Finding A New Job - And Yourself


*Names and identifying factors of people have been changed 1/2 to protect their privacy and their current jobs, even though when employees are truly unhappy at work, experts agree, employers are the first to know.

SUE CAMPBELL is a free-lance writer who lives in Annapolis.

Things were bad, and Dan O'Reilly* could tell they were getting worse. More and more, he found himself struggling out of bed in the morning, dreading the work day ahead. When he finally did reach the office, he had trouble staying awake.

The job itself didn't depress him. He knew in his head that his work -- teaching the physically disabled -- was respectable and worthwhile. It paid a decent wage: $32,000 a year. But in his heart, something was amiss. He'd been doing the same thing for 30 years. Thirty years. And at age 53, what else was there? At age 53, when your job feels like drudgery, how do you begin anew?

"It seemed," says Mr. O'Reilly, a stocky redhead with sparkling blue eyes, "like I was walking into a trap where I had to stay. I thought, 'This is what I have to do. There is no way out.'"

Why does what we do have such power to make us so very miserable? Because work, according to Lee Richmond, a career counselor who also trains counselors at Loyola College, "is an identity issue. What we do," she explains, "is tied in with who we think we are. For some people, what they do does not accurately represent who they are -- maybe it never has, or maybe it no longer does." For those people, work tends to turn into drudgery.

"Part of it," says Ralph Raphael, a career counselor with a private practice, "is the amount of time we spend working. That's a third of your day." You could see it as half of your waking hours. That's a long time to be miserable. And when days of drudgery stretch into years, as in Dan O'Reilly's case, things can turn very bad indeed. Ultimately, Mr. O'Reilly's pain swept him into a job counselor's office.

He is not alone in turning to professional guidance. Over the past five years, there has been a 400 percent increase in the number of listings in the national Directory of Outplacement Firms. As Niel Carey, executive director of the National Career Development Association, notes, "[The industry] has experienced tremendous growth." Locally, the Yellow Pages lists dozen group and private career development practices.

During the 1980s, local counselors agree, a majority of their clients were either college students or women returning to work after raising families. But in the last three years, more people interested in midlife career changes -- both white and blue collar -- and, most notably, more men have been flooding their offices.

Perhaps that shouldn't surprise us. Sixty percent of people have not planned for their careers, according to a recent Gallup Poll commissioned by the National Career Development Association. True, the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics notes little flux in the number of people who change jobs annually. For 20 years, that figure has held at 10 million. But Debra Conaway, a career counselor with Maryland New Directions, expects it to rise soon. For one thing, baby boomers have reached midlife, ready to tumble into crises and changes.

In addition, Mrs. Conaway says: "Both employers and employees are starting to recognize that it's OK to change jobs. That never used to be the case -- you stayed in one job for life. Also, employers are realizing that middle-aged people make better workers. They have a better work ethic than younger people."

But why do midlife career changers need career counseling? Why are they willing to pay $90 an hour and more for it? What, exactly, do they find in offices like Dr. Ralph Raphael's? Sometimes, they discover that they didn't make such a bad choice. Most people, it turns out, don't make drastic changes. Instead, they fine-tune their old jobs, adding responsibilities, changing the environment, sometimes even switching bosses. But other times, as in the case of Dan O'Reilly, they find courage. Courage to do something completely different.

GOING TO SEE A CAREER counselor these days is a lot like going to see a therapist. It wasn't always so. Until Richard Bolles published "What Color Is Your Parachute?" in 1972, career counseling was a "Test 'Em and Tell 'Em" proposition. Personality traits were tested; jobs were assigned. The Army popularized that approach during World Wars I and II. Back then, it was a matter of economics. "Planes were very expensive," Dr. Richmond explains, "and tend ed to crack up when the wrong type flew them. The Army looked for a way to find the right type."

Today, the concept of fulfillment -- the idea that our work should be pleasing to us -- drives career counseling. True, there are still tests, and plenty of them, involved. But they test more than traits, and more than aptitude, or inherited abilities.

Instead, a good counselor uses tests to have you set priorities, rank interests and examine your learned skills, as well as fit yourself into a personality type. But as Dr. Richmond says, "Tests only give back what you put into them. They are most useful in organizing information in a way that helps make career decisions. That's important, because when most people come in, they are at a decision point -- there are values on either side, or there wouldn't be a problem."

A good career counselor, Dr. Richmond says, "will elicit abilities and aptitudes, and also passions and desires." A good career counselor never simply asks: "What do you want to do?" but more importantly, "How do you want to lead your life?"

To zero in on that question, Dr. Raphael from the safety of his Towson office, leads clients on fantasy trips. He has them close their eyes and relax. Then he asks them to imagine a typical, ideal workday. "What time does your alarm go off? Where are you when you wake up, in the country or city? Are you alone or with family? How do you dress? What kind of car do you drive, if you drive? Who do you see when you walk into the office?"

The exercise suggests possibilities, although for many it proves difficult to let the imagination wander. Often, the fantasy trip reveals a person's "block," which Dr. Raphael defines as the "underlying issue that creates conflicts that keep us from moving ahead." (We told you career counseling was a lot like therapy.)

"I place a lot of emphasis," Dr. Raphael says, "on how you feel about yourself. That includes how you felt as a kid, what sort of kid were you, what sort of adolescent, and how you would describe yourself now."

By probing and prodding, Dr. Raphael figures out just where someone is stuck, and how to push, pull or pry him loose. Is it simply that the person doesn't have enough career information? Or are there deep psychological causes impeding career decision-making?

Dan O'Reilly's block was his severe depression. His mind was so grooved in despair he couldn't think in terms of possibilities. He rejected all suggestions for possible careers outright. "That will take too much retraining," he'd sigh. Or, "That won't pay enough money." Not until the depression lifted (after several sessions of therapy separate from career counseling) could he loose his imagination and start his search for a career that would better represent his self.

Commonly, Dr. Raphael's probing reveals a lack of confidence. That condition is insidious, and makes many a person fear career changes. Sometimes it is the reason for never beginning the search for fulfillment.

Paul Segraves, 38, an Alan Alda-with-a-mustache look-alike, describes his childhood as "horrible" and "full of neglect." Although at certain times he had interests in teaching and in artistic fields, he was full of doubt, and lacking in confidence. "I told myself that I wasn't talented enough, so I never pursued those areas."

Then he started attending Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings, and experienced an emotional blossoming. The old interests resurfaced. He started seeing a career counselor -- not, he wants to assure his boss, to find a new job. It was part of his larger search for himself. Did he have creative aptitudes? Could he pursue art and fiction?

"The counseling bolstered me," Mr. Segraves says. "I thought, yes, I can try these things, even if it's just as a hobby." In fact, he wrote a play that was produced last year as part of the Baltimore Playwright's Festival.

Another insidious block is indecisiveness. "That's different, career-wise, from being undecided," Dr. Raphael notes. "Undecided is having several options and not being sure which is best. Indecisive is more like not wanting to give anything up."

As with lack of confidence, the roots of indecision can run deep. Dr. Raphael recalls one client who had an awful time making decisions, and as she divulged stories from her childhood, the reason became clear. She had grown up in an alcoholic family, and never knew from day to day if the household would be calm or chaotic. It all depended on whether her father was drunk or sober. Making plans, this young woman said, became "pointless." She developed a habit of reacting to situations, instead of acting.

The truth is, most of us react instead of act when it comes to careers, whether we have deep-seated reasons or not. As career counselor Debra Conaway puts it, "People get carried into careers for a variety of reasons."

Commonly, we follow our parents' footsteps, or choose a job under parental pressure. We make decisions based on perceived stability and respectability without ever asking, "Do I like this field? Will it be fulfilling for a long time?" With most people, Mrs. Conaway says, "A career just happens."

Then, when the crisis hits, often in midlife, we don't even know what questions to ask. We don't think to look to our hearts for answers. We turn to the classified ads instead, trying to figure out the new hot field. After all, that's easier than answering the eternal question: "Who am I?" Depression settles in and we only know that it has to do with work. What do we want? We want out.

KIM PATTERSON* WAS ONE of the lucky ones. An unusually optimistic woman, at age 39 she had "gotten kind of uninspired" with her sales job. She listened to her heart, quickly found a career counselor, and felt like she'd found a guru. "I was astounded by what he told me," she says. "For instance, he said, 'Don't go to a job interview with a resume. Go with a thought.'

"The fact is, most people don't get a job through the paper, like I was trying to do. Most people get a job through making connections. Maybe I'm naive, but I had never thought of that."

With her counselor's prodding, and most notably through a test where she wrote about success stories in her life, Ms. Patterson realized she had and still does have a strong will to sell. But if she still loved sales, why was she feeling uninspired? The main problem, she figured, was money. Her company promised bonuses and raises that never materialized. She felt underpaid and cheated.

She decided to find a new employer, and so moved to Stage II of career counseling: investigating various companies where she might want to work. A typical "homework" assignment involved finding somebody who knew somebody at one of the companies. Then she arranged a 15-minute interview to find out how the business was run, what worker satisfaction was like, if wages were fair.

"I have been incredibly well-received," Ms. Patterson says. "The only problem is that I found out I don't like the places where I thought I wanted to work."

Although her search continues, Ms. Patterson's enthusiasm has rebounded. For her, career counseling seemed exciting. "I focused on myself, and learned to think for myself. I got the idea that looking for a job is a serious quest. It's a search to find out what you love to do."

Some people never reach that blissful point. Ned Stevens*, 36 and also in sales, is a friend of Dan O'Reilly's. He has never truly known what he wanted to do. "To me," he says, "my job is just my job. I have wanted more. Just one time, I would like what I do to be more than just a job."

About six months ago, after he quit a commission sales job, he tried career counseling. After the first session, he dutifully plopped down before a bevy of take-home tests. He swears he tried.

"One test was truly amazing," Mr. Stevens says. "Each question had 10 parts, and then there were 10 parts to each part. When I got to where each question had 20 subdivisions, I said, 'Gawd! This is worse than any job interview!' "

He stopped filling in answers. He told himself that the results would probably duplicate an interest inventory he'd taken while in his 20s. He never returned to career counseling, and he took another job, this time in non-commission sales.

"Part of my problem was that I wanted to do something, but I didn't want it to be that hard," he says now, reflecting. "I could never do what Dan O'Reilly is doing."

And what exactly is Mr. O'Reilly up to? Like Kim Patterson, he is in Stage II, investigating. His tests showed that he has interests in common with travel agents and Realtors, so he interviewed some. "I found out what they do," he says, "and I don't want to do it."

The tests also showed an artistic bent, and an aptitude for persuasion. But his highest scores were in the domestic field. He knew he'd always loved baking and preparing food, but the tests, he said, gave him a different window on what to do with his interest.

"Finally I screwed up my courage and walked into a kitchen, to meet a guy who had started his own business baking rolls. I told him why I was there, and he said, 'I used to be in advertising, and I know just how you feel. I'd wake up and not want to get out of bed.'

"He's going to let me work for him for two weeks, with pay, like an apprenticeship. And if one morning I get up and don't want to go to work, he says it will tell me something."

In his head, Mr. O'Reilly is figuring out the practical end of things. If he decides to bake for a living, he figures he could start out earning a lower salary, but that it would have to increase to his current salary or more within five years.

Ironically, Mr. O'Reilly's heart feels light when he walks into his office these days. He no longer feels trapped, no longer falls asleep at his desk. "It's the same place," he says, "but now I see many exits.

"None of this would have happened if I'd been left to my own devices," he says. "I learned a lot about myself, even if nothing comes of the apprenticeship."

But you can tell by his voice that deep in his heart, something already has come of it. His eyes have opened to possibilities. And in that way, he has made his escape. Now, there is no turning back.


WITHIN THE PAST FEW MONTHS, local career counselors have been receiving more calls from workers who have been laid off, or who fear that their jobs are unstable.

"These are people who are very talented and who may have been happy with their jobs, but now are faced with a disaster," says Dr. Lee Richmond, career counselor and trainer. "Their situation is caused by external, not internal, factors."

No matter what causes a client to seek help, counselors try to turn crisis into opportunity. They emphasize self-searching before job-searching. Of course, if someone has been away from the job hunt for many years, he or she may want to seek counseling that includes help with resume writing and job interviewing. For example, Maryland New Directions, which describes its approach as "holistic," videotapes mock interviews and offers pointers on coming across with confidence and clarity.

Is recession good for the career-counseling industry? "Not necessarily," says Debra Conaway, career counselor with Maryland New Directions. "Often, people who have been laid off and really need the help can't afford it." Unless, that is, their old company pays, which sometimes happens.

A less expensive option, but one that takes considerable motivation, is using a book like "What Color Is Your Parachute?" In it, Richard Bolles outlines basic career-searching techniques and includes various tests and exercises. Another option is to take advantage of career centers at local community colleges and universities. Anne Arundel Community College, for one, allows area residents free use of the Discover computer program -- a self-guided search involving two hours' worth of questions leading to specific career information. Other career resources and job postings are also available at no cost.

As to whether you should even think about changing jobs during a recession -- it depends. "There can be opportunity even in the worst times," says Dr. Ralph Raphael, a private career counselor. "I read recently about the boom in used luxury cars, where a dealer said business had never been better. Some industries are recession-proof, but some are dependent on people having a large discretionary income.

"Some people can make the switch comfortably because of their circumstances and resources. For others, it might be a better idea to hold off."

--Sue Campbell

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad