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From Boom to Bust: Making the Most of Midcareer Switch

Experts say do your homework, be financially prepared--and above all, be realistic.


For 18 years, John Bendheim loved his work as a manufacturer of women's clothing. But two years ago, the business had become a grind, with struggling retailers squeezing apparel makers for ever lower prices.

The thrill gone, Bendheim took a hair-raising step that many burned-out baby boomers have taken--or been tempted to take. He switched careers.

"I had owned several properties as investments and enjoyed real estate," said Bendheim, 42. With the help of an experienced friend, Bendheim launched a Beverly Hills firm that now develops residential properties in Bakersfield. "Now," he said, "I [can] go to the office every day and get excited."

Bendheim, who already held a master's of business administration from USC when he made his change, practiced what many consultants and academics preach to workers posed with similar choices in midcareer:

* Avoid moving cold turkey from one field to another.

* Do your homework.

* Network.

* Be realistic.

* Save some money to tide you over, since starting over often means accepting lower or less reliable pay.

"People do very well who do some research and preparation," said Barry Glassner, chairman of USC's sociology department. "That requires looking realistically at what you're moving to instead of having some starry-eyed notion."

Glassner advises that workers looking to change careers--either because they're burned out or want greater job satisfaction--observe practitioners in the new field for several days.

Someone thinking about nursing might spend time watching what goes on in an emergency room. A carpenter wannabe could shadow workers at a construction site. A would-be lawyer could sit in on court sessions, to realize that the legal world isn't all O.J. Simpson trials and highly paid defense attorneys with flashy ties.


Workers should resist the urge to chuck it all and move into an alien line of work.

"Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater," advised William A. Charland Jr., author of "Career Shifting: Starting Over in a Changing Economy."

By that, Charland means that workers should try to find some aspect of what they do that they still enjoy and could be a building block for a job in another industry. Computer expertise is a prime example of a skill that can be readily transferred.

Recently, a talented waitress wandered in to the offices of Women at Work, a career and job resource center in Pasadena. Kate Pope, director of counseling, noted that the woman had many skills that could be useful in her newly chosen field: working at a zoo.

"She's good at handling crises and a great deal of variety," Pope said, adroitly avoiding the conclusion that the woman might also have worked with a few customers who deserved to be in cages.

At a time when the implicit lifetime-employment contract between employers and workers has eroded, career switchers should also be aware that it might not be easy to find another traditional full-time job with benefits.

"The chances are a lot higher than a generation ago that a midcareer [switcher] will end up as a freelancer, a contractor or even a temp," said William Bridges, a former college literature professor-turned-consultant whose 1980 book "Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes" has sold 250,000 copies.

In fact, some experts recommend that antsy workers consider employment at a temporary agency to sample a range of opportunities. With companies seeking everything from human resources to legal counseling at outside firms these days, it's possible to get a taste of many other professions and take incremental steps toward switching--while getting a paycheck.

These days, moving from one career to another need not--and often should not--entail getting an advanced degree, especially at $10,000 or $20,000 a year. Unless one hopes to become, say, a neurosurgeon, it would be better to save the money and work at gaining skills.

"[Advanced] degrees are becoming less credible and are valued less," Charland said. "It's the skill sets that really count."

Above all, keep in mind that in hard economic times employers have the upper hand and can demand that workers in even entry-level positions have years of experience.

Glassner, the sociologist, cautions that midcareer switchers must be prepared for "bumps in the road." It helps to have the support of family members who have been included in the decision-making about a career change.

Bendheim, the former clothing manufacturer, said his family was financially prepared to weather a year or two of lower earnings. His wife, he said, was delighted with his swap because it meant he would no longer be traveling two weeks of every month.

Said Bendheim with glee: "She got her husband back."

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