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Planning Is Key in Making a Mid-Life Career Change

September 29, 1985|JONATHAN PETERSON | Times Staff Writer

For Ed de Merlier, 48, the executive recruitment business had lost much of its charm after nine years, so he moved on--to open a shop featuring self-serve ice cream and frozen yogurt.

After 28 years as an engineer in the Army and on space projects, John Winslow, 51, quit his job to experience the challenges of the private sector.

When Atlantic Richfield offered employees attractive retirement deals this spring, Burt Strickley, 53, seized on the chance to open a business maintaining swimming pools.

In different ways and for different reasons, these workers are attempting the same potentially tricky maneuver: switching careers at a time in life when many of their peers are comfortably ensconced in a lasting occupational niche.

In coming years, workers at mid-life will be more likely to encounter such career crossroads, according to experts in employment. Attitudes toward work are changing, with younger employees particularly open to trying something different after an initial career foray. And in other cases, such as that of Strickley, established workers unexpectedly face career considerations when companies cut the payroll through retirement incentives or layoffs.

"I think changing careers is a very strong, growing trend," says Beth Beeler, a career counselor with the UCLA Placement and Career Planning Center. "We always have waiting lists for the seminars we give, and that tells us something."

Trading careers in midstream can be a tremendously liberating, rewarding experience--or a nightmare. It offers new opportunities for job satisfaction, creativity and wealth. But it also may entail serious financial and professional risks.

Those familiar with the subject stress that career changers boost their chances for success if they thoroughly study what they're getting into before they leap. More than a little self-study is advised, as well. Workers need to assess just what is bothering them about their current situation and gauge how much they are prepared to risk--financially and emotionally--to change matters.

One helpful approach is for workers to build on what they already know, whether this means finding a job in a related field or saying goodby to the corporate world altogether and starting their own enterprise.

Jeffrey G. Allen, co-author of "Finding the Right Job at Midlife" and an advocate of what he calls the "go-for-what-you-know" approach to success, maintains: "The mistake that so many people make is that they dart into something wrong. But you can't expect to get the right job unless you parlay what you know through your life experience."

Allen, an attorney, says that one way to move into a new job is to get a consulting assignment for an employer and turn it into something permanent.

Mike Parker, president of New Career Opportunities Inc. of Glendale, which holds seminars on how to start a business, recalls the cases of a secretary who branched out by founding a secretarial service and a homemaker who parlayed her household talents into an upholstery repair business. But Parker warns that mere familiarity with a product or service isn't enough to ensure success. The would-be capitalist must also appreciate the importance of record keeping, marketing, selling and the other nuts and bolts that keep a business stable.

"Business is a discipline," says Parker, "and if you can't discipline yourself you can't operate a business.

Self-discipline also is required if a person seeks a new employer. Job-seekers should be prepared to brush up such forgotten skills as writing a resume and participating in a job interview, possibly having to impress somebody 20 years their junior.

"The only difference between selling a product and selling yourself is that (when you sell yourself) you're both the goods and the salesman," Allen says.

Winslow, the engineer, recalls that he began his search with a resume that was "a dull recital of where I'd been and what I'd done." After joining 40 Plus, a group that provides a variety of support services for professionals seeking new jobs, he rewrote the resume. The snappier, more conversational resume triggered a phone call from a company that had previously sent him a rejection slip.

"That taught me there are tricks to the trade," he says.

Winslow, who quit his job at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena last March, learned another lesson: Landing the right job takes time.

"It's a courtship with a long relationship at stake," he says, adding: "And I'm in the courtship, too. I'm not just looking for the first thing that comes along. I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't want the right job."

Another fact of life for older job-seekers is the possibility that they will run into age discrimination. Such bias is illegal but can be hard to prove. Many attempt to avoid this and other hassles of the job market by starting their own business, a guarantee of independence--and responsibility.

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