Changing careers: Tips from someone who's been there

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As layoffs, financial shakeups, and an uncertain future wreak havoc upon the economy, more and more people are contemplating major career changes.

Personally, I went through this process last year, when I switched from a comfortable, benefit-laden teaching job to an uncertain, unstable career as a freelance writer. However, since I made pretty much every mistake possible in my quest for a new career, I thought that it would be helpful to talk to someone who made the move with far fewer mistakes and a great deal more élan.

Until a few years ago, David Herr was securely employed as a structural engineer. His clientele was largely comprised of private homeowners who were dealing with various household problems. However, after working for 20 years in the business, he found his work drying up and he was burning out. A dedicated cook for most of his life, David decided that he wanted to become a professional chef. Over the next few years, he picked up a new skill set, started a new career, and learned a few basics that can ease the transition from one job to another.Budget Wisely
After a great deal of research and discussion, David and his wife, Liz, decided to take the plunge. Since Liz, an accountant, had a portable profession, they were able to sell their home in Boston and move to New York City, where she worked while David undertook a six-month course of study at The French Culinary Institute. By carefully budgeting the proceeds from their house and Liz's income, David and Liz were able to make up for the decrease in David's earnings. The equity from their home proved particularly helpful since, after graduation from cooking school, David still had to apprentice in the restaurant business.

David's first job was at a two-star restaurant in Rockefeller Center. Eager to gain practical experience, he offered to work for free; as it turned out, he ended up drawing a salary of only $1 per day for his first few months there. However, having carefully planned his career change, David was able to weather the continued low income. As he picked up the practical real-world skills that restaurants prized, David was increasingly able to get jobs at higher-paying establishments.

Use All the Resources at Your Disposal
David's last restaurant job was for a two-star restaurant in Lincoln Center; while enjoyable, it was seasonal, which meant that he needed to find summer employment. In his search for more work, David returned to his cooking school. Their job board steered him to a gig as a private chef for a family. His work involved cooking four dinners per week for the family, plating them, and cleaning up at the end of the evening. Reveling in the freedom of private cooking, he decided to forego returning to the Lincoln Center restaurant; instead, he picked up other private clients. Today, he works for a little more than 30 hours per week, cooking for a few different families in New York City. While the work pays significantly less than his engineering salary, David finds that he now has a great deal more freedom and job satisfaction.

Bringing Baggage From One Job to Another
The most significant problem that David encountered when he began working his way up the ladder in the cooking business was dealing with the prejudices that his teachers and potential employers brought to their interactions. Many of them felt that, if David found himself overwhelmed by the work, he would simply return to engineering. While that was not the case, he had to work hard to prove that he was dedicated to his new career.

On the bright side, David also found that he didn't have to start from scratch in his new career; in fact, much of his engineering experience came in handy when he made the move to cooking. As an engineer, he was trained to look for simple, elegant solutions, a lesson that has proven very useful in his new trade. Moreover, his years of dealing one-on-one with distressed homeowners prepared him to handle the complex wishes and personality conflicts of his clients. He notes that, like engineering, cooking is all about "reading people and reading needs." It's reassuring to know that, even when you're starting from scratch, your old skills will still come in handy!

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. He doesn't know what his third act will be yet, but he has a feeling that it will involve swallowing fire.

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