The Careerist: Am I Too Old to Change From White Collar to Blue?

Q: I’ve been in middle management for 25 years, and I have a closet filled with aloha shirts, khaki pants and work shoes to prove it. I’m good at what I do, but I’m bored. And I worry, that as I approach 50, it’s going to get harder to get a new job if needed. What fires me up is carpentry – everything from crafting string instruments to building large furniture. Do I bring shame to me and my family if I shift to a blue-collar career in middle age?

A: Bring shame? On the contrary, you might be ahead of the curve! Princeton economist Alan Blinder thinks we might be hanging our job security hats on the wrong pegs, assuming white-collar, highly educated people are the ones with all the security. “You can’t hammer a nail over the internet,” he writes, nor can you rewire homes, administer an injection or change the oil in a Honda. “The critical divide in the future may instead be between those types of work that are easily deliverable through a wire (or a wireless connection) with little or no diminution in quality and those that are not,” he says.

Blinder’s not alone. Mathew Crawford, a man with a Ph.D. in political philosophy from the University of Chicago, tossed his white-collar shirts to open a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, Virginia, and then wrote about the epiphany in his best-selling book, “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work.” He basically argues that boring work eats away one’s soul, and that self-reliance and skilled manual labor can be a grounding force in an increasingly abstract world.

But can you really do it? Back on the East Coast, my friend Darrell Jennings’ day job always revolved around IT and telecommunications, but what gets him up in the morning is collecting and playing guitars. Some six years ago, a few years shy of his 60th birthday, he and his furniture-building brother-in-law sat in the garage strumming guitars and lamenting that there’s no case on the market to keep guitars humidified. (Apparently that’s important.) So they borrowed tools and built one. And then another. Today, American Music Furniture is a $500,000 annual business crafting beautifully built cabinetry for guitar collectors, and Darrell’s days of power suits in the IT corridor are a memory.

“I wish I’d done it 10 years sooner,” he says. “Getting ahead in a back-stabbing industry is an awful way to make a living.” Now he’s creating something with his hands, a slow, meticulous process that he revels. “When Wayne Henderson swapped one of his guitars for something I’d built, it was the happiest, proudest moment of my career, ever,” Darrell says, recalling meeting the legendary guitar maker whose guitars sell for thousands, if you can find one.
Before you plunk down your resignation and head to your workshop, craft a plan. Jennings kept some consulting clients in the early days and, as the business grew, he and his partners put money back into the business rather than taking sizable salaries. Also, it’s not all cutting, sanding and creating. If you’re looking to make money in this venture, pesky things like clients, bookkeeping and marketing need attention, too. Finally, starting a new business is risky. Jennings recalls taking out an advertisement in Guitar Aficionado magazine and putting the $1,000 charge on his credit card. “We better sell one of these things,” he told his partner, “because a month from now, I’ve got to pay this bill.”

They did. He did. And the rest is music history.

Q: I’m in the midst of an ugly divorce after walking away from an abusive and violent relationship. My colleagues occasionally saw the bruises and suspected things were difficult, but it was all kept on the down-low. Now that it’s out and I’m actively pursuing the divorce, they treat me more like a victim than a colleague. I appreciate their concern, but this is the first real step I’ve made to get on with my life and work is the most normal thing I have. How can I convey that message to them and get back to work?

A: First, congratulations. Juggling a career and personal difficulties is tough for anyone. While they may not show it, it’s possible that your colleagues are in awe of your bravery and fortitude. I talked with Nanci Kriedman, CEO of Honolulu’s Domestic Violence Action Center, about specific steps you might take to signal your colleagues that you’re OK and to change the office dynamic.

“Remember it’s not about you; it’s about them,” she says. Most life events – engagements, marriages, new babies, even deaths – come with a fairly common script. Co-workers have been through these things themselves, or know someone who has, so they know what questions to ask and what they can do to be supportive. Not so much with domestic violence.

While it’s terribly common, it’s not as openly discussed, so your co-workers may feel awkward and not know what to say. They may also have questions, but don’t know how to ask them.

“Talk about it,” she says. “Normalize it. Give your co-workers permission to ask questions by sharing some personal experiences.” She also suggests having a direct conversation with your boss or a close colleague/confidant. Share your concerns objectively, explaining that your work is vital to you and that you don’t want your personal life interfering. When your closest colleagues are more comfortable talking about it, not treating you with kid gloves, others in the office will likely follow.

Kriedman also points out that victim blaming is still pervasive, so it is possible that your colleagues are trying to figure out what role you played in the relationship. Why didn’t you just leave? Why’d you put up with an abusive spouse? Maybe you stirred the pot too much. “Saying things like ‘I tried my hardest to make it work,’ or explaining what kept you there – maybe kids, religious beliefs, family beliefs, etc. – opens a dialogue that can also teach your colleagues how to talk about the issue.”

Last, remember that domestic violence is tragically pervasive, and there’s a good chance someone you work with is wrestling with their story or experience. Maybe they’re trying to find courage like yours. Stay open when someone seeks you out with specific questions; maybe you’ve become the role model they need.

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Categories: Careers