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Work & Careers | CAREER MAKE-OVER: Southern Californians
Learning How to Improve Their Careers

Occupational Therapist Working for Change

May 07, 2000|SUSAN VAUGHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

While paging through the Occupational Outlook Handbook several years ago, Anthony Simpkins discovered good news: Demand for his chosen new career--occupational therapy--was expected to grow by leaps and bounds in the upcoming decade.

The Colton resident earned an associate degree in occupational therapy (with a minor in anthropology) at Loma Linda University, then applied for work as an OT assistant so he could generate much-needed income. He found that he greatly enjoyed helping disabled people relearn living and working skills.

But what the handbook didn't tell Simpkins was that, because of recent health-care cutbacks, cautious employers frequently hire OT assistants on a per diem basis. For 37-year-old Simpkins, this tense arrangement means no health insurance, vacation pay or livable wage. Currently, he earns about $10 an hour. He worries that he may not be able to keep up with payments on his $45,000 student loan, which came due this month.

"One can't pay bills and have a reasonably normal life waiting by the phone all the time," Simpkins said.

Simpkins realizes that he can increase his employability and earning potential by returning to school to complete his bachelor's degree. But the thought of piling on additional debt troubles him, particularly when OT opportunities may remain limited.

So he's rethinking his career plans. Because he loves learning about cultures and interacting with people who have backgrounds different from his own, Simpkins is contemplating switching majors to anthropology and getting a bachelor's in that field. But he reminds himself that this too might be a risky financial and educational investment.

For help with his career dilemma, Simpkins consulted Daniel King, Boston-based founder of Career Planning & Management Inc. The two readily agreed that Simpkins should first channel his efforts toward finding steady, higher-paying work. King encouraged Simpkins to research companies that employ occupational therapy assistants, then send them individualized correspondence that showcases his qualifications.

Previously, Simpkins had been following what he described as "the traditional job-hunting route": answering want ads, making cold calls and faxing resumes, all to little avail.

As for Simpkins' long-term career prospects, King had Simpkins list the activities he most enjoyed. Simpkins named helping people, communicating and dealing with cultural diversity issues. After enumerating these things, Simpkins said quietly, "They say, 'Do what you love, and the money will come,' but I think that's not very realistic."

"If you simply hope for money to come, yes, that is wishful thinking," King said. "But doing what you love takes careful planning. You may want to challenge some of your assumptions, because you really can earn a good living at what you like to do.

"You may tell yourself, 'Nobody is going to pay me to do anthropology.' But if you don't get stuck on the anthropology label, you'll find lots of related opportunities out there: diversity [consulting], mediating disputes, helping cultures understand each other, and more."

King suggested that while Simpkins explores these many options, he take some elective courses in human resources, including such subjects as employee relations, training and development, and diversity.

Following are additional pointers from King and other experts:

* Business anthropology. Although anthropologists are renowned for stomping through jungles to live among indigenous tribes, a growing number of them are opting to trek through urban wilds, studying corporate cultures and serving as $1,000-a-day consultants to Armani-clad chieftains.

Corporate heads are increasingly hiring cultural anthropologists to help their businesses run more smoothly. When opening overseas plants and branches, firms may need advice from anthropologists about their new locale's traditions and mores. While launching international ad campaigns, they may ask cultural anthropologists to review their materials to ensure that they don't make what insiders call "hilarious cultural mistakes."

Those struggling with internecine employee feuds may ask anthropologists to do ethnographies of their workplaces. These intensive research projects involve chronicling personnel interactions, analyzing corporate culture and investigating work-site conditions that could be interfering with employee productivity.

Some companies, including Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson, retain academics to use cultural anthropology research methods to gain a better understanding of their customers' needs. And even Hollywood studios hire anthropologists to review their film and television works-in-progress for cultural accuracy, said Mari Womack, a Los Angeles-based cultural anthropologist and author of "Being Human: an Introduction to Cultural Anthropology" (Prentice Hall, 1998).

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