Passion, necessity drive career changes in Duluth and beyond
After decades as a small business owner, Annette Beaufeaux had reached a pressure point. It was time for a change.
"I don't want to look back and say I just did this one thing," said the 50-year-old Aitkin woman.
So, she went to school to be a medical assistant.
Whether by choice or necessity, the workforce of the future is a lot more fluid than it used to be. Americans are changing jobs and careers far more often than previous generations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and employers and employees both must prepare for that new reality.
"I think people should expect career changes in their lifetimes — more than once — and be adaptable, be flexible, so they're ahead of it and not in panic mode," said Vicki Salemi, a career expert with the job-search platform Monster. "The key is to remember it's not an anomaly."
Employers, meanwhile, should expect higher turnover — or fight harder to keep their best workers.
"Amid a labor shortage, they need to keep employees happy," Salemi said. "Employers need to keep abreast of what the changing needs are in the landscape for a jobseeker."
But even with top-notch benefits and flexible schedules, priorities may simply evolve from paychecks to passion.
"If you feel there's something out there that's calling out your name, you can always shift gears and go another direction," Beaufeaux said. "Don't be afraid to try new stuff until you figure out what fits."
For Beaufeaux, going into health care is a chance to try something new. For her instructor at Lake Superior College, the stakes were a little higher.
"I spent 20 years at General Motors in manufacturing. Then I was a displaced auto worker," said Sheri Henry, director of the medical assisting program at LSC. "I went from supervising the building of trucks to teaching medical assisting," with a few stops in between.
Medical assistants take on administrative and clinical duties and might be the first people patients meet when they come to a clinic. Henry said about half of her students are older — those looking for a totally new career or a new direction in health care.
"From right out of high school to — the oldest student I had was 70," she said. "To me, it's a very good entry position for a person coming into health care."
The Northland is expected to add thousands of health care jobs by 2024, according to the state Department of Employment and Economic Development, far outpacing every other industry in the region. That presents plenty of opportunities for those seeking a new challenge — or for the roughly 1,500 people who are expected to lose their jobs in public administration and manufacturing over the same time.
There's no telling what automation and global trade could do to these estimates, however.
"Being able to forecast what that looks like, especially when it seems so uncertain, especially with federal policies and technological changes — it's tough," said Erik White, regional labor market analyst at DEED. "Tough on the jobseeker and the job holder."
According to the Pew Research Center, about 30 percent of Americans think their job is at risk for automation. That's where flexibility starts to become a higher virtue than loyalty.
Binner Rahn spent the first part of her working life in corrections, helping children and adults in custody with mental health and behavioral issues. That kind of job is more in demand than ever, and it would take a giant technological leap to automate it. But Rahn took an early retirement and tried a few different roles — postal carrier, barista — before deciding she had already found out what she was best at. The biggest difference now is she wears scrubs to work.
"Honestly I think I'm just kind of wired for dealing with the folks who are in crisis," said Rahn, 55, who is now a behavioral health technician at Essentia Health in Duluth. "I really did love my job, I loved my coworkers, but I definitely wanted to do something a little bit different."
Abundant opportunities aside, for Rahn and many others, changing careers can be more about elevating purpose over profession.
"It's that whole notion of we all do better when everyone does better," she said.
Where the fire is
Even a purpose-driven job you love can burn you out. Just ask Wade Petrich, the former publisher and co-owner of the Hermantown Star.
"I told my wife, I can't keep doing this," he said.
A few years ago Petrich left the paper and went into sales at Kolar Auto. Then he left the car lot to become a teacher as his sense of greater purpose pulled him toward the classroom.
"I left the car business and journalism not bitter — I just had to go where the fire still was," said Petrich, now 48. "And maybe it's time to give back."
Younger workers take a lot of flak for being flaky — just Google "disloyal millennials" — but BLS data says that workers now in the middle of their careers have held nearly 12 jobs between ages 18 and 48.
Some call it personal development.
"I knew that I could do more, and I wanted to do more," said Michelle Nelson, an organizational development specialist with St. Louis County who recently made the jump from a long career at Woodland Hills. "I wanted to find a larger platform to use my skill set and make a difference in the region."
After finishing her master's degree at the College of St. Scholastica, Nelson felt validated in her career change and said the path for others is wide open.
"It's not only possible but probable," she said. "It's a matter of surrounding yourself with people that support you and believe in you and truly want to help you."
Petrich, too, found strength in taking the leap toward his fire. After going through the graduate teaching licensure program at St. Scholastica — which is designed for mid-career shifts — Petrich's experience student teaching at Cloquet High School changed him.
"I didn't know I had this in me," he said.
"Sometimes we get obsessed with our current job status and position, making it hard to start from the ground-up in a new career," Petrich explained. "If you are able to overcome that hump, start fresh and perhaps chew on a few pieces of humble pie, the transition to a new career can be fun and rewarding."
Improvements to office culture and work-life balance have all come into vogue in recent years as the workforce grows restless and employers try everything they can to retain top talent. In a wide-open labor market with historically low unemployment, job-jumping is a threat to stability — and to the bottom line.
"There are so many costs incurred when we have churn or turnover — decreased productivity, decreased morale, training costs, onboarding costs, and then you lose institutional knowledge," said Duluth leadership coach Pam Solberg-Tapper.
The average employee tenure fell from 4.6 to 4.2 years in 2016, according to the BLS. (For those 45 to 55 years old, the average tenure has remained steady at about 8 years.) To increase retention rates, Solberg-Tapper says employers need to do more than put a foosball table in the break room.
"What does the employee want to learn, and what can the employee learn to get to the next level?" she said. "A number of companies are being much more intentional about that by doing what we call career pathing, where they chart out what that employee's career can look like over the course of time."
After a "nomadic" start to his working life, Greg Swanson had his newest career mapped out when he arrived as a flight instructor at Cirrus Aircraft at the end of 2016.
"I had a defined path to start here and move to Knoxville," he said, "but I liked Duluth too much. So they found a way to help me stay."
High-growth companies like Cirrus can't afford to lose their best workers, since they're already fighting for a finite supply of skilled workers in demand nationwide. Attention to personal needs goes a long way toward retaining employees, Swanson, 35, attests.
"It's the kind of company I've hoped for through this career change," he said. "It checks all the boxes."
It was a big change from a desk job, and not an easy one.
"The most intimidating thing when I started was a fear of not knowing," Swanson said.
He was talking about flying, but careers can be the same way.