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Try on a New Career

Take a "vocation vacation" to give that dream job a reality check.

WITH RETIREMENT THREE OR FOUR YEARS AWAY, educator Vanessa Zimmermann is starting to think about what she'll do next. Zimmermann, who teaches sixth grade at the Excel Academy in Arvada, CO, has considered a number of options, from barista at the local coffee shop to traveling the world. None, however, has intrigued her as much as the idea of becoming an innkeeper.

Perhaps this explains why Zimmermann and her husband, Gary, spent a recent visit at the Arch Cape House in Arch Cape, OR, playing hosts. They served wine and snacks. They cooked breakfast. They washed linens. And when they were finished with all of that, they met with the real inn owners and got the scoop on financial matters.

“We learned everything there is to know about operating a bed and breakfast,” she told NRTA Live & Learn. “It definitely was not what I'd call an ordinary vacation.”

Technically, it wasn't a vacation at all. The Zimmermanns had signed up for the hands-on lesson in innkeeping through VocationVacations, a fledgling company that enables curious customers to try out new jobs. The company, founded in 2004, sells 1-, 2- and 3-day immersions in more than 110 different careers. According to founder and president Brian Kurth, these experiences usually make impressions that last a lifetime.

“Where else can you try out an entirely new career without having to quit your day job?” he asks. “That kind of risk-free freedom and flexibility can be priceless if you're seriously considering making a dramatic, earth-shattering change.”

As Kurth explains it, each VocationVacations experience is like test-driving a new car. Customers, or “vocationers,” as he calls them, pay between $350 and $2,000 for the opportunity to spend a day or more working their dream job. Available opportunities include time as an alpaca farmer, swordmaker, or sports announcer, to name a few. Other gigs, such as marine biologist and video game producer, are in the works, too.

Whatever the job, a VocationVacation takes time to arrange. Customers register at the company's Web site or over the phone. Next, once a trip is confirmed and scheduled, you chat with a company-sponsored career coach about your career goals.

The career coach processes this information, offers some opinions, and sends a report on to a mentor, who is the person overseeing the VocationVacation itself. “The process is designed to try and answer the question of why our customers are doing this in the first place,” Kurth says. “That can tell us a lot about what somebody expects.”

Day as a Brewmaster. About 70 percent of customers who've signed up for the service are interested in a new career. Kurth notes that while many of these people seek a change out of frustration with their current jobs, relatively few are teachers-perhaps because teachers generally tend to love their jobs. He adds that a good number of customers are recent retirees itching to get back to work. Many others are just looking for new experiences.

Take Jim Franklin, for instance. Franklin is a retired high school psychology teacher from Port Townsend, WA. The 71-year-old has enjoyed beer most of his life, but says that in recent years, he has developed a particular interest in brewing it. With this in mind, Franklin's wife, Carole, purchased him a one-day stint at a brewery for his 70th birthday.

The celebration took place on June 13, 2005. Franklin showed up at Full Sail Brewing at 9 a.m., and executive brewmaster Jamie Emmerson showed him around. Emmerson then put Franklin to work, teaching him how to do everything from sorting hops to filling bottles. The day culminated with a dinner in the brewery's banquet room.

“I had no idea what went into making beer until that day,” says Franklin, reflecting on the experience. “It was, without a doubt, the most exhilarating thing I've ever done in my life.”

Good Reality Check. Admittedly, not all VocationVacations end this way. Customers all get a follow-up call from their career coach. These conversations may reveal that an immersion has dissuaded someone from pursuing a career. The change of heart is generally because the job seems too tough or a customer doesn't like the work as much as expected.

Even in these instances, however, the experience has its value. “Just because you don't like something doesn't mean the experience hasn't been good for you,” says Kurth. “Better that you try something for one or two days and learn that you don't like it, than make a life change and realize a few months down the road that you've made a total mistake.”

For Zimmermann, the teacher who will retire around 2010, the experience as head of Arch Cape House was a mixed bag. She and her husband cherished the opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream. But the menial tasks and minutiae of the day-to-day job made them think twice about whether operating a bed and breakfast would actually be fun.

Barbara Dau, herself a science teacher before she bought Arch Cape House in 2003, understands this philosophy completely. Dau says she would have liked to have had the opportunity to try out innkeeping before she invested in it. “I'm not saying that I would have done anything differently, but it does make sense to give something a try before taking the leap,” she says.

VocationVacations plans to add 30 new professions by the end of the year, although frequently requested professions such as airline pilot and NFL player require too much training to make the list. So if you have a dream about how you want to spend your retirement, test it out and have some fun, too.

Matt Villano writes on travel and business from Healdsburg, CA. This article was published in NRTA Live & Learn, Winter 2007.

Watch for new stories every Thursday in Live & Learn, NRTA's publication for the AARP educator community: Celebrating learning as a creative lifestyle.

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