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Cover Story

The job-shifters: people who reinvent themselves mid-career

How many professionals are creating second careers in an unforgiving economy? Meet six who did it successfully. 

By Staff writer / February 5, 2012

This is the cover story in the Feb. 6 weekly edition of The Christian Science Monitor.

Ann Hermes photo

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Contributing to this report were correspondents Margaret Price in New York; Steve Dinnen in Des Moines, Iowa; and Todd Wilkinson in Bozeman, Mont.

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Ryan Blair had never read a book in his life. But there he was in juvenile detention – in solitary confinement because he'd been fighting – with little to do. There was no furniture, only a bed and a Bible. So he turned to the book of John and read a verse out loud. He hesitated, almost stuttered.

The unfamiliar words sounded weak. He read the verse again. And again. He kept reading, until he could say it loudly and confidently. And he dreamed. Instead of the blank cell wall in front of him, he imagined he was reading to a huge audience. It was the first of many dreams that would take him from troubled 16-year-old, petty thief, and gang member to a new place in life.

Beverly Belzer had worked at the refrigerator factory through a succession of owners. Each time the plant changed hands, she wondered if her job in the print shop would be safe. When the fourth owner, Whirlpool Corp., took over, the end came swiftly.

IN PICTURES: Reinventing Oneself

Despite her 19 years at the factory, her pink slip included no severance or accrued vacation pay. There she was, a 51-year-old grandmother in eastern Iowa with no college degree at the trough of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. It was Thanksgiving 2009.

Reinventing oneself for a new career is seldom elegant. It's usually born of struggle, doubt, or loss. Sometimes all three. It's only afterward, as über-entrepreneur Steve Jobs once suggested, that you can look back and see how every step and stubbed toe made sense.

But from the turmoil come stories, sometimes dramatic narratives, of people who chuck the safety of a paycheck, either by necessity or choice, to craft a new life story worth telling. Often, the denouement involves less money and more fulfillment.

If the Great Recession and its chaotic aftermath have a story line, it goes something like this: The worst economic downturn in nearly 80 years throws millions of Americans out of work – 15.4 million are unemployed at the peak, 13.1 million are still without a job two years later.

Out of that crucible, an increasing number of workers are trying to reinvent themselves to fit in with a fragile, fast-moving world. For some, it's a voluntary change. For many, it isn't. It's a rough-and-tumble necessity. The future demands it.

"The status quo doesn't work anymore," says Pamela Mitchell, founder of the Reinvention Institute, a training and coaching firm in greater Miami and author of "The 10 Laws of Career Reinvention." Workers need to realize that there's no longer a "safe" industry where they can serve out a career. "The only true safety is for me to build my own personal job diversity," she says. "That's the 'aha!' [moment]. Job security comes from within."

* * *

In the summer of 2008, Stan Fellows awoke to a knock on the door at 5 a.m. It was a policeman, ordering him to get out of his house. Groggy and startled, he scrambled to collect some things.

The cop interceded: "I don't think you understand, sir. You need to leave now."

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