Ann Hermes photo
This is the cover story in the Feb. 6 weekly edition of The Christian Science Monitor.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

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. 

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

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.

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."

Hours later, the swollen Iowa River surged through Iowa City, Iowa, cresting at 31.5 feet and creating so much damage that locals would call it their Katrina. Mr. Fellows spent that night on a friend's couch. When he rose late in the morning and ambled down to his house, he found it under nine feet of water.

The destruction would be bad enough for anyone, but for Fellows it was particularly devastating. An acclaimed graphic artist – someone who had spent years creating illustrations for major publications like Harper's, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic – he saw an entire life's work destroyed by the silt and surly water. This included 40 years of memorable art and a career portfolio of imagery that chronicled his life along the way, some 2,000 paintings and 70 elegant sketchbooks in all.

For some time he'd wanted – even prayed for – time to step back after more than a decade of high income and success as an illustrator. His marriage had ended. He knew that he ought to be a better, more attentive father to his preteen daughter, Daisy. But to end like this, with floodwaters destroying all the illustrations he'd need to build a portfolio and get new jobs?

"It's a strange feeling when you wade into the aftermath of something like that and you find visual remnants of things you recognize, but they are squishy and amorphous and when you try to touch them, hold them, they fall apart," he recalls. "Events forced me to act boldly, to act fearlessly, to take a chance and assess what really matters."

With some of the little money left in his bank account, he rented a cottage in Michigan the following summer and had Daisy join him. He also began to paint. Instead of selling works for thousands of dollars that would be seen by millions of magazine readers, he painted canvases and offered them for a few hundred dollars apiece. Instead of crafting art in a personal studio, he set up an easel along highways and farm fields. People would stop to see what he was doing.

"Ten years ago, I didn't have a story, or at least a story that I thought might be interesting or worthwhile telling," he says. "I had a career, but I was just going through the motions like everybody else."

And now? His career as a painter has begun to take off – the reinvention he had dreamed about.

He says he sees his work as a painter helping people open their eyes to the beauty in front of them. And he has begun to appreciate his Scandinavian ancestors, who gave up everything to move to Minnesota and start a new life and who found a way to find happiness "without having to inundate themselves with stuff."

Not long ago, Fellows and Daisy were strolling along the waterfront in Iowa City where the flood had hit, and they came upon a fortune teller offering to answer three questions for $40. "It was a little pricey for a lark, so we passed," he says.

Still, Daisy pressed her father, "Dad, if you could've asked a question, what would it be?"

Fellows replied: "I would've asked if I'd ever find love again."

Wrong question, his daughter said. "If the fortune teller's answer is 'no,' then you have to wait for your life to play out without hope."

Today, Fellows reflects: "She's right. You have to be able to hope for good things to happen, even if they never do."

* * *

It should come as no surprise that many people who reinvent their career make less money after the transition, especially if they've gone through a bout of unemployment during a downturn. For example, fewer than half of those who lost a job during the Great Recession were employed as of 2010, according to a recent study by Princeton University economist Henry Farber. Job losers who found new work typically earned 17.5 percent less per week than in their old jobs, much of that because they moved from full-time to part-time positions.

Even job losers who found new full-time employment experienced on average an 11 percent decline in earnings (including earnings increases they would have enjoyed had they kept their original job). Some studies have detected a drop in earnings 20 years after layoffs. There are exceptions, of course, sometimes dramatic ones.

Mr. Blair remembers the lice. Before being put in a juvenile detention facility or joining a gang, he was living in a shed behind his sister's house. He had left home because his father, a former corporate vice president who Blair says became a drug addict, had accused him (erroneously) of stealing his gun collection and had threatened him. The shed was a haven; it was also infested with lice.

"It didn't matter how much I showered or what I tried to do to my hair to get rid of them – the next day they would be back," he writes in his new book, "Nothing to Lose, Everything to Gain." "Finally, in an act of desperation to be rid of the lice, I decided to shave my head."

When school officials learned of his living arrangements, they confronted his mother and persuaded her to leave her husband. She got a tiny house in a gang-ridden neighborhood, which drew Blair into a life of shoplifting and fighting. But it also led to his mother finding a job, working her way up from deli clerk to department manager, and dating a customer who turned out to be a successful real estate entrepreneur. The entrepreneur's business and lifestyle began to show Blair that there were other, legitimate ways to get ahead. Eventually, the man would become his stepfather.

"Having a mentor is unequivocally the one thing that all the successful people I know have in common," Blair says. His stepdad gave him his first job. Blair left that to work in a call center for Logix Development Corp., a Camarillo, Calif., software developer; got transferred to its data center; and began to develop his fascination with computers. With a lot of hustle and by absorbing all he could by reading computer science books, he became supervisor, manager, then vice president, earning $100,000 a year. His career seemed set, except that Blair had bigger dreams.

Careers have a way of taking unexpected turns. When the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) tracked baby boomers born from 1957 through 1964, it found that they had changed jobs 10 times by the age of 44. The Great Recession seems to have scooped up a greater-than-normal share of careers and twisted their courses even more. In a survey last year by CareerBuilder, a job-listing firm, of 809 US workers who had been laid off and found new employment, more than half said their new jobs were in entirely different fields. Determining exactly how many times people change careers is tricky, since even small transitions can lead to big changes over time.

"Career change is an evolving process, not an instant transformation," says Marci Alboher, a former lawyer-turned-journalist and now author (her book, "One Person/Multiple Careers," will soon be released in digital form). "It's better to think about careers as living things that morph over time, adding layers as you grow and adding experiences, skills, and roles."

In fact, the whole notion of having a single career at any one time is giving way to the notion of having a portfolio of skills and jobs at the same time – "a slash career," as Ms. Alboher puts it, whose own résumé includes journalist/author/speaker. "The best approach for people seeking change is to start experimenting: exploring things that interest them through internships, classes, reading, and getting out into new worlds. The most successful career transitioners are those who build on what came before and end up with a custom-blended career."

* * *

After majoring in finance at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Brad Berkowitz spent 22 years as an analyst on Wall Street. But the constant stress, and eventually the lagging markets and slumping economy, became overwhelming. So when he was laid off by a hedge fund at the end of 2007, the inveterate football fan decided to leave Wall Street permanently and pursue something he had dreamed about for years – becoming a sports agent.

He took the exam required to represent National Football League players. As a newcomer, however, he found it hard to elbow his way into the business. So he has worked other jobs to help pay the bills. His tongue-in-cheek book, "The 21st Century Guide to Bachelorhood," is now being made into a screenplay. He has co-written a science-fiction thriller that's also being converted into a screenplay, and he is trying to get a nonfiction manuscript – about a former boxing champion who's now homeless – made into a documentary. All the while, he's been serving as co-president for two website businesses developed by his father-in-law.

Last April, Mr. Berkowitz got his breakthrough as a sports agent: representing a onetime star college football player who is likely to play offensive lineman for the Philadelphia Soul in the Arena Football League. This fall, he signed four more clients, and he also landed a coveted role as an independent contractor representing football players for Agency Athlete, a New York marketing company.

"I wish I had done this at age 22," he says. Being professionally involved with football "makes me much happier now."

Many people do abandon their cubicles because they want to, not because they are being forced to do something else. The BLS reports that, in normal economic times, the annual "quit" rate among American workers – those who voluntarily leave their jobs – runs at about 25 percent. That doesn't necessarily mean that one-quarter of the workforce turns over each year, since no one knows how many people might quit several times in a 12-month period.

Nevertheless, it suggests that the natural turnover rate remains relatively high, with one exception: People tend to cling to their jobs during recessions. In the depth of the most recent downturn, for instance, the quit rate dropped to 16 percent, according to the BLS.

In fact, a recent survey by Right Management, a unit of the employment services firm ManpowerGroup, suggests that by this standard the economy might be improving: In a poll of more than 1,000 employees this past fall, it found that a whopping 84 percent intended to seek a new position. Many people, apparently, don't like their jobs, or at least seem comfortable enough now to consider making a switch.

* * *

Rich Anderson was ready to do something else. He was enjoying excellent wages and gold-plated benefits at Ford Motor Co. in Indianapolis, but he didn't feel passionate about his work. He much preferred to paint, draw, and sculpt rather than help oversee the manufacture of a pump used on power steering assemblies.

Still, he labored on for 14 years. When Ford's fortunes began to wane in the mid-2000s, the company offered buyout packages two separate times. He turned them down. Ford's third offer was one he couldn't refuse: full tuition reimbursement at college, half his salary while he was in school, and company-paid health insurance.

Although he could have furthered his skills in engineering or quality assurance, he opted instead to study at the Herron School of Art and Design, which is part of Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis. "I just wanted to do something creative," he says.

Mr. Anderson had not yet pinpointed what he wanted to do with all this education. But someone put him in touch with a local school district, and two days later, he was teaching art to preschoolers and kindergartners.

"I didn't know that kindergarten teaching was for me," he says. But "it gives me a sense of purpose."

At his old job, Anderson worked long hours and got what he called great money. Now, he works fewer hours and earns considerably less, but he lives a better, fuller life, he says. "This is my renaissance, and I'm with these kids."

Training and education can help in reinventing one's career. When Ms. Belzer, the Iowa grandmother, was laid off by Whirlpool just before Thanksgiving, she didn't have a college degree. So she resolved to do something about it. She sought help at Kirkwood Community College, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where she took aptitude tests that steered her to a program to become a medical assistant. She will graduate, along with her daughter, Dana, this May.

Belzer's new career choice may prove to be propitious: The BLS has estimated that employment for medical assistants will grow 34 percent between 2008 and 2018, much faster than the average for all other occupations.

Belzer says she won't earn as much in her new field as she did working in the factory. But if she is like low-income Americans who have gone through training, she could come out ahead. A 2008 study of the Workforce Investment Act, a federal job-training program, found that workers who received training eventually averaged more than $400 more in pay per quarter than those who didn't develop new skills. But mastering a new career isn't as simple as just enrolling in a job-training class.

"Everyone has a unique gift – a unique combination of traits," says Paul David Walker, founder of Genius Stone Partners, a strategic consulting firm in Greater Los Angeles and author of a forthcoming book, "Invent Your Future." Mr. Walker relies on a tried-and-true personality test to figure out strategic directions for his clients. "Once you do what you're naturally good at, you're going to do better than anybody."

* * *

Microphone in hand and shirttails draping over the top of his black jeans, comedian Shaun Eli launches into his routine on a recent Friday night skewering vegetarians, overweight Mississippians, and life and times in the Big Apple.

"In New York, we didn't play cowboys and Indians. We played tenants and landlords," he quips to an audience at the Emelin Theatre in Mamaroneck, N.Y. "In Times Square today, I saw a cop on a horse on a cellphone. There's something unsettling about seeing a horse on a cellphone."

After 20 minutes of banter, he turns over the stage to two more comics, who were also booked and marketed by Mr. Eli's company, Ivy Stand-up. Since Eli hasn't become the next Jay Leno yet, he has found it easier to sell a full show of comics rather than just himself.

His business venture is what reinvention experts would instantly recognize as a melding of passionate interest with previously learned skill. Until 2009, Eli was Shaun Eli Breidbart, Wall Street banker.

Although he began faxing jokes to "The Tonight Show" on a freelance basis some 20 years ago, what really sparked his transition to comedy was a friend who persuaded him to try stand-up. He signed up for classes and found a niche in so-called clean comedy. Eli began setting up gigs, and got busy enough that he quit his banking job in 2009. Since then, he's averaged about three major shows a month – usually in the New York City area. He also recently performed in Maryland; Washington, D.C.; and northern California.

His earnings have plunged from the "low six-figures to the mid-five figures," he says. "But I'm getting stronger and stronger." He hopes 2012 will bring his breakthrough: the year he performs on television. "I'll begin sending videos of my performances to bookers of TV shows – realizing, of course, that I'll just get one shot at their attention."

Many people who have had success reinventing themselves don't stop with just one career change. They keep going. Blair, the gang member-turned-high-tech executive, had worked his way up to where he was making more than $100,000 a year. Yet that wasn't satisfying enough. He wanted to start his own company.

So his boss at Logix became his business partner, and 24/7 Tech, a technical-support firm for medium and small businesses, was born. Blair then sold the company to launch SkyPipeline, a wireless broadband provider, which he later sold for $25 million.

Now, he is chief executive officer of ViSalus, a weight-loss and fitness direct-sales company based in Troy, Mich., and Los Angeles, which last year saw sales skyrocket to $231 million, up nearly seven times from 2010.

"I would dream about my life, like a movie," he says, when asked for his top tip to would-be career-changers. "If you can visualize ringing the Nasdaq bell or writing the bestselling novel or whatever it is, you will really start to train your subconscious." And "start today," he adds.

As a successful entrepreneur and speaker, Blair was asked in 2010 to give a talk to a megachurch in Detroit. As he prepared to speak, that memory of reading the Bible to an imaginary audience in juvenile detention came back with full force. "I was amazed and in awe," he recalls. "I just believe that when I created that dream, my mind absorbed it."

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