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Southern California Job Market : A Special Report On Employment Trends : Finding A Job : Mid-life Career Change Is A Hard Move To Make

September 20, 1987|DENISE GELLENE | Times Staff Writer

Two years ago, Steven M. Nelson rose early and battled traffic to get to his office at Mattel Inc., where he was vice president of toy development and design. Today, Nelson, 49, still rises early, but he wears what he likes and runs his own art shop in Redondo Beach.

Judy Skiff taught high school mathematics in Pasadena and then rushed home after a day in the classroom to prepare dinner for her family. But for the last two years, Skiff, 41, has worked as a real estate agent and her two teen-age daughters get dinner ready.

Nelson and Skiff are among a diverse but relatively small group of people who have started new careers. While a large number of Americans change jobs each year, far fewer workers actually move into a different occupation.

Figures compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that workers are switching careers less frequently than in the past. According to a 1984 study, the most recent available, 7.5% of all men and women employed in 1982 changed careers in 1983. That is a decrease from a 1977 study, which showed that 11.5% of the work force changed occupations within a year.

The bureau's study indicates that a greater percentage of women switch careers than men. Many of these women are moving into management positions, in part because women today are better educated and employed in greater numbers than in the past.

Meanwhile, the bureau says, many men are being forced to take jobs in new occupations that offer lower pay and less status, since men dominate industrial companies hit by hard economic times and competition from overseas.

Job counselors say there are good reasons why workers don't often switch careers. For one thing, the cost of retraining is expensive and time-consuming. Another problem is that career changers frequently have to start at the bottom of the ladder in the new occupation, and that means low salary and prestige.

It is also more difficult for the older job switcher to find a position. Eric Mokover, director of admissions for the MBA program at UCLA's John E. Anderson Graduate School of Management, says employers tend to favor younger MBA graduates because there is a sense that younger graduates can be trained more easily. "It's difficult, but not impossible, for an MBA student over 30 to find a job," he says.

But Anthony Kane, president of Univance Outplacement Centers in Los Angeles, says a career switch is increasingly attractive to corporate executives who have lost their jobs through layoffs. He says 10% to 15% of the displaced executives that his firm counsels start their own businesses, about double the percentage five years earlier.

Kane says these entrepreneurial executives are tired of the corporate bureaucracy and are eager to try something new. And with the rash of layoffs that frequently accompany corporate mergers, "these employees know that even if they do an outstanding job, if their corporation is involved in a merger, they could still lose their jobs."

Kane says that anyone planning to start their own business should have enough money saved to cover family expenses while the new business gets off the ground. "You have to know yourself," Kane cautions. "Persistance is important. Many small businesses fail not because the idea is a bad one but because the owners are too anxious or discouraged to stay with it."

After climbing Mattel's corporate ladder for 19 1/2 years, Nelson says he realized that he "had no desire to rise any further and probably wasn't suited to go any further." He says he felt closer to the creative process than budgets and deadlines and wasn't a classic executive. "I never wore a tie, and I jogged at lunchtime," he says.

Nelson was well situated to make a career change. He and his wife have no children, and she was employed. The couple had adequate savings. Still, it wasn't easy to leave behind Mattel's six-figure salary, especially when he had no job plans. "I was raised with this Puritan work ethic that you are always supposed to have this very responsible job. That made my decision very hard," he says.

After eight months of "winding down," Nelson turned his hobby--art collecting--into a new career by opening a shop that specializes in folk and Indian art. Instead of working behind a desk, as he did at Mattel, he meets with art dealers and scours the Southwest for art for the store, the Mountain Lion Trading Post. And rather than oversee a staff of more than 300 toy designers, he has no employees at all.

The drop in Nelson's income is steep. He says that he is earning about one-third of what he made at Mattel. Nelson is happy with the new business, nonetheless. He says, "We didn't just change careers, but our lives and the whole way we spend our time, with ourselves and with other people."

For Skiff, the changes in life style also were dramatic. As a teacher for 16 years in various school districts, she always had time for her family in the evenings and on weekends. When she decided to give up teaching for real estate, everything changed.

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