When Marva Goldsmith took a buyout in 2001 after a 20-year career at a Detroit utilities company, she moved to Washington, D.C., in search of a job that would use her experience lobbying on energy as well as her training as an electrical engineer. But she was dogged by a question a career coach had once posed: "If you could do anything, without any constraints, what would you do?"
Inspired, Goldsmith unearthed an old dream of owning a clothing boutique (never mind that she had no experience in fashion retailing) and appended to it her talent for persuading people. Result: a consulting company that helps people buff up their image and the book "Re-Branding Yourself After Age 50." She acquired her first customers by going to conferences in the utilities industry and networking with former colleagues who had watched her in action.
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"Even if you're transitioning to something very different, your network knows your skill sets," says Goldsmith, 53. A former co-worker who was on the board of a local nonprofit handed her a $10,000 contract to put on four seminars for women transitioning from welfare to work -- the start of what Goldsmith says is now a booming business coaching and running seminars for baby boomers changing careers.
Goldsmith certainly identified a hot market, and she exemplifies it. As housing values, job security, and nest eggs have shrunk, more and more American workers are finding themselves in her shoes. Some are changing careers because they're itching to follow a passion; others because they've been downsized out or have had to reschedule retirement.
Nearly half of working Americans now worry that they haven't set aside the funds they'll need to retire comfortably, up from 29 percent in 2007, according to a survey by the Employee Benefits Research Institute. A 2011 report by the MetLife Foundation and Encore.org, an information provider for older job seekers, found that about 9 million Americans, or 9 percent of people between age 44 and 70, are in second careers -- up 7 percent in the last three years. Another 31 million are interested in pursuing a career change.
The first step for older career switchers, experts say, is to envision the existence they want going forward. "For most younger people starting out in a career, it's all about climbing a ladder and supporting your family, and doing things because you have to, not because you want to," says Nancy Collamer, a career coach in Old Greenwich, Conn., and author of "Second-Act Careers: 50+ Ways to Profit From Your Passions During Semi-Retirement," to be published by Ten Speed/Random House in January. "Now is the time to be thinking about how you want to spend your day, and what you want your life to look like."
For many who have spent their first half working for other people, the soul-searching often leads to entrepreneurship. "There was a management change at MGM and the boss who I loved working for left," says Doug Gleason, 56, who was running the consumer-products division of MGM Studios in Los Angeles at the time, in 2007. "I thought this is probably the time for me to move on as well." But in what direction?
Having always had dogs and loved animals, and having long entertained the idea of starting a business, Gleason opted to apply his consumer-products expertise to his own enterprise: TrueBlue Pet Products, a company that markets dog shampoos, dental swipes, and other cleaning products made from natural botanical materials. "I thought if I could take something I like and turn it into a business, great," says Gleason, whose early career included working in packaged goods at companies such as PepsiCo and Disney.
He first spent months researching the market by perusing online and offline pet stores, and joined the American Pet Products Association to network with other professionals in the industry. He drew from his savings and took out a second mortgage so he could spend a year developing his product line. Then he had to go out and beg for shelf space at pet stores all over the country. Today TrueBlue is sold on Amazon and in several regional pet-store chains, Gleason says, and the company is in the black.
The franchise route. For entrepreneurial types leery of starting a company from scratch, franchising can be a viable option. That was the path chosen by Jerry Lawson of Lansdale, Pa., who took an early retirement package in 2009 at age 55 from Johnson & Johnson. Lawson, whose experience at J&J ran the gamut from launching consumer products to training salespeople, was trying to figure out his next move when he had to have one of his knees replaced. The rehabilitation process was trying for Lawson, who lives alone, but it was also an inspiration. "My daughter and girlfriend helped," he says. "It made me wonder, what do other people do when they don't have anybody to help them?"
Lawson's experience led him to Right At Home, a franchise that matches health aides with people who need care at home. The parent company set him up with all the marketing, operations, and technology tools he needed to get off the ground quickly. Within three months of starting the business, Lawson says, he was making enough in revenues to pay his bills. (He shares 5 percent of his sales with the parent company, as is typical in franchising arrangements.)
Before zeroing in on a company, Lawson made sure to talk to other franchisees. Initially, he thought he was interested in a different, competing firm, but of the people he spoke to, he recalls, only "three I would probably pick to work for me -- I wouldn't want to work with the others." Using the networking site LinkedIn, he came across another veteran of J&J who owned two Right at Home franchises. "He said the people who run Right at Home are the caliber of people I was used to working with at Johnson & Johnson at the most senior level," says Lawson, who was sold.
Anyone hoping to turn a passion into a paycheck, whether by launching a business or by switching bosses, can get a feel for the new field by volunteering in it while still employed, suggests Amanda Augustine, a job-search expert at the online job-matching service TheLadders. That can be especially valuable for people interested in transitioning to the public sector, an excellent source of jobs for older workers, she says. "Education, the environment, health, government, social sciences, non-profits -- it's the feel-good stuff." But you may need a new credential, too. "You should look for training opportunities to fill in gaps in your skills," Augustine advises.
Those opportunities are multiplying. "For everything you could possibly think of doing, someone has developed a program to train you," Collamer says.
Across the country, community colleges are teaming up with local employers to train workers to meet their unique needs. And thanks to funding programs such as Encore.org's Encore College Initiative, dozens of colleges have launched training programs designed for career changers over 50. Middlesex Community College in Bedford, Mass., trains health professionals to become adjunct teachers in nursing at the state's community colleges, for example. Coursework at Community Colleges of Spokane, in Washington, allows older students to explore jobs in the "green" sector. Institutions receiving grants as part of the American Association of Community Colleges' Plus 50 Initiative have launched courses for seniors covering everything from computers and health IT to landscape horticulture and childcare.
The Encore Career Institute in Los Gatos, Calif., offers online courses at the University of California-Los Angeles in subjects from nonprofit management to college admission counseling. Students can take the courses on their iPads and earn an official UCLA extension certificate.
Job-search pros say it's essential these days for folks over 50 to exploit social-media tools for networking and researching opportunities. LinkedIn is particularly good for reconnecting with old colleagues, posting CVs, and searching job listings. You can also join online groups there associated with your chosen career.
Twitter can be helpful, too -- even if you have zero interest in tweeting about your day-to-day activities. Janet Van Huysee, Twitter's vice president of human resources, suggests people research job openings by doing "hashtag searches" on twitter.com. For example, if you're interested in the tech industry, you could search "#IT Jobs" to generate a list of recent openings. "You don't need to tweet or even create a bio," Van Huysee says. Industry trade groups sometimes promote conferences and other upcoming events that career changers might want to attend.
If you want to ease into retirement without having to gain a whole new set of skills (or launch a job search or make a big capital outlay), you may be able to pass your expertise along in a consulting role. After Jennifer Hay of Seattle, 54, was laid off from her job as a technical trainer four years ago, a mentor suggested she start a business writing resumes for people in the tech industry. Today, Hay says, she works with up to 10 clients a month and is making a better living than she did before.
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When Sarah Baldwin's husband was laid off from his sales job at a Chicago-area company in late 2009, the freelance marketing pro began looking for a way that she and he could leverage their expertise together. Baldwin, whose past experience had included promoting the Ice Capades, called the maker of some new pjs she'd recently discovered (and loved) called Goodnighties, designed to help regulate body temperature, and offered to help improve the marketing materials. "I was looking at the website thinking I know I could do better," she says. She and her husband worked out an exclusive contract with the company and have grown the brand's sales 60 percent year-to-date, she says. Now they're offering marketing services to other small brands.
Another good way to pass on all your knowledge is to parlay it into a teaching position. Mitchell D. Weiss, 60, spent 30 years owning and running financial-services firms and was intrigued when a finance professor at the University of Hartford near his home in Connecticut called in 2006 and asked him to teach a course in small business and entrepreneurial finance. He was so nervous before his first lecture that he was sweating profusely, he says. But "I prepared. I created lecture notes. It's really no different than writing a script to make a board presentation." Today he's on the adjunct faculty at the university, where he also co-founded the school's Center for Personal Financial Responsibility.
"What students want is to learn from real-world experience," Weiss says. "I get to apply all my skills, just in a different setting. I love what I'm doing." Teaching, he thinks, is a perfect way to cap off a long career.