Changing careers at mid-life can be a rewarding option
By Deborah Weisberg
Published: Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012, 10:50 a.m.
After 30 years in academia, Chuck Hier of Swisshelm Park is hitting the road.
Now 63, this college professor with a PhD recently added another credential to his curriculum vitae: licensed commercial truck driver. Although he'll continue to teach history at the University of Akron on Mondays, Hier will spend the rest of the week in an 18-wheeler, hauling Walmart cargo through the tri-state region.
“It's exciting and a little scary,” says Hier, who never envisioned himself behind the wheel of a big rig, especially when many of his contemporaries are preparing to retire. But with a son in college, his family needs a bigger paycheck, even though his wife works full-time. “When Frederick started college, money started flying out of the bank account,” says Hier, who will triple his income by driving a truck. “This was a practical decision.”
For Deborah Carter, 51, of Ambridge, changing careers was about creating a more meaningful life. Six years ago, she left a secure job as an insurance-claims auditor after 16 years, because, she says, “I'd reached a point where it was no longer acceptable to do work I'd come to hate.”
She knew only that she wanted to be her own boss, but had no idea in which field, so Carter sought help from Karen Litzinger of Litzinger Career Consulting in Regent Square.
“Karen helped me identify strengths, skills and values — and figure out where they could best be used,” Carter says. “Physical therapist and occupational therapist both came up, but I'd been to college and didn't want more schooling. After talking with people in those jobs, I also learned they spent a ton of time doing paperwork, and I'd had enough of that, too.”
Reflexologist — a practitioner of healing foot massage — proved to be the perfect fit, says Carter, who maintains a practice in Forest Hills and is contemplating opening a second site in Sewickley.
“Was I scared to go out on my own at first? I was scared out of my mind, and my friends were scared for me,” she says. “But I listened to my gut when the fear came up, and just kept pushing through it.”
Her courage was rewarded, says Carter, who is expanding her practice to include other kinds of alternative therapies.
She recently turned down the chance to affiliate with a local health club. “I really like working for myself in my own little space,” she says. “I'm responsible for everything, but I love the independence.”
Career change in mid-life no longer is the exception for a growing number of baby boomers who lost jobs in the recent recession, or who want to spend the second half of their lives doing work they can feel excited about.
“In a good economy, people may be more willing to explore, but when someone is laid off, it presents a crossroads, and they're forced to look at new fields,” says Litzinger, who helped professional photographer Garry Weber chart a new career path five years ago.
He was 48, and living in O'Hara when his studio tanked after more than 20 years. He now sees the setback as a blessing in disguise.
“It was painful, but I worked through it, and it wasn't entirely unexpected, since I'd begun to have reservations about whether I wanted to shoot weddings for the rest of my life,” he says. “I was beginning to relate more to the parents of the bride and groom than the couple getting married, and figured maybe it was time for a change.”
With guidance from Litzinger, Weber found his calling by surfing the Internet for hot new careers. “One of them was biomedical technician, which I'd never even heard of,” he says. “But I like working with tools and I'm meticulous, so it sounded exactly like what I'd be good at.”
He signed up for classes at Penn State University, and two years later, had the associate's degree that enabled him to land a job fixing equipment at a Baltimore hospital. “It was hard going back to school. I was the oldest guy in the class, and I had to get over my ‘math phobia,' ” he says. “But I was more studious than when I'd gone to college the first time around. I was more focused.”
Although he worried about age discrimination in the job hunt — even briefly considering dying his hair, he says — it turned out to be a nonissue, given his attitude and choice of fields.
“If I got laid off tomorrow,” he says, “I'd find a job at another hospital, because I have skills that are in demand.”
In fact, older workers might have an advantage, especially in technical fields, such as engineering, according to Mike Dobbertin, a vice president at Kelly Services, one of the world's largest employment agencies.
“In the Pittsburgh market, 43 percent of our total Kelly workforce is comprised of people (ages) 45 to 73. It's a huge part of why we're successful.
“We're always working with clients who are concentrating on a certain level of experience … which often requires a more mature worker,” he says.
Contrary to the notion that people become more set in their ways as they age, Dobbertin finds that the older free agents Kelly employs “are open to new and different experiences.”
Joe D'Anna, a career consultant at the nonprofit Career Development Center, a division of Jewish Family and Children's Service in Squirrel Hill, shares his perspective: “The majority of our clients are in their 40s through 60s, and show flexibility in embarking on new careers.”
And, they typically are willing to cut to the chase, which often is best done with professional support, he says. “The process is a job in itself that involves self-assessment, determining competency requirements, talking to people in the field you think you want, networking, marketing yourself, and preparing for cold calls.”
D'Anna is working with a former college-aide administrator in his 50s with advanced degrees in education who is deciding to become a massage therapist.
“He wanted to stay in Pittsburgh, but couldn't find work in his field, so he picked a profession where there's growing demand,” D'Anna says. “It appeals to him, in part, because he has an athletic background.”
D'Anna helped a retired business owner in his 60s land a job managing the pro shop at a golf course.
“He could have lived off the proceeds of the sale of his business, but he was bored staying home,” D'Anna says. “He loves golf, so he decided to parlay that into a career.”
D'Anna's oldest client is an 80-year-old retired pharmacist, who still wants to feel useful, says D'Anna, who is himself 74.
“Age 60 today is ‘younger' than it ever was, and as people get older, many are willing to take risks they might not have in their 20s.”
It was true for Suzie Neft, 55, who left a job in city government last year to pursue public-relations and media-placement work, even though it meant striking out on her own.
She had spent most of her career — more than 30 years — in television and other media.
“It's often harder for women, in particular, as they age to get jobs in a lot of fields,” says Neft of the decision to launch Suzie Neft Promotes from her Swisshelm Park home. “But the main reason is I'd reached a point in my life where I didn't want to work for anyone else … to have to ask permission to take two hours off for a doctor's appointment.”
Leaving behind a steady paycheck and good benefits was a gamble, Neft admits, and one she wouldn't have taken when she was younger. “I'm less fearful at my age because I'm confident in what I know,” says Neft, who is pursuing a master's degree in corporate communications, as well.
“I decided that if I had to take a couple of part-time jobs to make ends meet until I'm up and running, it wouldn't faze me,” she says. “In my 20s and 30s, I would have considered that beneath me.”
She hasn't had to, so far. Neft saved toward the day she could pursue the work she wanted, and sought help in putting together a business plan, especially with regard to pricing of work and cultivation of clients.
“It's been slow starting up, but it's coming together,” she says.
“When I sit at my desk with my dogs at my feet — not that I sit all that much — I know I made the right decision,” she says.
Deborah Weisberg is a contributing writer to Trib Total Media.
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