Without question, the economic climate this past few years has resulted in millions of smart, capable Americans scrambling to find a new job, often for the first time in their adult professional lives.  And it’s the unemployment rate that always receives the lion’s share of attention in the media — especially with an election date looming.

At the exact same time many professionals are striving to secure a paycheck, however, there’s another huge issue going on in the marketplace that doesn’t get talked about so much.  How about those people searching not just for a new job, but for an entirely new career?  Among the many calls I receive throughout the course of a given week, many individuals express frustration that they can’t even start looking for a job yet — because they haven’t yet figured out which type of job to actually go after!  They’ve arrived at a career crossroads, either voluntarily or involuntarily, and are in desperate need of figuring out what they want to be “now that they’ve grown up.”

That’s where LinkedIn swoops in to the rescue, yet again!  There’s an amazing application of LinkedIn that can be of tremendous benefit to potential career-changers — but that I’ve never seen anybody talk about out on the career counseling circuit.  It’s the technique of brainstorming career options by using LinkedIn to study precedent.

Here’s the basic idea.  When people come to me and tell me that they have been an attorney, or a banker, or architect for many years, but don’t enjoy their work anymore, they almost always act (please don’t take this the wrong way, folks!) like they’re the only person in the world who has ever had to solve this particular problem.  In other words, as they discuss the issue, they act like no other attorney (or banker…or architect…or business owner, etc.) has ever had to walk this same path and figure out how to channel their collection of skills, knowledge, and experience in a new, income-generating direction.

But that’s clearly not the case.  For decades, working adults in all fields and industries have “fallen out of love” with their current profession and had to reinvent themselves in a new way.  So why not look at these precedents?  Why not follow some nice cushy trails that have already been blazed, by hundreds or thousands of others, versus staring at the daunting career jungle with your machete and assuming you’ll have to hack a totally original, one-of-a-kind trail?

This approach wasn’t all that easy to pull off, however, before LinkedIn graced us with a searchable database of over 75 million people, from all different fields, containing vast reams of data about the skills, qualifications, and past work history of all these folks — and what each of these people is doing now, in real time, to make their living.

I think a few examples will best illustrate the concept in question:

Example #1: “Matt, I just graduated with my sociology degree, but have decided that the academic world just isn’t for me and I don’t want to become a sociology professor.  Where else does this type of degree fit out in the corporate world?”

Proposed Solution: Go to the LinkedIn Advanced People Search page, type “sociology” in the Keywords box, and then type the phrase -professor -instructor -student -faculty -teacher -sociology -sociologist in the Title box.  This latter part is the key, since it allows you to “knock out” anybody who has a job title suggesting they work in academia.  You’re left with a set of over 200,000 people (at least in my network) who have something to do with sociology in their backgrounds, but have gone on to do something different in terms of their career path.  So I then narrowed the search down to the Seattle area alone, using the Location box, ending up with around 4,000 local results.  At that point, just start flipping through the pages, seeing what all these people are up to whether anything interesting catches your eye!

Example #2: “Matt, I’m an attorney who is sick of the stress, the billable hours, and the constant jokes being made at parties at my expense.  What else am I qualified to do, though?  I’m really not in a position to start over, go get a new degree, and work my way up from the bottom of the ladder again.”

Proposed Solution: Again, mosey on over to the LinkedIn Advanced People Search page, and this time, type “law degree” OR “juris doctor” in the Keywords box.  Then type the phrase -attorney -counsel -lawyer -partner -paralegal -judge -candidate -juris -doctor in the Title box.  You have to use a bit of trial and error, of course, to figure out the exact words to exclude (using the minus signs) in the search, so don’t worry if it takes you a couple of searches to narrow down the best set of results.  This time, however, my search unveiled 20,000+ people across the country who hold law degrees, but who are NOT currently working in an obvious role within the legal system.  Pretty cool, eh?  Each of these people blazed a trail before you — and figured out how to parlay that expensive degree in a different direction!

Example #3: “Matt, I don’t really want to base my career around my formal education.  I’m just trying to figure out what emerging jobs today would take advantage of my strong mix of presentation skills, writing skills, and passion for the environment.  Can LinkedIn help with that type of research, too?”

Proposed Solution: Sure it can!  Bop on over (as usual) to the Advanced People Search page and type “presentation skills” AND writing AND (environmental OR sustainability OR sustainable) in the Keywords box.  No need to exclude anything in the Title box this time around, though, unless you already know of certain positions you DON’T want to consider.  On my end, over 2,800 people showed up in the result set, some of whom had some pretty cool-sounding roles like “Director of Strategic Sustainability” and “Environmental Education Specialist” to their credit.  So pop open a few peoples’ profiles, study how their skills and qualifications led them to the occupation at hand, and see if you can envision yourself following a similar path!

At the end of the day, I’ll admit, I’m making this sound a LOT easier than you actually might find it to be.  You first need to have a good handle on LinkedIn and how to properly use Boolean syntax to write keyword searches (there are a million free tutorials on Google that you can teach you about Boolean, however, if needed).  Secondly, you have to have a clear sense of the criteria (e.g. skills, strengths, passions) that you want to build your next career move around.  And thirdly, as stated before, you have to go through a certain amount of trial-and-error, and careful review of the results, before you’ll isolate the “short list” of career options that gets you most excited.

But what’s a few hours of research time when you’re plotting a course toward many future years of career satisfaction?  And isn’t it helpful to know that this isn’t some theoretical exercise, but represents actual “proof of concept” that folks with your exact qualifications have gone on to do some unorthodox and amazing things?  Plus, this is LinkedIn we’re talking about.  So you can actually reach out and talk to these live human beings, at the appropriate time, to pick their brains and see how they figured out their ideal path — and what steps they took (or would advise you to take) to get there.

As you can now see, we’ve got a “career precedent database” at our fingertips that’s 75 million people strong, so why not tap into it mightily to help brainstorm YOUR ideal next career chapter?