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Work Shift : Climbing the professional ladder is no longer an option for many--so some people are learning to grow their own careers.


Whatever happened to that corporate ladder our fathers climbed? It was such a rational, comfortable concept: Just start on the lowest rung at 21 or 22 years of age, work hard, be loyal, and up you go, earning more money and status each year until they give you a gold watch and set you free to enjoy your golden years.

Today, business and economic analysts seem to agree that the ladder is collapsing.

Nationally, companies with more than 1,000 employees lost 1.2 million jobs in the 1980s, according to Rosabeth Moss Kanter in her 1989 book "When Giants Learn to Dance." In Ventura County, said a spokeswoman for the state Employment Development Department, an average of 26,500 people were unemployed last year, up from 18,800 three years ago. Employees in defense-related industries such as aerospace and computer technology have been hit particularly hard in the past few years.

And, in general, opportunities in all large companies are not keeping pace with population growth or individual expectations. Economists agree this trend will continue.

"Baby-boom workers are moving into middle management expectations six times faster than middle management spots are opening up," said Thousand Oaks resident Ken Brousseau of Decision Dynamics Corp., a Santa Monica-based career counseling company.

"Mergers and takeovers are cutting the need for workers, companies trying to cut out fat are ripping out whole levels of management that might have been rungs of the ladder, and different management philosophies are leading to fewer levels of management and ultimately fewer employees."

If the ladder is broken and the fast track is closed to all but a few, how do we achieve progress these days?

One way, according to business analysts, is to think of it as a vine or a tree rather than a ladder. Experts in career strategies suggest "growing a career."

The garden for growing careers is an environment of uncertainty and opportunity.

"The very chance to invent, shape or grow a job puts career responsibility squarely in the hands of the individual," business analyst Kanter wrote.

In Ventura County, people are being forced to face up to these new workplace realities. Perhaps they have lost their jobs or think they might lose their jobs; maybe they see no more advancement opportunities or feel severe limitations on the salaries they can command.

Whatever the reason, thousands are taking a close and sometimes painful look at their careers, their hopes and their goals. And what they seem to agree on is that while a career change can be upsetting and financially trying, it can also lead to greater satisfaction and a greater sense of control over one's life.

In the mid-1980s, as engineering program manager for Datametrics Corp., an aerospace company in Chatsworth, Peter Wolf brought in $85,000 a year but didn't see much of his wife and four children because his job required long hours and out-of-town travel. And there were rumblings that aerospace might not always be the most secure field.

When Wolf, then in his mid-30s, volunteered at his church in Thousand Oaks helping members find jobs, he was surprised to find he loved the work. It occurred to him that a consulting business in career and job placement would give him more stability and more time with his wife, Teresa, and their four children, Jennifer, 12, Matthew 11, Heidi, 9, and Lisa, 5.

At home in the evenings, he started a part-time job search company. It was so successful that four years later he quit his aerospace job and started his own employment agency.

Nowadays, as owner and president of Job Search in Thousand Oaks, Wolf sees a lot of his family. But they have had to make adjustments. Wolf now makes about two-thirds of his old salary, which has meant cutting back on expenses at home: no cable TV, no electricity or gas for heating (they use a wood stove), no new Nintendo.

The Wolfs spend a lot of weekends together now, stuffing envelopes for the business. They don't seem to mind, and Wolf likes the satisfaction his new business gives him.

"I've figured out a way to really help people find work," he said. "In times like these, that is especially rewarding."

Diana Haseley quit her secretarial job at Good Shepherd Lutheran School in Simi Valley in 1988 to work on a degree in geography. Financially it was a hard decision for her and her husband, Robert, a plant manager for the Simi Valley school district. But she was uneasy about the economic squeeze affecting her family, and changing her career seemed like the best long-term solution.

"Clerical salaries are so low," she said, "and we had dreams of traveling more. Or son is getting older; we started thinking about braces, college. I felt that each year everything was costing more than the raises we were getting."

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