All Change, Please

23rd September 2011

Radical career swaps are on the increase discovers Heather Harris, who’s seen it happen in her own family too.

It’s amazing how many people ask the question, “What does your Dad do for a living?” At the age of 18, I had to start saying “he’s a dog trainer”. It took some remembering.
Not that I was embarrassed. On the contrary, it was quite cool to come from interesting stock compared to my classroom full of the offspring of accountants, bankers, marketing men and sales executives. It’s just that all my life I had been used to replying “Civil Engineer”, and that’s usually when the conversation ended. But suddenly it was a different matter – and you’d think he’d become a lion tamer, such was the level of interest.

The truth was far more mundane. Aged 55, my father was made redundant from the only job he had ever done since he left school. It was a total shock and one which I still remember had a huge impact on our family.

Dad hated not working, so spent an increasing amount of time offering to ‘pick-up’ pheasants at local shoots with our Labrador. Then people started commenting that he was a ‘natural’ with gundogs and began asking him to train their puppies.

Roll on a couple of decades and he’s fitter and happier than ever. He has over 30 dogs of all ages in his kennels in Leicestershire, and is asked to judge at gundog events all over Europe. He earns enough to keep them in dog food, and himself in Ploughman’s Lunches, and is unlikely ever to retire.

The difficulties of a ‘midlife crisis’ have long been understood, and while it’s easy to laugh at the very idea, according to David Krantz, the author of Radical Career Change: Life Beyond Work, and a psychologist with an international reputation, it’s a disquieting experience that may ‘precipitate a vocational soul-searching and the assumption of a new persona.’

Former top computer executive, 55 year-old Mike Smith, adopted not only a new persona but a pair of overalls and set of pliers.

“When I got made redundant for the third time, in 2009, from my job in IT business development, I decided this time I really was going to do something totally different.”
Mike had actually been trying to persuade his eldest son to train as an electrician after seeing it in a list of ‘Top 100 jobs’. His son dismissed it as ‘too dangerous’ but Mike disagreed. “I’d always been practical and mending things had kept me sane during all my years in a desk job.”

He enrolled on a two month intensive course in Chesterfield – cheaper than the ones available in London – and returned to Hertfordshire with a new qualification and a new name: Bees Electrical.

As he celebrates his first year’s trading, Mike is now struggling to keep up with demand and is on the brink of taking on an apprentice. He explains, “I gave up my career because I never saw my family and the same thing is in danger of happening again if I stay as a one-man band.”

Like my father, Mike may be earning far less now, but he is certainly far happier. As he succinctly puts it, “I don’t think I learned anything new for the past ten years; now I learn something new every day. I was head down, buried in paper; now I meet real people. I feel good about myself.”

Marco Pierleoni, 48, agrees. Recently taking voluntary redundancy from his high powered job in the Government, he has swapped the scales of Justice for the scales of fish.
“Being part Italian, I had always had a passion for great food and finally decided to do something about it,” he tells me.

In April he launched ‘Hooked’, a home delivery service which takes fish and seafood fresh from the seabed to doorsteps around the UK, by business post. His commute into Parliament has been replaced by trips down to Brixham docks; late nights formerly spent analysing Ministry of Justice reports are now spent researching sustainable fish stocks. He’s now added retail premises – a trendy fishmongers/delicatessen – to his business portfolio, and hopes that Fish at 85, in Cardiff, will be the first of many.
“All my family are happier too, as not only am I around more but I’m always cooking them new dishes,” he laughs. His wife, Lorraine, has joined the company , and has recently launched their website.

“I’m still getting over the shock of not waving him off in a suit everyday, and not seeing a regular salary, but I really admire him for following his passion – even if setting up any new business is a risk.”

Fish feature prominently in the new business established by criminal lawyer Julie Turnball, too, only for her the risk is in trying to convince people to have their feet nibbled… the fish pedicure is just one of the treatments offered at Julie’s skin salon FUTI on Berkhamsted High Street.

“It’s the ultimate… Once you try it you’ll be so impressed by how smooth your skin feels. I love seeing people’s reaction!”

And it’s certainly very different from prosecuting double murderers at the Old Bailey and working 18-hour days in the predominately male-dominated legal world, as Julie had been doing since she left Bar School in 2003…

“…until one day I was talking to another female QC who had done the job for 30 years and only once taken a two week holiday. She was totally exhausted and I knew I would end up the same.”

Having always loved business, Julie looked for a niche in the market. “I’d spent time in the States and noticed all the skin treatment centres here are too clinical in comparison. I wanted to open one which was more chic and homely.”

After totally renovating the property, employing staff and sourcing products, FUTI is now thriving – and not just with its fish eating pedicures. “We’re now open seven days a week to keep up with demand and offering ‘Ladies nights’ in the evenings too.”

Julie admits that when she meets up with her lawyer friends she does miss all the buzz and excitement “but I honestly have never regretted giving it up. Being my own boss is a very different pressure.”

The only person who isn’t entirely happy with the new Julie is her Mum. “She still tells everyone her daughter is a barrister!”

Ironically, though, in today’s ‘less is more’ society, when careers in the media and top level policing have joined banking and estate agency as professions to be queried, more traditional practical jobs are suddenly gaining long overdue kudos.

As top PR and Marketing guru-turned-gardener, 63 year old Gillie Turner, says, “My previous career was all a bit smoke and mirrors. Now I’m doing something real.” Her company, Garden Know How, run from an old Victorian washhouse at the bottom of her garden is flourishing faster than her herbaceous borders.

“We’re doing terribly well. I think it’s because I’m an older woman, and a lot of ladies feel safer hiring a female. Men think I’ll turn up with no bra like that celebrity gardener, Charlie Dimmock… but are sadly disappointed!!”

It’s not an easy life, though, as she’s quick to point out. “I’ve never worked harder or earned less. In my previous career I had secretaries and personnel departments – now I do everything from sticking every stamp on to designing the gardens and doing the planting.”

Like Mike the electrician, Gillie has recently taken on staff to help out. With 150 gardens in her company’s portfolio, from huge country estates to ‘little old lady charity cases’, she is justifiably proud. Tired but proud….

And this seems to be the familiar story. Radical career changes are led by the heart not the head. On paper, security and salary seem far more appealing than spending long hours in a washhouse, smelling fish (or smelling of fish, for that matter), or at risk of electrocution – but, as someone once said (and I bet it was on the Northern Line at 7am) we should all ‘Work to live, and not live to work’.

Now I’m off to join the circus…

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