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Published: Sunday, 3/1/2009

Job hunters use vacation time off to find new careers

John Lula, right,  instructor of a basic computer class at The Source, works with Theressa Morgan. John Lula, right, instructor of a basic computer class at The Source, works with Theressa Morgan.

When this winter s tidal wave of layoffs swept up Ohioan Daniel Arz, he leaped into the lifeboat that he began building nearly two years ago during a vacation in Sarasota, Fla.

It was no sun-and-surf vacation that Mr. Arz, 40, of Sheffield Lake, took in May, 2007. It was a two-day crash course with a mentor on how to develop a career as a voice-over artist something like job shadowing for an adult, with the adult paying for the privilege.

I had a blast. It was tremendous fun, but more significantly for his future, It really gave me a road map on how to get started, Mr. Arz said recently, just a week before his telecommunications job in the Cleveland area was to end and what was formerly a backup plan moved to the urgent forefront.

Not everyone who loses a job, or expects to, can afford to look for a new career by taking a vacation, as Mr. Arz did, through a Portland, Ore., company called Vocation Vacations (vocationvacations.com). Founded in 2004, the company offers a chance to test-drive your dream job, as founder Brian Kurth puts it.

But the concept has wider potential. Reviving a deferred dream, finding a way to link interests with a paying job, or transferring existing skills to a new field even if you travel no farther than downtown Toledo for free workshops and assessments at The Source, Lucas County s one-stop shop for unemployment services could lead, eventually, to financial stability for people who are lost in debt and out of hope.

It s an investment in yourself, said Mr. Kurth, author of the 2008 Business Plus paperback Test-Drive Your Dream Job: A Step-by-Step Guide to Finding and Creating the Work You Love.

Mr. Kurth noted that the dark economy has changed the reasons that people become what he calls vocationers. Those have included Ohio and Michigan residents, but none from our immediate area.

When we started out it was about career change and exploration and having fun, and now with this economy it s more specifically due diligence, he said.

People are looking for career change in the short term, not dreaming of a day when. Now we re getting people who are laid off or are concerned that they are going to be laid off and have to decide what to do before they get the pink slip, Mr. Kurth continued.

And while the company still offers the same spectrum of more than 150 job mentorships, more people are thinking practical over pie in the sky. Vocation Vacations today are more likely to be booked to test jobs in the culinary field, freelance writing, or the nonprofit sector than something like a brew master or sports announcer whatever is the most pragmatic and can be done in a turnaround time of months versus years, Mr. Kurth said.

According to company statistics, vocationers have ranged in age from 18 to 80, with baby boomers and Gen X-ers making up the largest percent of participants. Boomers are looking for an encore career that will generate decent money, Mr. Kurth said, while Gen X-ers are considering a major career shift to something that will give them more satisfaction if not necessarily greater income or security. I think they ve realized nothing is recession-proof, Mr. Kurth said.

The career-immersion trips (ranging in price from $549 to $2,999) last one to three days, enough time to judge whether a new direction is worth pursuing, he added.

Leslie Kilgore, an engineer for one of the Big Three automakers she d rather not say which one said the Thursday-to-Sunday she spent in February, 2007, in Sherman, Texas, clarified a lot about her dream of owning a spa. As she attended business meetings with the owner, talked to spa staff, answered phones, ran the cash register, even cleaned treatment rooms, it came to her: This was a career change she wanted to make, but she wasn t ready yet.

The foundation wasn t solid enough for me, explained Ms. Kilgore, 36, of Shelby Township, Michigan, north of Detroit. Since then she has created a business plan, studied development of Web sites and budgets, and started legal paperwork to establish a spa business. She also set up a time line for opening her own spa, but has fallen about a year behind.

I m still working toward it, she said, and she s still in contact with her mentor.

But Michele Dunckel is plunging right in. The 56-year-old widow from Fulton, Mich., about 20 miles southeast of Kalamazoo, planned to leave for Boston last week to hunt for a job in hotel management. She got a taste of the business last November during a weekend Vocation Vacation with a Chicago hotelier.

It truly has changed my life, said Ms. Dunckel, who closed her 11-year-old cat boarding business in December because of the Michigan economy. There was just no business.

She had been doing contract work as an administrative assistant and event planner for Pfizer until giving notice recently.

During two full days at the Hotel Monaco, she shadowed the manager, worked at the front desk, spent time with a wedding planner to learn how the sales department operates, talked to housekeeping management about how work is scheduled in the rooms, and worked at a wine reception for guests.

All day Monday and Tuesday, it was very intense. When I went to my room Tuesday night to begin packing up, I was very sad. I wanted to be [there] and keep doing all I had been learning about, and that was enough to convince me, Ms. Dunckel said.

Before I did this I didn t know what I was going to do. I knew I had to do something but I didn t know what to do.

In downtown Toledo, The Source offers programs aimed at achieving a good fit between a job-seeker and a paying position.

One workshop explores how skills in one job can transfer to another, for example. Mike Veh, workforce development manager for Lucas County, cited a meat cutter who was laid off and didn t know what else he was qualified to do. He became a precision tool and die maker.

The Source also offers career assessments, suggesting careers that match an individual s interests but don t take skills into account. Educational assessments and self-paced, computerized tutorial programs also are available.

Mr. Veh pointed out that job-seekers often can t afford to follow their heart. We tell people you need a career, not just a job, but when you ve got no money coming in the door, you need a job.

For so many people today, any job is a dream job.

Contact Ann Weber at: aweber@theblade.comor 419-724-6126.

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