Jennifer Hamdan strapped herself into her business-class seat on the full 747, preparing to touch down in Johannesburg, South Africa. As the regional communications manager for MasterCard International - overseeing local offices and managing PR strategies across South Asia, Africa and the Middle East - this business trip was her third in the last six months. But on that day, almost five years ago, work was the last thing on her mind. The pressure of balancing her demanding career with a stable family life had taken its toll.
"The trip to South Africa should have been exciting," she remembers. "But as I sat on the plane after leaving my 18-month-old daughter distraught on our doorstep, I realised just how unhappy I was." It was at that moment that Mrs Hamdan, 38, had a defining moment of clarity. As she waited to exit the plane she realised the very things that had attracted her to the job - the overseas travel and opportunities to work on high-profile events such as the Fifa World Cup and the Dubai Desert Classic - had ceased to have any importance to her.
She had been in tears when she said goodbye to her husband and daughter, and the eight-hour flight to South Africa had given her time to reflect. With that in mind, she took a cab to the hotel, called her company's HR manager and quit the job she had held for more than four years. Just three months later, in October, she embarked on a new career as a personal and professional life coach in Dubai, helping people take control of their lives and reach their professional and personal goals.
Like Mrs Hamdan, we all experience days here or there when we are not happy at work, and they usually pass. But when you find yourself continually looking at career change websites, or going to job seminars in your free time, it's likely you are ready to earn your salary in a different manner. Switching careers, however, generally involves a huge life change, and can often affect your financial bottom line. But more and more people are taking the plunge.
"Since becoming a mother, my values and priorities have changed," she explains. "I was no longer happy to work 12-hour days or to stay in the office until midnight; travel had lost its excitement, and I felt under continuous pressure to excel and prove myself." But when it came to selecting her next career, Mrs Hamdan was determined not to make a rash decision. After arriving back in Dubai from Johannesburg, she met with a close friend who had left the world of finance to become a life coach.
"When I went to see her I had no intention of becoming a coach," she says. "I just wanted to become more centred." Mrs Hamdan attended a few sessions conducted by her friend, and in the end decided to pursue her own career in life coaching. Since October 2005, she has worked with several organisations in Dubai, including Eternal MedSpa, and is presently looking into the possibility of starting her own private practice in a free zone.
"I am now very happy with where I am and I have a clear direction of where I want my business to go," she explains. "I really believe it is worth getting out of the comfort zone and taking a risk to become the person you want to be." Mike Hynes, a managing partner of Dubai-based recruitment consultancy Kershaw Leonard, says the first thing people must ask themselves when considering a job change is why they entered their current field in the first place, and what has changed to make them want to leave.
"It could be the employer, rather than the industry, they should look at changing," Mr Hynes explains. With the economic downturn having its expected effect on job security, most workers are playing it safe, and the overwhelming number of individuals changing career fields are doing so in pursuit of some sort of stability, as opposed to a higher salary, he adds. "Many people may feel the industry they are in is not particularly safe, and they are looking to get out before they are pushed. For example, right now a mass of people are leaving the real estate industry."
Sometimes, of course, the decision can be totally out of our control. Geoffrey Keogh, who is originally from Sydney, Australia, was made redundant from his position as a resource analyst with the Australian arm of a global finance company in August 2008. He was a professional with 25 years of experience. "For a while I tried to find another position, but firms were cutting staff everywhere," Mr Keogh, 52, says. "I tried networking. I called everyone I knew and took them out for coffee ... I drank so much coffee. But there were no positions opening up."
He was beginning to doubt his own worth when, after talking to a career guidance officer as part of his severance package and taking counselling for personal issues related to the retrenchment, he decided to make a complete break from the finance industry. He moved to Abu Dhabi in the middle of last year after his wife was offered a job at a local college, and is now halfway through the coursework for a degree in education.
His plan is to find a job teaching English in the capital. "I had never considered teaching as a career, but I've had to reassess a lot of things," Mr Keogh says. "After much soul-searching many things that were important to me before - a good address, a fancy car - now seem trivial. We've always loved to travel, but now instead of taking expensive holidays my wife and I are looking to travel through work."
The couple plans to spend several years working in the Middle East before moving to South America. "My wife speaks a little Spanish, so we've already started looking at teaching opportunities available in Brazil and Peru," Mr Keogh says. And this is a good time to introduce another element of today's job market: it is no longer considered detrimental to change employers or career field, even several times. Simply put, gone are the days when you began and ended your career with one company or in one disciple.
Take the case of Tim Frantzen. A personal trainer from New Zealand, it took several stints in different fields before the 29-year-old found the profession that best suits him. Mr Frantzen left school at 16 to train as a chef, and after completing his apprenticeship worked for two years in a restaurant in Auckland. During his second year in the kitchen he decided that the long hours, late nights and high-stress atmosphere of a restaurant were not for him.
He then moved into sales, working for a light-fittings firm for five years, but despite his gregarious personality he found making cold calls uncomfortable. "I've always kept fit, and I had a personal trainer myself," Mr Frantzen replies, when asked how he got his start in field of training. "I was looking for another career direction when someone suggested I take a personal training course. I rang around a few gyms to find out what their preferred requirements were, and then started a nine-month course at the New Zealand College of Fitness. It cost NZ$5,000 [Dh13,120], which is not a lot really; it was low enough to enable me to start it as a trial."
After completing the course, in 2006, he took a job with a YMCA in Auckland. Two years later his wife's company, a recruitment agency, offered her a transfer to Dubai, so the couple decided to take the leap. Little did they know the move would present excellent opportunities for both of them. "Being a personal trainer means I can work just about anywhere," Mr Frantzen says. "I did have some feelings of self-doubt when we got to Dubai, and I had to work out how to get an income. It's a bit different here than in New Zealand, where you can pay a monthly fee to a gym and are able to use their members as a potential client base. Here the gyms hire you on a very low wage."
Mr Frantzen was keen to set up his own business, but was unsure how to get the proper sponsorship to do this legally. Eventually, a contact put him in touch with Mefitpro, a Dubai-based company that connects health and fitness instructors with individuals wanting to work out in their homes. "Mefitpro passed me a few clients. The rest I've got through advertising, networking - my estate agent is now a client - and word of mouth."
After a slow start, Mr Frantzen says he now earns about three times what he was taking in selling light fittings. "It's been hard work; I don't know what holidays are and I'm constantly looking for clients, but I have a future I'm working towards," he explains. "I'm in the process of getting a trade licence, and then I can promote my own brand and hire other personal trainers." Mr Frantzen says he has 12 clients, and holds training session in parks in private homes.
Mr Hynes stresses that it's important for people to know the type of career they want; once they have established that, the next step involves examining their skills and determining which ones are transferable. "People management, for example, is one skill which is the same in many industries," he says. "More specialised talents are less easily transferable, and so the more specialised a person is the less likely they are to be an attractive candidate for another industry."
For example, an engineer with an aeronautical company will find it more difficult to change career fields than, say, an accountant working in his company's pay office. Once you have identified these skills you need to pinpoint any gaps and update your qualifications. Note that this can be an expensive move. Mrs Hamdan spent nearly Dh55,000 on courses and related expenses, including Dh5,000 on international telephone calls, before becoming a fully-trained life coach.
But she says the cost was worth it. In 2006 she attained a coaching certificate through the US-based Coaches Training Institute, and then took advanced courses in relationship and parental coaching. Mr Hynes says this single-minded determination can mean the difference between success and failure. "If I was interviewing candidates for a job, the first question I would ask anyone changing careers is 'why'?," he says. "You will have to have very, very strong answers to this question to complete a successful interview; coming from a different background may make you a more interesting candidate for a new job, but you are also a much riskier one."
Mr Hynes adds that anyone looking to change professions should seek advice at the start of the process. Unfortunately, this can add to the cost of switching jobs, as good, free advice is not easy to find (and don't overlook books - an abundance of career guidance volumes are out there, such as the classic What Color is Your Parachute? - or the internet). Monster.co.uk, jobsearch.about.com and jobhuntersbible.com are worth visiting.
It is also a good idea to talk to as many people as possible about the industry you want to move in to. And if possible, try to do voluntary work in the field you are considering. Dr Randall Hansen, a vocations coach who wrote a 10-step plan to career change for the job website quintcareers.com, says people determined to change their occupation should be flexible about nearly everything, from employment status to relocation and salary.
"Set positive goals for yourself, but expect setbacks and change - and don't let these things get you down," Mr Hansen explains. "Besides totally new careers, you might also consider a lateral move that could serve as a springboard for a bigger career change later. You might also think about starting your own business." And finally, as with any life change, you need to be prepared financially, because the "in-between" periods can be frightening, and you don't want money worries to distract you from the task at hand. A good rule to follow is a personal finance standby: make sure you have three to six months' salary set aside to tide you over until you are once again earning an income.
Mr Keogh, the aspiring teacher, says that despite getting a good payout from his firm, going for months without a pay cheque after being the breadwinner of the family left him feeling vulnerable. "My wife encouraged me to take time to find a job that I would really be happy in, when all I wanted was to start earning money again," he says. "But I took the time, and while I'm still not earning much, I have a plan I'm happy with and I've learnt there are ways to enjoy life without spending money. I think I'm probably more content now than I was working 10-hour days in the finance industry. In many ways losing my job could have been a blessing."
Mrs Hamdan admits having a supportive, working husband helped subsidise her career change, but said the reduced income did mean she had to make some lifestyle changes. "Designer shoes and top-range make-up have gone out the window," she says. "My salary halved when I left MasterCard, but I learnt to adjust and in the last six months it's coming up to near the level I was at. Finance and money are important - they have to be if you want to make a business work - but the most important thing to me now is having freedom to run my own business around my children's needs."
There is always going to be a sense of vulnerability in leaving a job you know so well, Mrs Hamdan adds. "But you have to keep positive," she explains."It takes a lot of work, you have to be committed and disciplined, but hopefully at the end of the day you will be a whole lot happier and closer to becoming the person you truly want to be."