On September 1, 2001, after 25 years working at Bank of America, Katie Silva (’73) was “retired, downsized, or whatever you want to call it.” It was a tough time to be out of work. The national economy was anemic, her previous rank and salary levels made her seem pricey to many employers, and at 50 she was entering a decade when finding new jobs can be very challenging.
Ten days later terrorists struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and things got even worse. The economy went into a tailspin, businesses began trying to cope with an unprecedented present and a frightening future, and the job market shriveled.
Worst of all, Silva suffered the kind of identity crisis that long-time employees often experience when they leave a familiar job. “Who you are is what you do in life,” she observes, “and I went from a senior vice president at the biggest bank in the country to almost nobody.”
As an unemployed American, she was hardly alone. Between January 2001 and December 2003, according to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics survey, 5.3 million workers were displaced from jobs they had held at least three years. An additional 6.1 million workers lost jobs they’d held for less than three years. Gone are the days when a typical career meant working for the same institution for 40 years and retiring with a gold watch and a pension. “As employers reduce the ranks of mature workers,” wrote Marilyn Gardner in the Christian Science Monitor, “euphemisms such as golden handshake, early retirement, buyout and ‘early out’ mask a sobering reality. Most laid-off workers over 50 cannot afford to retire and yet search unsuccessfully for jobs.”
Katie Silva wasn’t even thinking about retirement. In the next two and a half years, she spent part of each day looking for a new career through networking leads, the Internet and newspaper ads. While she hunted a permanent job, she worked a part-time job at Pottery Barn, served as a volunteer with an Atlanta hospital and the Arthritis Foundation, did some work for the consulting arm of KPMG, and gradually managed to “get back to feeling like I made a difference.”
Her search paid off in February 2004 when a second career “dropped into my lap. Out of the blue, a friend called and asked if I wanted to join a fun little bank.” The invitation was to the Georgian Bank, an Atlanta-area institution founded in 2001 that lays claim to being the fastest growing bank in the country, with assets that swelled from $737 million to $1.154 billion in 2005 alone. As vice president of operations and technology at Georgian, Silva’s job is “to try to hold it all together in a time of extreme growth.”
Now, a year-plus into her second career, she confirms that Georgian really is a fun bank, adding, “It’s nice to be a banker again.”
ACT 2 IS AN APT DESCRIPTION FOR A GROWING COHORT OF AMERICANS who change career direction in midlife, if not more frequently. Some do it voluntarily, chasing an unfolding dream. Some do it because their first career evaporated, dumping them back into the work force at an uncomfortable stage of life. Either way, mid-career shifts are a part of contemporary reality.
Six years ago Dan Hesse (ND ’75) interrupted a 23-year career at AT&T, the last three as CEO of AT&T Wireless, to create Terabeam Inc., a startup company in Seattle that specializes in next-generation wireless technology. It was a bold move.
For one thing, startup businesses have a high rate of failure. The U.S. Department of Commerce has reported that seven of 10 new small businesses survive their first year but only three stick it out for three years. At the end of five years just two will still be going. These figures vary by industry and the amount of initial capitalization, but starting a business is not for the faint of heart.
“I had qualms, of course,” says Hesse, “that was the ‘Wild West’ of the telecom industry.” His financial risk was substantial: In leaving AT&T, he had walked away from perks that included stock and options to move into an area of untried technology.
It was also toward the end of the dot-com boom, although that wasn’t fully apparent yet. And it was a distinct lifestyle shift for Hesse: “It was a very dramatic change from a big corner office to an unfinished piece of wood for a desk. But the biggest change,” he quips, “was having to fly commercial again.”
Four years later, Terabeam was a healthy company that traded on the Nasdaq while many of its competitors, such as Winstar, Telegent and ART, had succumbed to the dot-com meltdown. But Hesse was ready to move on, and after a year’s interlude he was recruited by Sprint to launch Embarq Corp., a spin-off which will take over Sprint Nextel’s landline division, freeing the parent company to concentrate on wireless.
Hesse will be Embarq’s CEO, but this latest move is not apt to be as daunting as founding Terabeam was. Embarq will debut with 20,000 employees, annual revenues of $6.3 billion, a listing on the New York Stock Exchange, and a ranking of 300 on the Fortune 500 list.
Even though he has stayed in one industry for 28 years, Hesse has experienced the equivalent of several career shifts; his jobs have included sales, international operations, network engineering and human resources. He clearly has a zest for challenges. Each time he changed direction, he says, it was “because I wanted to do something new. I always wanted to be on the leading edge, in the forefront of the business. You could say mine was an all-telecom career, but you don’t get many careers much more diverse.”
In a way, Hesse could have been the inspiration for an article Minneapolis Star Tribune staff writer H. J. Cummins wrote a couple of years ago: “America’s baby boomers are changing careers all over the place as they enter midlife wanting something fresh—or more meaningful—in their work.”
WHEN THE INTERRUPTION OF AN ESTABLISHED CAREER PATH IS NOT VOLUNTARY, one secret is to give serious thought to what comes next. Should one go back to a similar job, or find a way to alter one’s lifestyle? Mary Jo Gronli (’79) chose the second path.
Five years ago she was at the peak of a career with United Airlines and a member of a company “dream team” charged with making recommendations for “the airline of the future.” Her group was responsible for modeling a series of “future worlds” that United might conceivably find itself having to operate in. Then came 9/11. “I walked into the office that day and said, ‘Wow!’ We tried to create really difficult situations, but nothing in any of our worlds was anywhere near this bad,” Gronli says.
Within days, United announced it was laying off 20,000 of its 100,000 employees, and Gronli’s dream team was on the chopping block. She describes the following months as a long, slow death because the outcome was unclear. To make things worse, Gronli and her husband had just purchased a new home—the closing was four days before 9/11—and by March her United career, part of it as director of internal audit, was history.
She took time off to concentrate on her three children, and despite getting “a lot of calls” offering jobs, she didn’t rush a decision. “I was picky,” she says. “I knew what I was looking for—working with good people.” While she waited, she picked up some audit consulting work through relationships she had built at United and at KPMG, where she worked briefly in the late ’90s before returning to United.
Her consulting work continues, and even though it requires some travel between Chicago and New York, she says she’s managed to reverse the standard work model: “I now work two days and am home five. I have more time for other things that are also very important to me—primarily my family, also gardening, playing the piano and working out. There’s a better balance in my life now. In the corporate structure, work becomes such a big part of your life, and you don’t realize how much of you is being absorbed.”
Like many midlife career shifters, she now considers the change “the best thing that could have happened to me.” Yet the initial period of separation was hard, and that time of her life will continue to haunt her. “I had close friends who subsequently lost jobs at United,” she recalls. “I tried to help them cope with leaving, because initially it feels like your best friend has died. And there was a tremendous amount of camaraderie at United. I miss that.”
FEAR, CONFUSION, DOUBT, LOSS OF CONFIDENCE —these are the kinds of emotions that people experience during job changes, whether planned or unplanned. Take the word of Dan Holden, author of the self-help book Lost Between Lives–Finding Your Light When the World Goes Dark, and founder of Dan Holden & Associates, which specializes in executive coaching, diversity work and facilitating workshops for business leaders. Job-changers, Holden says, risk focusing their energies so intensely on finding a job that they ignore the inner transition they’re undergoing. “The sooner they realize that they are confused, frightened, upset and unsure, and make that a part of what they’re dealing with, the better,” he says. “The longer they deny those emotions, the more difficult the transition.”
People in the midst of change are often caught off guard by the range and depth of these emotions, he says. The key is to “welcome and entertain these feelings. The more we fight them, the stronger they become.” This can be especially true for persons whose change is involuntary, but the temporary loss of identity that people experience after leaving any job is a constant.
For Jim Trelease, a nationally sought-after lecturer and the author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, a popular guide for parents, the uncertainty he experienced when he turned his back on a settled career was pretty much offset by his decision to follow a dream. At the age of 42, Trelease was a newspaperman who decided to take some advice his baseball coach had given him years earlier: “You can never steal second with your foot on first.” So he walked away from a 20-year career in journalism to become an advocate for the importance of reading aloud to children.
It wasn’t a sudden decision. The idea took shape two years earlier when he was working for the Springfield ( Mass.) Daily News (now The Republican) as a photographer and writer. That’s when he wrote The Read-Aloud Handbook, a guide for parents who want to get their children off to a good start on the road to literacy. Six publishers turned the manuscript down before Penguin Books put it on the market.
In no time, speaking invitations were coming in from parent-teacher groups and librarians. They were local at first, but soon Trelease was crisscrossing the country. “My choice was continuing to work for the paper or making the book and my talks a full-time job,” he says. With encouragement from his wife and two high-school-age children, he took the second option.
Still, he had doubts and worries at the start. “I was putting the whole family at risk,” the University of Massachusetts graduate recalls. “Insurance was a big issue. And I was depending on my voice—suppose I got sick or had an auto accident. But it was pretty important that I was doing what I loved.”
Two more books, some audio CDs, a few videos and countless speeches later, his income is more than four times the $35,000 he was making at the newspaper. The Read-Aloud Handbook is used as a text for future teachers in more than 60 colleges and universities. Trelease lectures from coast to coast to audiences that typically include parents, teachers and librarians. He’s presently checking galleys for the sixth edition of Handbook and thinking about retiring in another year. “I still love what I do,” he insists, “But I don’t love Holiday Inns any more. And I have four grandsons whom I love a lot.”
A MIDLIFE CHANGE OF DIRECTION ISN'T ALWAYS AIMED AT ENHANCING INCOME. Sometimes the goal is to find a way to give back to society. Jim Paladino (’74) left Notre Dame with an accounting degree and a little something else: a desire to be of service to others. The service urge grew out of a course on death and dying he took from Father Don McNeill, C.S.C., when Paladino was a student. Also in that course was his future wife, then a student at Saint Mary’s.
His next stop was a job at Arthur Andersen, which was, at the time, one of the nation’s Big Eight accounting firms and a very desirable place for a freshly minted Domer to land. As his career ripened, he moved on to other accounting firms and eventually out of the accounting industry and into a job with a cancer research center associated with the University of Colorado. All along, however, he managed to find ways of doing volunteer work.
One day during Lent 11 years ago, he noticed an ad in the National Catholic Reporter for a position with the Center for Social Concerns, back at his alma mater. “The reading for that day,” he recalls, “was, ‘If today you hear God’s voice, harden not your heart,’” and he knew the text was talking to him. He packed up his wife, Mary Jo, and their six adopted children and moved to South Bend.
Now the associate director and program administrator at the Center, he also teaches a seminar on border issues in El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, a six-day immersion experience that allows students to explore immigration issues from a variety of perspectives.
It turns out the service bug bit Mary Jo Paladino as well. Mary Jo has a job with Indiana University working with the families of children with disabilities. It’s a good fit for her—three of the six Paladino youngsters have disabilities.
Dan Holden suggests that there’s a spiritual component that will help job changers cope if they let it. “We may become so convinced that everything is turning upside down that we forget there is a place inside of us that doesn’t change at all—a center that is completely at rest and unperturbed. With luck, we experience this moment of awareness and find the place that’s at rest. That’s where we get to decide what to do next.”
He likes to think of that calm center as a place guarded by three angels: the angel of control (“we’re used to being in control and now we’re not”); the angel of time (“the transition is taking too long”); and the angel of separation (“we’re alone on Earth, cut off from all resources”). Rather than wrestle with these angels, he declares, one should simply surrender. “Giving up the fight can be liberating.” In particular, he says, “we must realize we are not alone—we’re united with our Creator.”
IT MAY BE THAT STUDENTS CURRENTLY GRADUATING from the University will be better prepared to deal with career shifts than those of their parents’ generation were. For one thing, says Anita Rees, associate director of the University’s Career Center, “many students of this current age group have seen their parents shift careers.” The Center also prompts students to think about eventual career changes in two courses in career and professional development. “We frequently discuss how the first opportunity they take after graduation may leverage them into other fields or provide them with a skill set to shift to another area,” she adds.
And for older alumni considering a career change, Notre Dame has some help to offer as well. Rees’ colleague Kevin Monahan was added to the Career Center Staff five years ago to work with alumni looking at new careers. Although he says 80 percent of the alumni he deals with have been out of school less than a decade, he also sees men and women in the 40 to 50 age range. “Often they haven’t written a resume in years, and we try to help,” says Monahan.
Just about everyone who has gone through a midlife career change, especially an involuntary one, comes away with a deep sympathy for others facing the same challenge. Katie Silva’s time as a jobless person taught her the importance of keeping active and not feeling sorry for herself. The experience also taught her a lesson in compassion. “I will never, ever not try to help somebody who’s out of a job,” she vows.
—Walton Collins (ND ’51) is the former editor of Notre Dame Magazine and teaches in the American Studies department at Notre Dame.