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Time to breathe new life into your career? You're not alone

09:54 03/09/2019
It's back to school for restless workers looking to spice up their careers

Having a job can be like having a home. You know exactly where to find even the stuff you never use, you can find your way around it in the dark and, ideally, a sense of quiet comfort comes over you when you walk through the door. What would make someone choose to give up all that stability, all those years of experience, to head back to school so they can start from scratch in a new field?

It seems like something has gotten into my friends, because half a dozen people in my social circle have recently done just that. They’ve abandoned stable, well-paid jobs to go back to class with the aim of entering an entirely different industry at the – let’s be honest here – bottom of the food chain. There’s a social worker who became a tree surgeon, a telephone operator who enrolled in a two-year herbalist healer degree, and an erstwhile account manager who is training to become a chef.

So I called up one of them, Biregeya De Clercq, the social worker-turned-tree surgeon, to find out what millennial bug has caught him. For eight years, De Clercq worked for various organisations in Brussels and helped locals with financial, housing or language difficulties navigate the job and training market. Feeling stuck at his then employer, he enrolled in a part-time programme to become a tree surgeon in January last year. Although it was the middle of winter and freezing cold, the room was barely heated when he showed up to his first day of class. It wasn’t even really a classroom, more like an improvised space in a hangar. The instructor quickly cut to the chase: “Guys, you’re going to be working outdoors. This room is also very cold. You just have to stay focused.”

But De Clercq loved it. Over a period of a year, one or two days a week, he would learn how to let a tree fall at the correct angle, when and how to best prune different tree types, not to mention cramming all those Latin names. Though his transition from social worker to tree surgeon took just a year, it had been a long time in the making, he told me, pointing out that he’d been thinking about switching careers for years. “I’d always been a green person,” he says, someone who loved being outdoors and cared about the environment. He only definitively quit his job as a social worker when he had just a couple of months left of training.

That sounds about right, says Dr Ellen Peeters, a visiting professor at Ghent University who does research into career transitions. When people take the leap, they appear to do so because the stars have lined up right, so to speak. “A person might be ready for a new challenge or to chase their calling, and as soon as there are circumstantial factors that make such a thing possible, they’ll go for it,” she says. “They might hear about a call to participate in a training course or get the news that there will be lay-offs at the company they’re working at. When all the aspects are just right, that’s when you have the biggest chance that someone will retrain.”

It also turns out that my friends are a pretty unique and fearless bunch. Because there is no retraining trend, Peeters said, putting my anecdotal evidence into context. “The number of people who are radically retraining is rather small,” she says. And that’s because abandoning your career to start from scratch in a completely different field takes an incredible amount of courage. According to the most recent figures from Belgium’s National Bank, just 6.8% of Belgians participated in adult education programmes in 2016, compared to the 12.4% on average of people that do so across other EU countries.

Peeters also stresses that giving your career a makeover needn’t require a radical transition. So if you’re concerned about being made redundant by, say, robots or worried that your expertise will no longer be relevant in a couple of years, it’s better to look into training to keep your skills up to date and stay abreast of developments in your field.

“You don’t necessarily need to retrain – a development along the path someone is already on can also be really valuable,” she says. “It’s a lot more difficult to persuade a lorry driver to begin working as a caregiver, for instance. It’s a lot more difficult to convince a lot of people to complete such a radical retraining because it’s a leap in the dark, and it’s difficult to estimate in advance what this will mean and whether they’ll like it.” But encouraging factory workers to pursue additional training so that they might also be able fix the machinery they are operating, for instance, would be a lot more realistic and feasible, she says.

As for De Clercq, he’s glad that he jumped into the deep end and he is currently gainfully employed as a tree surgeon. “I don’t know where this will take me and there are negative aspects to this job as well that make me think I won’t do this for the rest of my life,” he says, adding that he hadn’t ruled out returning to social work in a couple of years. “But right now, I want to contribute to the environment and help people see the beauty of nature. And I see aspects to this job that can help me do that.”

Time for a change?

In Brussels and Flanders, the best-known places to train are probably Syntra and the adult education centres known as CVOs, which offer hundreds of programmes across the two regions. In Wallonia, look for organisations d’éducation permanente. You’ll need to speak the local languages well to follow courses.

Bruxelles Formation
Provides training courses for adults in French.

Adult education courses delivering professional qualifications for businesses and employees.

Training for small and medium businesses.

Professional qualifications and courses for 15- to 29- year-olds in Brussels.

Various training courses available through the Flemish Employment and Vocational Training service.

Training for entrepreneurs and future entrepreneurs in Brussels in Dutch.

Education permanente
Further education in Brussels and Wallonia.

Evening classes in Brussels and Wallonia.

This article first appeared in The Bulletin spring 2019

Photo (c) Linda A Thompson

Written by Linda A Thompson