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May 15, 1988|MEREDITH F. CHEN | Meredith F. Chen is a free-lance writer based in Glendale.

Social worker Nancy Manning says she knew it was time for a career change seven years ago when she found herself crying in the car after work one day. She realized that counseling newly arrived refugees and ex-convicts in the San Fernando Valley was not for her. She wanted a job that was upbeat.

What Manning, now 41, really longed to do was to be a professional photographer. She had taken photography courses, and her instructors encouraged her to consider it as a career.

After five years as a government social worker, she quit her job, and today Manning is president of her own company.

Her clients pay $1,000 and up for her hand-tinted black and white portraits. Her work has appeared in magazines such as Vogue and Architectural Digest, and she is a guest lecturer at UCLA and the Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design.

Manning is among a growing number of people in the job market who, for a variety of personal, professional and demographic reasons, have switched careers in midstream. While there are no precise estimates of the number of people like Manning, job counselors and employment experts believe that this number is rising markedly.

Many people who make the switch do so in search of more meaningful jobs. Some just are fed up with their old jobs, finding them too stressful or too dull. Still others want a change to accommodate other parts of their lives, such as the desire for children.

Some are looking for new challenges; others seek security.

"People want a job that offers challenge, growth and personal satisfaction, but woven into that is a very real concern about security. . . . Almost everyone knows someone who's been laid off," said Eileen Brabender, a job counselor on the UCLA extension faculty whose clients include homemakers returning to the job market, blue-collar workers and business executives.

"People are looking for a sense of recognition and accomplishment," added Manhattan Beach job counselor Priscilla Smith. Many of her clients are people 35 to 45 who she says are frustrated and are asking: Is this all there is?

To be sure, changing careers has many pitfalls. And, experts say, the brave souls who attempt such a change need to be adequately prepared for the financial and emotional price tag as well as for the temporary setbacks and false starts along the way.

Dennis Miller of Santa Monica, for instance, left a 10-year dentistry practice to study wine making at the University of California, Davis. After taking courses and working in a vineyard one summer, he changed his mind and decided instead to get a masters degree in brewing science and technology.

Nancy Manning, who was divorced and had a 6-year-old child, worked at night as a restaurant hostess, just so she could take pictures during the day. She also took a part-time day job answering the telephone in a real estate office and was later hired by that firm to take pictures of houses.

And when Bonnie Saland, a former union representative, and Gerry Puhara, a film costumer, opened a children's clothing shop in Pasadena, they had hoped to carry handmade items, but many of their customers found such items too expensive. So they began to carry cotton clothing. Finally, when they didn't get their orders from big manufacturers, Saland and her partner had to start manufacturing their own hand-dyed cotton clothes.

Making a career change is not something to be undertaken without preparation, as Wayne Christopherson, 48, learned six years ago.

He was forced to start over after he was fired as manager of a large Los Angeles restaurant as a result of conflicts with the proprietor.

"When the owner of the restaurant cut my salary, I just tried harder--instead of trying to leave and look seriously elsewhere. I didn't prepare because I really didn't want it to happen," Christopherson recalled.

"I came to work one day, and I was given a few months pay and was out the window," he said. "I'd worked there 15 years, and this was a job I enjoyed very much and found exciting, and where I thought I'd done a good job."

Luckily, Christopherson had money in the bank, his house was paid for and his wife was able to go back to work as a teacher. Still, it took him two years, including an attempt at opening his own restaurant, before he went into real estate.

"It offered the immediate potential to make money, and you still do it somewhat on your own time," he said. Last year, Christopherson made more than $100,000.

His advice to others in precarious job situations: "Look for another job before they fire you, be first."

Ray de Romanette, a Southern California career marketing specialist, agreed.

"People who are laid off or fired usually get verbal warnings as well as non-verbal feedback from their employer ahead of time," De Romanette said. Once that has occurred, the employee needs to "start to plan his departure."

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