Changing careers: Begin a new profession now
During 20 years of stacking shelves and manning the tills at his family’s supermarket in Pollença on the Spanish island of Mallorca, José Luis-Reig, known as Pep, never gave a thought to the world of academia. It was only when visiting the classrooms and corridors of mainland universities with his two teenage daughters that he suddenly felt himself at home among the books and atmosphere of learning.
After school Pep had intended to do a degree in biology at Barcelona University but had been called on to help run the family business instead.
But the question of “What’s my role in life?” still kept coming back to him. It wasn’t until a year later that the answer suddenly struck him. When he was at school, other children would come to him with their problems. He developed a reputation and so was invited onto local radio, where the interviewer said, “You’re like a young psychologist.”
Pep was no stranger to change. The family business had originally been a sawmill, but when Pep, then 27, was asked if he wanted to take over, he decided to convert the mill into the town’s first supermarket.
"I ended up helping the others because I'd had more life experience."
One day in the shop, the radio presenter’s comment came back to him. After running the idea past his family, he applied to university in Palma to study psychology and, aged 46, was accepted.
“I had to get used to being much older than all the other students,” he says. “In fact, I was older than my professor. But I ended up helping the others because I’d had more life experience that carries psychological impact, which could reflect classroom theory. I couldn’t go to all of the parties, though!”
Pep came top of his year and impressed his tutors so much that he was offered a job researching and teaching, which he still does while studying for a master’s in neuropsychology. Now 52, and still in the job, he adds, “My only regret is not having done it earlier.”
The traditional view used to be that, while a bit of chopping and changing in your youth was acceptable, you should then settle on a career and stick to it. But today record numbers of 50- and 60-somethings are choosing to take on new challenges. “Job satisfaction becomes increasingly important when you’ve only got a few miles on the clock,” says Carolyn May, who left a career in education at age 58 to set up a business in Wales helping others to have second working lives. “You don’t want to spend the rest of your life regretting not following your dream,” says May, who has since set up a company that specialises in marketing diagnostics and copywriting.
In the UK, the abolition of the fixed retirement age has definitely helped change perceptions about working lives. The option to take some of your pension as a lump sum at the age of 55 has also opened financial doors for those wishing to make a mid-life change.
Likewise, some people are turning the fragile economy into a positive, using redundancy as an incentive. “If you have some money after leaving a job, it’s possible to create a new opportunity for yourself,” says Dr Vincent Giolito, a research fellow at the Solvay Brussels School of Economics and Management—who himself took the plunge into the academic world, aged 50, after working as a business journalist for 20 years. “Many management-level workers are becoming freelance consultants or investing in a start-up”, he says.
It's not just the self-employed riding this wave
Employers are realising that older workers can bring valuable perspective to a position. British DIY giant B&Q has an official age-neutral policy. “Twenty-eight per cent of our workforce is over 50,” says a B&Q spokesman, “which is great because, as homeowners, there’s a lot they can offer customers and younger staff.”
A career change might require retraining and some people are put off, either by being without income or the fear of going back to school. But, as Pep found, being more experienced can actually give you an edge in the classroom. From a financial point of view, it’s a big decision, but with children having left home and perhaps the mortgage paid off, it could be the least risky time in your life to try it.
Barclays Bank has a scheme aimed at encouraging the older workforce to take up a banking apprenticeship. “It’s a commercial decision and there’s no ceiling to how high anybody can go,” says Mike Thompson, head of the apprenticeship programme.
Modern apprenticeships last one to five years, combining paid work experience with studies. Last year in England more than 32,000 people aged over 50 started one.
Even if you do need to retrain, it doesn’t mean starting from scratch. Many people make a career change that enables them to use skills developed in their old career, but in a new way. While teaching and researching his PhD in psycholinguistics, Marek Brzezinski from Łód ́z in Poland also wrote pieces of travel journalism for a local magazine Odglosy.
Marek continued to write after he finished his studies at 30, married and started a family. He later moved to Paris where he taught psychology and anthropology at the Schiller International University.
But all this time Marek also had a love for food. In Paris, he walked by the renowned Cordon Bleu cookery school every day on his way to the university. One day, with a vague idea for an article, he went in. When he saw the kitchens with their immaculate pots and pans, he felt they were offering a change in direction instead.
“At 57, I could combine my journalism skills with my passion for food and become a culinary critic. And when I do something, I want to do it right, to know everything.” So he signed up for a nine-month course.
It was a big change for Marek. “At the university, I was used to everyone saying, ‘Yes, sir, no, sir,’ but at Le Cordon Bleu it was me saying, ‘Yes, chef, no, chef,’ being shouted at with all the other students, most of whom were my children’s age. More than once I was close to throwing down my knife and packing it in, but you’ve got to be courageous.
“I would recommend to people wanting to make a change to know themselves, to recognise their potential and be realistic,” he says. Marek graduated in September 2012. Now aged 61, he hasn’t looked back, writing a weekly food column for Angora, a magazine published in Poland, Germany and the US.
Le Cordon Bleu, which operates in several European countries, welcomes older applicants who join after many years in another profession. “Most of our older students are passionate about food and want to bring that enthusiasm to a new food-related career,” says marketing and communications manager Sandra Messier. “Their management and organisational skills are better than the younger students’ and, as our courses tend to be short and precise, they can move very quickly into a new career.”
The key to change
For some, the key to change is not a new skill but something they’ve always done for pleasure—when they can turn a hobby into a career. Tallu Konttinen spent 30 years as the art director of an advertising agency in Finland, designing logos, posters, brochures, packaging and more. When she was made redundant in 2014, her first instinct was to find another job in the same industry; but then she realised this could be her chance to take her love of textiles to a new level. She’d always spent her spare time on crafts, particularly textiles and furnishings, combining unexpected materials.
"You should be brave and open-minded when facing new opportunities."
Konttinen took the plunge and enrolled at the Ikaalinen Arts and Crafts Artisan College. She’s now, aged 57, engaging in design projects as a full-time student and expects to graduate this year.
“I’ve learned that you should be brave and open-minded when facing new opportunities,” she says. “Go ahead: you may be wonderfully surprised.”
While some people, like Pep, change career to satisfy a long-held yearning, others may have been perfectly content with their old careers—but find themselves responding to a sudden change that gives a new perspective.
Primo Sule settled in the UK in 1974 from his native Chile, first studying to be a PE teacher before switching to computer science at Birmingham University. He moved around Europe and up the career ladder, before joining a global accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) in 1998, where he had a staff of 1,500 and held responsibility for 25 countries all over the world. “I was quite happy because no two days were the same and 99 per cent of the time I was on the road—New York, Hong Kong, everywhere.”
But in 2008, when his ageing father-in-law began to deteriorate mentally, Primo saw how difficult it was for his mother-in-law to find help with cooking, cleaning and providing meals. “Different people arrived at different times each day to do different things, but there was no continuity of care,” he explains. “And I couldn’t find anyone else who was happy with their provider or would recommend the agency they used."
But it wasn’t until 2009, when his grandfather began to need care, and he reluctantly started to look at residential homes for him, that he had a light-bulb moment. Visiting one care home, he spoke to an elderly lady for over an hour. It made her feel better knowing that someone was interested in her, and that, in turn, made him feel better. He came away believing something had to be done to improve the quality of care for the elderly.
At the end of that year he took the monumental decision to leave PwC to research the elderly care sector and try to come up with a solution for people in his situation. It was a strain for the whole family. “I was used to executive travel and five-star hotels, not having to cook or do the washing-up. My wife worried about the financial security we’d lost, especially as I had no experience in the care sector.”
But Primo discovered Home Instead, an American provider with an emphasis on offering companionship as much as care. It works with clients—or “friends”, as they prefer to think of them—at home, matching them to suitable carers to ensure compatibility. Primo set up a Home Instead franchise in Nottingham that has now been running for six years. “The first two years were incredibly hard work with lots of 16-hour days,” he says.
But it’s all been worth it. In 2013, Primo ran the first of a series of free workshops for relatives of people with dementia. A woman came to thank him at the end; as her father’s only caregiver, before discovering Home Instead she’d been struggling to understand how best to care for him and look after herself. In fact, Primo gets so close to the families, he regularly attends clients’ funerals.
“Although my previous life was fantastic,” he says, “the satisfaction that I get every day from directly influencing people’s lives is so much more fulfilling.”
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