EMS is a rather easy industry to get into, but it can be really difficult to leave. So many of us get started thinking this is going to be a short-term job or a “stepping stone” to other healthcare or public safety careers. Next thing you know, 12 years have gone by and now EMS is all you know. Sound familiar?
With the right plan and mindset, EMS can be a very rewarding and enjoyable career field. At the same time, lack of career planning, no life balance and poor financial organization can make this field an absolute nightmare. The last thing any of us wants is to be nearing retirement age and to be completely burned out with no exit strategy. Imagine hating your job, but fearing that you’ll throw your back out lifting the gurney at any moment and be forced out only to be find yourself unemployed because you have nothing to fall back on. This is reality for a large portion of us.
Having an exit strategy isn’t just about retirement. It’s about understanding that we are all one bad lift of the gurney away from never stepping foot in an ambulance again. It’s also about understanding that we may not always be so passionate about this field and one day have a desire to seek another line of work. The more control you have over your livelihood, the lower your stress level is going to be.
Here are a few things to consider when figuring out your exit strategy:
Stop allowing your job to steal your identity: This may seem ridiculous, but seriously consider replacing the phrase “I am a ___” with “I work as a ___”. When we allow our job title to become our personal title, we essentially trap ourselves. This doesn’t mean that we can’t be passionate about our line of work. It just means that we need to do a better job of separating our personal lives from our careers. For many people, a job-ending injury, loss of license or unexpected life circumstances result in us leaving the field. If we allow our identities to be robbed by our profession, we end up taking a serious blow to our perceived self-worth.
Accept you simply can’t do this job forever: As much as we may love this profession, there will come a day when we aren’t physically or mentally capable of performing the job anymore. I like to view this from the perspective of a starting NFL quarterback. Do you want to leave on a high note? Or do you want to wear yourself out to the point where you’re either injured so badly that you can’t do it anymore, or be pushed out because your performance has taken a serious dive?
Know you might not be ready to retire from the workforce when you’re ready to leave EMS: Twenty-plus years in EMS is a long career, but if you started in your early 20s, you may be far from ready to leave the workforce. This isn’t a desk job. Multiple decades of waking up at 2 a.m., working long hours, carrying heavy patients and working in confined spaces will take it’s toll much fast than most other jobs. This should be a serious consideration when doing career planning.
So where do you start?
This may sound harsh, but day one of your career needs to be the beginning of the end. This isn’t meant to be cynical or negative. It’s actually a very positive thing. Think about where you want to be 10, 20 or 30 years from now, and start figuring out how you’re going to get there. Keep in mind that having an exit strategy doesn’t necessarily mean leaving EMS altogether. It could mean starting your own business and working part-time or volunteering on the side.
Being an entrepreneur, I’m a huge proponent of figuring out a way to make money for yourself. This could be writing, public speaking, a home-based business, etc. Either way, having something that you start incrementally working on will benefit you in both the short- and long-term. If you have an unexpected departure from EMS, you can kick your side-venture into full gear and turn it into a full-time (or at least part-time) job.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution here. Figure out something that works for your situation and helps you achieve your specific goals. If you take the time to plan and actively work towards your eventual exit from EMS, you will eventually reach a point where you are doing EMS because you want to, not because you have to. This will make all the difference in how you view your career.
Sean Eddy has worked as a paramedic for 10 years and now resides in North Texas. He is the author of MedicMadness.com and the founder of the #MoneySmartMedics campaign.