SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA JOB MARKET : CHALLENGES OF THE WORKING LIFE : ONWARD AND UPWARD : TRADING UP: A QUEST FOR FULFILLMENT : More People Are Doing Whatever It Takes to Shift Focus of Careers
Patricia Phillips was working as a secretary when, to support her two children following a divorce, she began moonlighting as a typist for a lawyer.
“I found what he was doing fascinating,” said Phillips, who now is a lawyer herself, is on the board of governors of the State Bar Assn. of California and four years ago was elected the first woman president of the Los Angeles Bar Assn.
Kate Colwell realized that she didn’t want to be a nurse anymore the very week she received her nursing license in 1979. The next year, she entered medical school in Northern California.
“I said to myself, you’re going to be working for another 40 years. You can be frustrated for 40 years or you can go through 10 years of hell and 30 years of doing what you want to do. I went for the 10 years of hell,” said Colwell, who is in year eight of training.
More and more people are chucking the old career for a new one these days, employment experts say. The worker who stays in the same job or even the same career for his or her entire life will become even more of a rarity in the future, they say.
But what Phillips and Colwell accomplished is a peculiar and difficult type of change that might be dubbed “trading up"--that is, turning in one career for another with more status and bigger financial rewards. Nurses who choose to become doctors, for instance, or dental assistants who become dentists, paralegals who train to be lawyers, and secretaries who become corporate vice presidents, among others.
This is not working your way up through a corporation, or taking the skills from one career and applying them to another, or even dropping out of the corporate world and opening a new business.
Trading up--and here’s the catch--often involves a tremendous commitment of time and money for the career switcher. It can mean several more years of school and other training just to start the new career.
Despite the obstacles, those who have traded up, admittedly a relatively small group, think that increasing numbers of people are doing it.
At Loyola Law School, for example, at least 15% of this year’s applicants were paralegals, said Susan Shepard, acting dean of admissions. “I think this is a changing phenomenon,” she said.
Naomi Bement, a former dental hygienist who entered dental school at the urging of her dentist bosses, said she has several friends who have taken the same career path.
“Everybody needs the opportunity to climb the ladder,” said Bement, who practices in Los Angeles. “There’s a sense of accomplishment to be your own boss.”
Career counselor Richard L. Knowdell said the career change is a relatively new development in the world of work.
“I grew up through World War II, so part of what I was brought up to believe was that you didn’t make career changes. If you were lucky enough to get a job, you kept it for the rest of your life,” said Knowdell, executive director of the San Jose-based Career Planning & Adult Development Network, a national network of career counselors.
That kind of job loyalty doesn’t work for many people anymore for several reasons, he said. Perhaps the job has changed, individual values have changed or a person went into a career for reasons that turned out not to be valid, such as to please a parent, he said.
“I work with a lot of 40-year-old men who are in jobs that were chosen by 20-year-old boys,” Knowdell said.
Phillips said it never occured to her--"never in a thousand years"--when she graduated from Monrovia High School in 1952 that she could go to law school. “My generation thought possibly about going to college but basically about going to college and having children,” she said.
But Phillips, who remarried and now has five children, said she decided, “If I was going to have a career it was going to be my own career.” She graduated from law school in 1967 and, after a year as a judge’s clerk, joined Beardsley, Hufstedler & Kemble. She is still there, although the firm is now called Hufstedler, Miller, Carlson & Beardsley.
“I love what I’m doing,” Phillips said. “I in no way wish to denigrate the secretarial profession. It just wasn’t for me.”
Colwell found she didn’t enjoy working as an obstetrical nurse. “I was always carrying out somebody else’s orders,” she said. Now, “I’m happy. I’m doing what I want to do, giving primary care.”
While no career change is easily or casually made, trading up promises difficulties beyond the average.
To become a lawyer, for example, the career switcher with a college degree would have to return to school for at least three years, then pass the bar exam.
The jump to doctor is even more perilous, requiring possible pre-med schooling, four years of medical school and at least three years in a residency program. For that reason, a move from the nursing station to the doctor’s office is probably the rarest form of trading up.
One woman who made the leap from physical therapist to physician said she is not sure she would repeat the act.
“I don’t know if I knew what I know now if I would do it again,” said the Los Angeles resident, who declined to be identified. “It was seven years of hard work.”
And yet, she said, “I could name probably six or seven off the top of my head” who have made the transition.
Another hazard comes when preconceived notions about one’s old profession hang around to invade the new one.
There are law firms today that would look askance at a resume that listed “secretary” among previous jobs, Phillips said.
“I think some firms would care that you were a secretary . . . even today,” she said. “They would say, we’re hiring associates who may be partners of this firm someday. Do we want someone from the secretarial field?”
Said Shepard of Loyola Law School: “There is something of a holdover attitude among the old-boy network against people who didn’t come straight from college to law school but that is watering down.”
That is because Eastern law firms, attracted to the West Coast by the explosion in Pacific Rim business, are demanding increasing numbers of competent lawyers no matter what their background to staff their new local offices, she said. “They don’t give one whit about the old-boy network in Los Angeles.”
Colwell found herself in the odd position of earning her medical school tuition by working as a nurse in the same San Francisco hospital where she was, at the same time, a medical student. “So people were sort of saying, ‘What are you today?’ ” she said.
Colwell, who is in a residency program at Merrithew Memorial Hospital in Martinez, Calif., said she has received support from both nurses and doctors, but about a dozen times in the past five years people have said “hurtful, snotty things” when she protested after being asked to do too much.
“They’d say, ‘You wanted to do this. You could have stayed a nurse--so tough,’ ” Colwell said. “I have occasionally had physicians say incredibly arrogant things to me, dismissing my years as a nurse.”
Often, the people who trade up are women because they in the past have been directed toward lower status and lower paying occupations and may not have aspired to law school or some other advanced degree.
“What we’re beginning to see is that as the world becomes more aware of the talents of women and women become more aware of their options, they’re going more often for these advanced degrees,” said Sandra Bolivar, director of admissions and student affairs at the USC School of Dentistry.