*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.