages of older workers and projected industry growth. And the Urban Institute has attempted to identify the most promising areas of opportunity for older workers by analyzing industries expected to experience rapid growth in the coming years and then cross-matching them with fields that will experience high turnover due to retirement. 

But what about that search for meaning? What’s Next has compiled a list of the top five fields for midlife career change that combine meaning with good opportunity:

Health care

The health care sector continues to grow despite the economy’s overall weakness—the result of our aging population and growing utilization of health care services. For example, in one of the worst months of the recession—February 2009—hospitals, long-term care facilities and other ambulatory care settings added 27,000 new jobs, while employers overall shed more than 680,000 positions. The health care industry got an additional shot in the arm from the federal economic stimulus bill passed in 2009, which included $59 billion for medical research, prevention initiatives and a national health information technology infrastructure. And pending health care reform legislation is likely to stimulate this sector of the industry dramatically.

The nursing profession faces an especially acute shortage of skilled labor, the result of the health sector’s projected growth, expected retirements and a shortage of training programs for new nurses. The number of available positions is expected to grow 2 percent to 3 percent annually through 2016, and one study projects a shortage of 500,000 registered nurses by the year 2025. There are similar shortages projected in the ranks of pharmacists and home-care aid workers. Positions also exist for people who aren’t trained in medical professionals—music and art therapy, occupational health and safety and social workers.

The federal government

The U.S. government is legendary for its insular hiring practices, but now it’s facing a major labor shortage in key skilled positions due to its aging workforce. The nonprofit Partnership for Public Service has forecast that the federal government will need to fill 273,000 critical-need federal jobs through 2012. That figure is 41 percent higher than it was when the Partnership did its last federal jobs forecast in 2007; the areas of greatest demand include the medical and health field, security and law enforcement and administrative positions, but opportunities exist across a wide range of federal positions.

The Partnership works on an array of initiatives aimed at recruiting Americans to public service. In 2008, it launched an initiative focused on recruiting older workers, called FedExperience Transitions to Government. The Partnership is piloting the program with the U.S. Department of Treasury, and also envisions partnerships with private sector employers interested in helping its own retiring workers navigate toward encore careers. The FedExperience program also has a private sector partner, IBM Corp., which has rolled out a program for its employees similar to its Transition to Teaching program.

Green careers

Green careers have surfaced as a major area of interest for people steering toward second careers. Environmental work is expected to be one of the fastest-growing employment categories in the years ahead, particularly as the U.S. undergoes major changes in production and consumption of energy. A 2008 report produced for the U.S. Conference of Mayors predicted that the country could add as many as 4.2 million green jobs in the coming two decades. The 2009 federal stimulus act is a factor here—the legislation allocated billions of dollars to be spent stimulating green businesses, including $16.8 billion for energy efficiency and renewable energy, and nearly $1 billion targeting green job training. The federal stimulus for green jobs likely will grow further with passage of further green legislative initiatives.

Nonprofit careers

It may seem like the business world is crumbling, but nonprofits continue to grow—and they’re facing a shortage of talent. Best of all, the nonprofit sector is gradually waking up to the potential of encore career switchers from the business world.

Nonprofits are hardly immune to the effects of recession. The need for the services of charitable organizations is rising in tough times, along with poverty levels and home foreclosure rates. And nonprofits face pressure to maintain their fundraising as donor wallets get thinner. The stock market crash poses particular challenges to the foundations that make grants to nonprofit groups; the bear market has cut deeply into foundation endowments, prompting them to reduce grant-making.

But longer term, nonprofits are expected to keep growing. For 2009 alone, nonprofits were forecasting that they would need to fill 24,000 vacant or new jobs, according to a survey by The Bridgespan Group, a strategic consulting firm that works with nonprofits, with many of the openings in roles like finance and fundraising. Nonprofits responding to the Bridgespan survey reported that senior-level job openings were running 44 percent higher than shown by an earlier poll taken in 2006. Perhaps most interesting, 21 percent of people hired between June 2007 and December 2008 were transitioning into the nonprofit sector for the first time.


A huge number of teaching jobs will open up in the next decade as a result of turnover and retirements. One estimate, from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, puts the number of job vacancies in the U.S. at 1.5 million. It’s a profession that appeals to the impulse for community service felt by many boomers—although the hard work of training to teach and actually getting into the classroom can quickly dispel any romantic notions you might be harboring. Nevertheless, interest in teaching as an encore career is taking off, and so are innovative programs designed to help people make the transition.

If teaching appeals to you, consider downloading the in-depth What's Next guide to becoming a teacher.


The Inside-Out Career Design Podcast

Join Us as We Search for Answers to the Age-Old Questions of 
"What Should I Do With My Life?" and "What's Next for Me?"

Check Out Our Episodes