Whether by choice or financial necessity, a growing number of senior executives are pursuing jobs with reduced salaries and titles. How can they convince hiring managers they’re serious about a smaller pond?
By Sean Gallagher
Earlier this decade, a movement called “downshifting” sprung up among older professionals who sought to simplify their lives and have more time for family, pet projects and personal fulfillment off the clock. Now, the recession has brought a whole new spin to downshifting. Senior-level professionals accustomed to high salaries have lowered the expectations they have for their next positions in hopes to just make ends meet.
Call it downshifting. Call it “re-careering.” It's a genuine phenomenon, regardless of whether it's voluntary or the child of necessity. More and more people over 50 are making career changes to new jobs in new industries, in full-time, part-time, and contract or self-employed positions.
In a buyer’s market, however, employers are much more exacting about finding the precise fit for their requirements. Getting in front of a hiring manager when you're clearly overqualified for the position requires some feats of repackaging.
“Many older workers are ready to give up the long-time grind and look for stimulating jobs with flexible schedules as they begin the process toward retirement,” said Susan Reinhard, senior vice president of the AARP Public Policy Institute. A study released in May by the Institute, she said, “shows dramatically that workers are putting a premium on reduced stress as they downshift a bit.”
Another report from the University of Michigan for the National Institute on Aging's Health and Retirement Study (HRS) confirms this tendency. From 1992 to 2006, the analysis tracked a sample of workers who were ages 51 to 55 during that timeframe.
Among those studied, 28.8 percent of men and 24.3 percent of women changed careers after age 50. Most made the move for less money — $6 an hour less, on average — and were less likely to have retirement benefits or health insurance in their new jobs. Among those who changed jobs after age 50 and were managers, 35 percent went from management to non-management positions.
The benefit of a job with less responsibility? Most respondents reported that their new positions were less stressful and offered more-flexible hours, and 91.3 percent said they enjoyed their work, up from 79 percent in the old job.
“The current downturn presents a real bump in the road,” Reinhard added, “but, for the future, the findings are a welcome signal that workers 50 and over can really enjoy themselves while remaining productive in a vibrant economy.”
That bump in the road has created a strong incentive to go back to work, said Bruce Lee, a spokesman for Mercer, a global HR and financial-consulting company. “If you're 25, even if you had a big loss in your 401(k) balance you could still be in good shape if you're a disciplined saver. Some of the folks who might be 55, 60 — they just don't have time on their side.”
“Not wasting a good recession”
Whatever your motive for scaling back your salary requirements, the challenge remains the same: compelling employers to believe you’re ready to commit to a director job that’s considerably lower paid and less senior than your last VP job.
“There is an automatic assumption time and time again, where someone who was making $300,000 a few years ago is interested in a $150,000 job,” said Randy Hain, managing partner at Bell Oaks Executive Search in Atlanta. “Clients automatically think, ‘There's no way that'd work.’ And yet you and I know, in this economy, that'd work — they'd take (even) $100,000.”
That reaction isn't universal, however, according to Colleen O'Neill, a principal at Mercer. “Smart companies are not wasting a good recession. They're saying, ‘OK, there's this glut of really top talent out there looking for jobs.’ And what we've heard just in some recent round tables with companies across different industries, particularly industries that are still in better shape during a recessionary time — like in health care or certain kinds of consumer products that haven't been hurt as badly — a lot of them have said, 'Wow, there are about 40,000 people from financial services out there looking for jobs. … I've picked some of those people up knowing that I never would have been able to recruit them to my industry three years ago.' ”
Sell yourself short
If your experience is in a troubled industry, you may have to find a whole new way to package it, Hain said. “I know a guy who was senior in the insurance industry,” he said. “He ended up taking a project-manager job with a small company that saw some value in his leadership skills. But he couldn't find anything related to his experience. I see that a lot with anyone related to real estate right now, or home lending, mortgages. … There's just nothing to be found. Either they take a job in a new industry, or they take anything they can in their industry to survive.”
O'Neill said she believes hiring managers tend to be much more open-minded about cross-industry moves today. “When we're talking to recruiting managers, they’re very open, and they know that even that highly qualified candidate might have been making much more than they're offering today.
“And then certainly, I think people have a different mindset: It's not necessarily going to hurt their long-term prospects that they have something else to add in their portfolio, that there was some period of time that they worked in a different industry, had a different job — we're kind of in a different place than we were the last recession,” she said. “People know they're going to have many jobs over the course of their working life. From an employers' standpoint, I think people are very open to it.”
Where to find smaller opportunities
Even so, finding a job – even one that pays significantly less, with less responsibility — is still a challenge. Knowing where to look and who to approach can significantly reduce the length of a search.
Look for companies that are hungry for talent, Hain said. The best opportunities for anyone looking to downshift are often small companies that are still growing and have a need for leaders, but don’t have the ability to promote leaders from within, he said. Companies to avoid include almost any company large enough to promote from within and find what they’re looking for in their own staff.
“I'd stay away from the Fortune 1,000 companies — the small to mid-sized companies are your best bet,” he says. “Because the bigger companies — the Cokes, Home Depots, GEs — they've got enormous workforces with a need to promote from within. But the small and mid-sized companies are always looking to buy talent.”
To illustrate his point, Hain cited a recent candidate with whom he worked. “There was a gentleman who was a VP of sales for a division of GE Healthcare, and he got downsized along with the rest of his unit. He wound up taking a job as a director of business development for a new division of a company here in Atlanta that wanted to sell their services to hospitals.
“He was managing a team of 50, and now he's an individual contributor. But it's kind of exciting for him because he's starting a new business unit. He's the only guy doing the business development, and they hired him because of his relationships.”
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Sean Gallagher is a former naval officer and freelance journalist. He has spent much of the last 19 years covering defense and technology and is the former editor-in-chief of Defense Systems magazine. Gallagher lives and works in Baltimore, Md.