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The Boston Globe

Mid-career workers craft new, hands-on occupations

Some white-collar workers follow their hearts by shifting jobs at midlife to experience the joy of pursuing a craft

By Joan Axelrod-Contrada, Globe Correspondent, 2/22/04

Globe Staff Photo/Pat Greenhouse
Dennis McCarten, 54, shown working at his craft, left a law practice in Providence to study violin making at the North Bennet Street School in Boston. "People tell me I look younger now," he says.

Globe Staff Photo/George Rizer
Deni Ross, 44, tried baking when she decided it was time for a career change and found a restaurant willing to train her.

Globe Staff Photo/Nancy Palmieri
Jill Montgomery, 57, found a hands-on career in knitting, a craft she learned from her grandmother. Montgomery, who works as a knitwear designer at a Northampton yarn store, showed off its yard warehouse.

Trial lawyer Dennis McCarten started fiddling around with making violins and then got hooked.

In September, he left a successful law practice in Providence to study violin making at Boston's North Bennet Street School. McCarten said he didn't want to end up like his father, a statistician, who found his work unfulfilling.

''I didn't want to grow old with regrets,'' said McCarten, 54, of Cumberland, R.I. ''I grew up with a sad dad. His work didn't scratch his itch at all. His only creative outlet was the woodworking he did down in the basement.''

McCarten is one of many middle-aged white-collar workers who have jumped off the career ladder to pursue the satisfaction of working with their hands. In a world where fewer jobs have a finished product a worker can point to at the end of the day, hands-on occupations offer the opportunity to create something tangible. And a piece of wood or a mound of dough can also be more malleable than, say, people or budgets.

If it seems that employee dissatisfaction with corporate America has grown, research confirms it. A study by The Conference Board, a New York-based research firm, found that employee satisfaction dropped from 59 percent in 1995 to 49 percent in 2003, with levels of dissatisfaction particularly high among employees between the ages of 35 and 54.

''A lot of the people that I work with are at a point in their life where the idea of doing something meaningful and purposeful has become very important to them,'' said Jason Smith, founder of Your Soul's Work, a career-counseling firm in Boston.

Working at a craft can also seem like a welcome alternative to working in the corporate sector for those caught in the undertow of an uncertain economy. Administrators at the North Bennet Street School say interest in their crafts programs has increased in response to the recent economic downturn. Applications to the school's carpentry program rose 60 percent last year, according to admissions director Bob Delaney.

People who switch from traditional white-collar careers often speak about how working with their hands brings them into a different state of mind.

''It's what people describe as a Zen experience,'' said McCarten. ''I'm totally absorbed by the thing in front of me.''

Like any group of occupations, though, hands-on jobs are no panacea. The work can be physically demanding and the financial rewards modest. Some who yearn to work with their hands try to make the switch too quickly. A successful transition takes time, careful planning, and the willingness of a spouse to assume a greater financial role, say specialists.

''What people do is get so frustrated in the corporate world they want to swing the pendulum to the other side,'' said Amy Mazur, a career counselor for the Jewish Vocational Service of Newton.

Henry Bryson, 50, of Franklin knows from experience. Over the course of his career at Polaroid, he moved up the management ranks from process engineer to white-collar operations manager. Each promotion took him farther from the shop floor where he thrived. Finally, after leaving Polaroid for a new management position at a firm that laid him off in 2001, he tried to get back into the hands-on work he did at the beginning of his career. But no one was hiring. So Bryson got the book ''Cool Careers for Dummies'' and started looking for new possibilities.

''I made a list of about 40 alternative careers, which I then narrowed down to 10 and then to four,'' said Bryson. ''Some of the others were just as interesting, but they weren't as practical.''

He settled on locksmithing because of the accessibility of the North Bennet program. To make ends meet, the divorced father of two sold his house and moved into a condo. He also got a $3,000 grant from the state for retraining. He is currently combining his studies with a modest-paying apprenticeship. He hopes to parlay his training into a financially secure career.

Other midlife career changers are able to switch without enrolling in formal programs. Deni Ross, for example, worked for 13 years as a teacher before deciding it was time for a change. Her volunteer work in gardening with the Boston Harbor Islands led to a part-time job in horticulture, but she needed something else to make ends meet. She decided to try baking.

''I was walking home one day and thought that baking bread would be a nice way to spend the winter,'' said Ross, 44, who lives in the North End. ''I took out the Yellow Pages and called about 20 places. One day I got lucky.''

She found a restaurant willing to train her. But the new job paid considerably less than her previous ones, and she needed to pay for her own health insurance.

''It was scary,'' she acknowledged. ''But I'm doing something I'm passionate about. I feel like I'm making a difference when someone tries one of my cookies or scones.''

Changing to hands-on work can involve not only a dramatic reduction in pay but also a change in identity. Jill Montgomery, 57, of Northampton, grew up in a lower-middle class Jewish family that valued education and achievement. She got her doctorate in clinical psychology, then became a psychoanalyst.

''My mother would introduce me as, 'This is my daughter, Dr. Montgomery,' '' she said. ''That's who I was supposed to be.''

But shortly after co-editing a book on masochism, Montgomery realized that she, too, was suffering. She needed to do something more joyful. Montgomery closed her practice and started baking wedding cakes. Her husband, a writer and educational consultant, stepped up his consulting work to make ends meet. He thrived in his new role, but Montgomery found baking too physically demanding and messy. She started working with a master knitter and teaching knitting, a craft she had learned as a child from her grandmother.

''It's so nice to not have to be this professional,'' said Montgomery. ''I didn't have to be so stuck up, so full of myself, so identified with my work. It's more real. It's not such a phony mask.''

The store, Webs: America's Yarn Store, in Northampton, created a new position for Montgomery as its knitwear designer.

''It like having my own playhouse,'' she said.

For her, the joy that comes from teaching knitting and designing knitwear has been worth the financial sacrifice. She's quick to point out, however, that she and her husband have always lived modestly.

McCarten also traces his interest in hands-on work to childhood. He grew up helping his father in his woodshop. In midlife, McCarten became interested in Irish fiddle music. He started taking violin lessons and took a violin apart to see how it was made. He was fascinated by the construction of violins, but his work as a lawyer left little time to pursue this interest.

Last year, McCarten was accepted at the three-year violin-making program at the North Bennet. His wife, a legal editor for LexisNexis, supported his decision to quit his job and go.

''She's a dreamer, too,'' he said.

McCarten noted that he is still getting income from his law partnership.

''It gives me a bit of a cushion the average Joe might not have,'' he said.

Although McCarten thought that he'd do something connected to law in the summers, he's changed his mind. ''I realize just how stressful it was,'' he said. ''People tell me I look younger now.''

His father had hoped to pursue his hobbies of woodworking and oil painting in retirement. But, soon after retiring, he was in a car accident and died. McCarten is now living out his father's dreams.

''I think my dad would be happy for me,'' he said.

Hands on

Specialists suggest the following strategies for shifting your career to something that involves working with your hands:

  • Research the possibilities. Browse the websites of associations such as the National Craft Association (www.craftassoc.com) and the Arts and Crafts Association of America (www.artsandcraftsassoc.com). Check out books like ``Complete Idiot's Guide to Making Money with Your Hobby'' by Barbara Arena of the National Craft Association.
  • Talk to people already doing the kind of work you're interested in.
  • Speak with a career counselor. In Massachusetts, the state's 32 One-Stop Career Centers provide free career counseling and job-search workshops. For a center near you, visit www.detma.org.
  • Test the waters. Block out time for your new career at night and weekends. Look into workshops to increase your skills.
  • Break your goal into a series of small, manageable steps. Be flexible and creative (an artist might design color-by-number kits, for instance) about how you make money along the way.

- Joan Axelrod-Contrada

Joan Axelrod-Contrada is a freelance writer and author. Reach her at .

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