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Career transition and career change: what's the difference?

As businesses adapt to post-pandemic life, global labour markets are experiencing major disruption.

In the US, 25% of workers are looking for a fresh start in their professional lives, while 20% of British employees will have a different employer by 2023, PwC says. This means millions worldwide are going through the ups and downs that come with occupational change.

While there's no one-size-fits-all approach, knowing the difference between a career change and a career transition is a good starting point to navigating the challenges that any new direction brings.

Career change

The pandemic is just one example of the kind of external force that usually prompts a full career change. Individuals might head into a different sector or industry; they may have to get used to new working patterns and learn new skillsets to carry out their job successfully.

The adjustment can bring a reduction in income or status, and should not be made without careful consideration of ambitions, financial reserves and personal circumstances.

Career transition

The more moderate career transition is more about moving to a new role within the same industry or company. Those involved will need to rely on existing skillsets and workplace experiences as they expand their networks and take on greater responsibility.

Career transitions may come about through promotion, or through a desire for a more satisfactory post in a similar field that better aligns with personal goals and drivers.

Dealing with change

Career shifts of any degree share cognitive hurdles on a course that US organisational consultant William Bridges breaks down into three phases.

The Ending

As the first stage of a career draws to a close, "the ending" sees a person assess what they're leaving behind and what they're taking with them in terms of expertise, working systems, routines or relationships.

During this time, it's important to begin to let go of a past identity, to acknowledge and disclose emotions associated with the departure.

The neutral zone

People may then become introspective as they come to terms with opening new doors in life. Speaking with career specialists will allow individuals to reflect productively and create the head space to start thinking about where the future lies.

The neutral zone is also about moving forward - identifying strengths that might be of use in a second career, such as qualifications, experiences and transferable skills.

A new beginning

The final stage of transition is about acceptance, growth and making progress. Focus should fall on using fresh skills in new surroundings, building relationships and forming the routines of the second career.

The individual should be aware of aligning personal values and goals to stay true to their purpose as they develop in their new role.

The athlete's perspective

The phases above certainly apply to the athlete's journey from retirement into a second career. But if career change is what ostensibly takes place here, then the process is better understood as a transition.

As Professor Nancy Schlossberg explains, transition "results in a change in assumptions about oneself and the world, and thus requires a corresponding change in one's behaviour and relationships." This frames the psychological difficulties that athletes face as they leave the sporting cultures that scaffold their identity.

On a more pragmatic level, athletes rely heavily on existing attributes for success in later life. Time-management, teamwork, leadership, attention to detail, planning and organisational abilities, resilience under pressure - these are just a few of the transferable qualities that athletes have in abundance.

The problem - and this is something that applied to me when I left professional rugby - is that athletes simply aren't aware of the talents they leverage. Employers are often similarly in the dark about the high value that sportspeople bring to the workplace.

Athlete Career Transition

In 2010, I co-founded Athlete Career Transition (ACT) to shine a light on these issues and help athletes cross safely from sport to the "normal" world of work.

At ACT, we identify athletes' key skills and help them to understand their application in a working context. We then position them in business environments in which they can continue to grow professionally and personally.

The athletes we work with receive unparalleled, sustained support as they transition into new careers that satisfy them as elite performers, while great companies gain a uniquely competitive edge in a competitive marketplace for talent.


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