Real-Life Career Changers

A Navy vet and a former schoolteacher, like many people starting new careers, find much of what they learned in previous ones is applicable, even in a starkly different context

To Eric Green, co-managing a $50 million hedge fund in San Francisco isn't all that different from renovating a hospital in Estonia, which he did 10 years ago while in the Navy's Civil Engineer Corps.

The Detroit native, who served for seven years as a lieutenant in the Navy before going back to school for his MBA, says skills he developed in his first career have transferred well to his new one.

Running a 50-Member Team

"An important component to the success of the mission is to communicate to the team how our work translates directly into a bigger, more-strategic vision of our senior military commanders," says Green, comparing his leadership in Estonia and San Francisco. "I use these same skills now in translating our strategy into our investment process."

Green says that overseeing a 50-member construction team, and working with the local community to build support for the Navy's presence in the northern European nation, helped him understand the importance of attention to detail, and allowed him to develop the risk-management and people skills he needs in his current career.

Green, who has an undergraduate engineering degree from the Naval Academy in Annapolis and a master's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Virginia, now spends his days researching investment opportunities in micro-cap equities, communicating with investors, and developing risk-profile models as a managing partner at Osmium Partners, which he joined in early 2005.

Although many of his skills carried over, Green says it has been difficult learning "how to filter the signal from the noise" when it comes to using market data to develop business strategies and pinpoint opportunities for growth. "I don't know if I will ever overcome this problem," says Green, who combats the obstacle by focusing on value-investing news rather than popular business information sources. "Most of my time is trying to hone the investment process, rather than worry about the hot headline."

Bored by Retirement

Karen Tuttle, who became a full-time pharmacy technician at CVS Pharmacy (CVS) in Springfield, Ohio, three years ago, is also recycling the skills she developed in her first career. The former second-grade teacher, who propelled herself back into the workforce because she was bored by retirement, says her experience with parents prepared her to interact with customers. "I know how to deal with people who are not happy," says Tuttle, 60, who taught for 30 years.

Tuttle spends her day filling prescriptions, checking in orders, serving customers at a drive-through window, and cleaning the pharmacy. Her only complaint is the time she spends standing.

"With teaching, the stress was trying to keep the children focused, and at the pharmacy the stress for me is trying to be on my feet all day," says Tuttle. "At this stage of my life, if I really don't like it, I'm not going to be doing it."

Tuttle, like Green, is part of a movement of career changers taking advantage of an increasingly fluid job market to follow their passions and redirect their lives (see, 6/23/07, ""Your Brilliant Second Career".")

Talk to employers in their own language

Dr. Shel Leanne, president of Wilshel, an educational and career-consulting service, says career changers with backgrounds in public policy, engineering, medicine, and computer science can often make smooth transitions to the business world, if they communicate their qualifications to potential employers using business language.

"The concept of transferable skills is particularly important for nontraditional job seekers, who must demonstrate that their education and work experience have given them skills that—though used in a totally different context before—that can be used or adapted in the new environment, to enable the candidate to succeed in the workplace," Leanne writes in How to Interview Like a Top MBA: Job-Winning Strategies from Headhunters, Fortune 100 Recruiters, and Career Counselors. The book is published by the McGraw-Hill Companies, the parent company of BusinessWeek.

Tuttle's return to the workforce after a failed bid at retirement is also common. "I always had every intention that when I retired, I was going to stay at home. I did try it for six months, and it drove me crazy," says Tuttle, whose new employer recruits and trains workers over age 50 through Mature Workers Initiatives. Its offerings include a "snowbird" program that allows employees to change locations on a seasonal basis, and a partnership with AARP.

Fascinated by headlines

According to a survey released in late March by Korn/Ferry, (KFY), 58% of recruiters reported a rise in the number of executives who change careers at the brink of retirement. Recruiters also said 22% of executives who switch careers are motivated by boredom with retirement. Right Management, an international consulting firm based in Philadelphia that serves big companies, cautions clients against about-face career changes when they are seeking to reenter the work force as quickly as possible, as re-careering is apt to lengthen the job hunt.

But for Green and Tuttle, it was worth spending the extra time transitioning to new territory with unfamiliar expectations and a new command structure. Although many of their skills were transferable, they faced many challenges, which Green and Tuttle overcame through education and training.

Green, who says he was always fascinated with headlines about banking but did not know what an investment bank was in 1998, attended the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University to learn the ropes and overcome the language barrier between the two professions.

Tuttle, who had never so much as operated a cash register before working at CVS, went through 16 hours of off-site training to learn how to use pharmacy computers, read labels, measure prescriptions, and balance orders. Tuttle also trained on the job for six months as a pharmacy sales associate before becoming a pharmacy technician.

"It was so totally different from teaching, because I'd never done any kind of work except with children," says Tuttle. "I really like it because you're continually learning new things."

Bridging old and new

And chartering new territory is often less scary than as it seems. Despite the disorientation of taking a new position, career changers say they often rely on their existing value systems and the work habits they developed in their first professions, no matter where they go, bridging the new and old in a familiar way.

Tuttle insists on practicing new tasks until she masters them, regardless of the job at hand, and Green says he has carried his strong sense of honesty from the Navy to the hedge fund business, making him a more effective manager.

"Having integrity and being true to your word and all of the core values that are embedded into you in the Navy are important to [finance] work, and those have served me well," says Green. "Building networks and friends and peers in the business world was helped by being a man of my word."