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Changing Course Mid-career

Changing Course Mid-career
Many professionals are returning to school to pursue a second career.

Life often takes unexpected twists and turns, as it did for Jeff Henry, 29, of Huntington Beach. Henry always knew he wanted to be a teacher. He was a volunteer coach in a youth program and quickly realized teaching went hand in hand with coaching. With a bachelor's degree and teaching credential from Vanguard University, Henry got a job as a math teacher in a Santa Ana high school. He soon found out that he was not suited for the job. "I tried hard to motivate the kids, but with little parent involvement, it was hard watching kids fail out of school," Henry recalled. "I took it on as my own failure."

His next job was teaching at a private junior high school in Santa Ana. He loved it, but it didn't pay as well. "At the time I was thinking about my future and having a family and home, but I wasn't making enough money to support a family the way I would want to," Henry said. "I wasn't happy in the public high school environment, but I could make more money there. Neither option was acceptable long term."

So Henry decided to change careers, and he is not alone in wanting to reinvent himself. In this unstable economy, many professionals have been affected by layoffs and need to be open to new careers. Others may have been out of the workforce for years raising a family, and some workers are simply unsatisfied with their current jobs. Whatever the reason, changing careers is common in today's work environment, and many find themselves attending short-term educational programs to pursue another career path.

After careful consideration, Henry decided to become an emergency medical technician. He enrolled in an accelerated one-month certification basic EMT course at California Institute of Emergency Medical Training in Long Beach, which also offers a seven-week course. (The school's Hawthorne campus also offers the seven-week course.)

"Those with their basic EMT training certificate [who] then pass the National Registry Exam can go on to work for private transport facilities, the fire department or even as EMTs on TV and film sets," said Matt Goodman, program director at CIEMT Long Beach. After Henry became an EMT in June 2009, he worked for a private ambulance company and did inner-facility transfers as well as emergency calls for eight months. Last October, Goodman offered Henry the opportunity to work at CIEMT as a skills instructor at both the Long Beach and Hawthorne campuses. Henry jumped at the chance. A few months ago, Henry became a full-time skills instructor and lecturer at CIEMT. "It is fun to teach these classes, and I enjoy working with adults who really care," Henry said. "This field is really interesting, and looking back, it was all worth it." Justin Ashby, 29, of Hollywood Hills, has a bachelor's degree in business from USC but pursued a career as an actor after graduation. Ashby landed TV and film roles, but he found the work unreliable. "Things were great when I had work for three or four months, but then there would be nothing for another three or four months," he said.

After the 2008 writers' strike, Ashby decided that he needed a more stable career. He had caught a glimpse of a potentially fulfilling career when he was 15. His mother had a severe neck injury, and Ashby saw firsthand the care nurses give their patients. Ashby considered becoming a registered nurse, but the programs were long and had waiting lists. Instead, he decided to enroll in a 12-month vocational nursing program at Kaplan College North Hollywood. "Nursing is almost recession proof," said Faye Silverman, director of nursing at Kaplan College North Hollywood. With Kaplan's 80% work placement rate, Silverman said many students go on to work at hospitals, rehabilitation centers, doctors' offices, nursing homes and home-health companies. Others continue to study to become registered nurses.

Ashby graduated from the program in February and is working for a home healthcare company in Culver City. In April, he took the National Council Licensing Exam, and after he receives his license, it will open up even more career opportunities. "With nursing, I can go to bed and wake up knowing I have a job," Ashby said. "Healthcare professionals will always be needed."

Karen Walker, 47, of Oak Park, grew up in England and graduated with a degree in French and European literature from the University of Warwick in 1985. After a short-lived part-time stint teaching English as a foreign language, she switched to sales in the catering industry before moving on to sales in the automotive and finance industries. When she got married in 1991, she quit her job to raise her two children. In 2000, Walker moved to California. Her divorce last year prompted Walker to consider returning to the workplace. An attorney friend offered Walker a part-time internship helping the paralegal staff at his Woodland Hills firm, Kramer, DeBoer, Endelicato & Keane. She explored the idea of going to law school but decided paralegal certification would be the perfect next step.

In January, Walker enrolled in UCLA Extension's paralegal training program, an intensive five-month American Bar Assn.-approved certification course. "Our students come from an array of different work backgrounds," said Anne-Marie Dieters, UCLA career and graduate services coordinator. "We also have a large population of career changers that have plenty of work experience but are new to the paralegal field." According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of paralegals and legal assistants is projected to grow 28% between 2008 and 2018, much faster than the average for other occupations. Walker completed the program in June. The day after her graduation, the law firm she interned for offered her a paralegal position.

"Attorneys are expensive, and many law firms are cutting back or diversifying to keep themselves viable," she said. "Some of those firms are taking on paralegals, who are typically more cost-effective employees, in place of attorneys. The opportunity to further my education in a totally new field and establish myself in a new career has changed my life immeasurably. You really can reinvent yourself."

A lack of job satisfaction and a number of layoffs prompted Nolan King, 31, of Foothill Ranch, to consider a career change. With a bachelor's degree in communications with an emphasis in advertising, King thought he would find himself in a creative, enjoyable career.

"A big reason behind getting my degree was so I would never get stuck in a go-nowhere job where I couldn't make enough money to support my family," he said.

Deciding that working for an advertising agency wasn't for him, King tried his hand at sales. After being let go about five times in two years for either not selling enough or the company shutting its doors, King knew he had to do something else. Feeling lost and confused, he took some tests to figure out his strengths. "The top job was something in public service such as firefighter, the second was radiology tech, and the third was respiratory therapist," King said.

Firefighter jobs are extremely competitive, and most of the radiology technician programs had long waiting lists, so King decided to pursue a career in respiratory therapy. In April, King enrolled in an 18-month program at Concorde Career College in Garden Grove and is scheduled to graduate with an associate's degree in respiratory therapy in November 2011. "I am excited for my future and will have a more satisfying job," King said. "I will be doing something that can help people. I will also be better able to take care of my family."

Amanda Flatten, Brand Publishing Writer