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Find the Work You Love

Work @50+ 2008

This article is adapted from the AARP Crash Course in Finding the Work You Love by Samuel Greengard (AARP Books/Sterling, 2008).

For more than a third of her life, Colombian-born Mercedes Pellet wrote the book on language translations. A business she and her husband, Michael, started in 1979 had grown to 55 employees and approximately $5 million in annual sales. By 2004 her firm was translating English into 60 languages and had a roster of elite clients, including Texaco and American Airlines. “It was a very successful business,” she explains.

But the Swanton, Md., couple had begun to feel it was about time to cash in and pursue other interests. Mercedes had fantasized for years about doing some type of work that involved rescuing abused and abandoned animals. When her Yorkshire terrier died, everything clicked. “I knew it was time to act,” she says.

Though when Mercedes—now a 63-year-old grandmother—investigated what it would take to become a veterinarian, she winced. “I realized eight years of intensive study was going to be too much.” She still went back to school but set her sights on a more realistic career goal: becoming a veterinary technician.

She enrolled at Fairmont State Community & Technical College (now Pierpont Community & Technical College) in Fairmont, W.Va., taking classes in chemistry and microbiology—and soon feared she was in over her head. “In my first chemistry class,” she recalls, “all I understood from the instructor was ‘Hello’ and ‘Goodbye.’ I thought I had made a terrible mistake. Plus, none of the 18- and 19-year-old students bothered talking to me.” But she hung in.

Her persistence paid off. Today she is combining her new vet-tech qualifications and her business smarts to raise funds for an animal adoption center in Garrett County, Md. Mercedes plans to work at the center after it’s built next year. “When I told my mother about the career change, she thought I was crazy,” she says. “Friends and family thought I had flipped. But I knew this was the right decision for me and, fortunately, my husband supported me all the way.”

Mercedes’s career change is a tale of success. Still, it didn’t happen overnight. Although switching careers at any age is a challenge, older workers typically have a lot more to overcome than do their younger counterparts. They must master new trends and technologies. They must cope with daunting lifestyle changes, such as the likelihood of a lower income or the reality of “parachuting” into an unfamiliar social circle. They must confront—and learn how to evade or vanquish—the real peril of age discrimination. And, finally, they must accept the basic truth that landing a rewarding position will never be a panacea for all of life’s problems.

For those willing to pursue their dream, however, the possibilities for regeneration and renewal are practically limitless. If you’re ready for that journey, here are some steps that will help you along the way.

Understand the Risks

Despite an economy in recession, the opportunities for a midlife career change have never been better. A variety of factors—changing attitudes toward older workers, rising demand for workplace experience, and more powerful job-search resources (notably online)—are helping ease the way. According to Ernst & Young, a global accounting firm that helps companies identify and capitalize on business opportunities, nearly 40 percent of employers noted that their number one concern for the next five years will be a shortage of workers. Nursing, restaurants, and utilities are just a few of the fields that face worker shortages caused by retirement and changing demographics. “It has become increasingly apparent that the workplace can ill afford to lose older workers,” observes John A. Challenger, chief executive at Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago-based outplacement consulting firm.

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