The pay was good, the hours decent, his tenure secure. But six years ago, Dave Harper came off his shift, drove home and gave voice to 20 years of suffocating, accumulating frustration with factory work.
"I absolutely hate my job," Harper, of Germantown Hills, Ill., remembered telling his wife that day.
Then he asked her a question.
"Do you think I would be a good nurse?" he asked.
His wife didn't flinch.
"You'd make a great nurse," she said.
A week later, he quit the factory and returned to school for the first time in 24 years. He has been a nurse for the last two years.
"It was a huge relief when I quit. Scary, but it felt like a huge pressure being lifted off my shoulders. I knew there were four tough years of school ahead of me, but I couldn't stand not making a difference any more," Harper said. "I want to spend the rest of my life helping people."
The U.S. Department of Labor projects that today's workers will -- on average -- change professions at least three times in their lives, either by choice or because technology has made a job obsolete.
In fact, change in the work force is common these days. Staying in one place in one job in one career is now more the exception, job hopping more the rule.
And there are as many reasons to change careers as there are people changing them. Some workers get fed up with a job and look for some new career -- anything different will do -- for the sake of making the change. Others were sidetracked at the start of their working lives, stuck with a dissatisfying job for years -- decades, even -- and find themselves positioned and ready to follow a dream.
After working for United Dairy Farmers as a trucker for four years, Tom Nicholson realized that he couldn't do that for the rest of his life.
"It was a very physically demanding job and I couldn't see myself doing it when I was 40 or 50."
Although he was yet in his twenties, he was a father of four, which made drastic change financially risky.
He figured that most people who seemed successful and enjoyed their jobs worked independently so he started looking for business opportunities.
His brother-in-law heard that it was impossible to get automotive parts properly primed in Toledo. Inspired by this unfilled niche, they decided to invest everything they had into supplying that demand. They found an old factory in Ottawa Lake, Michigan and converted it into a product priming plant.
Now his company, Midwest Product Finishing, Inc, provides electrocoating for approximately 600,000 parts per day, including almost 900 daily Jeep Liberty engine cradles.
It took over a decade before he and his wife were able to relax from that move.
Nevertheless, his wife was very supportive. He says that it had been her father's dream to do something on his own, and she's glad they did.
He's glad he took the chance, too. "I would never have been able to enjoy the lifestyle I do now," Nicholson says, referring both to financial and personal fulfillment.
Those who grew up watching parents working their lifetime away at a job they didn't enjoy are motivated towards a broader concept of the American Dream - one that has married the pursuit of happiness to the necessity of security.
Harper, 48, realizes his switch from machine shop supervisor to registered nurse seems extreme from the outside, but his new job is a much better match than was his old one. And it wasn't as though the idea of nursing came from nowhere. His wife is a nurse, and twice while on the job at the factory, Harper reflexively tended to an injured worker while waiting for an ambulance to arrive.
"I used to leave work behind me at the factory door and never think about it when I was gone," Harper said. "Now I think about it, but in a good way. I'm constantly thinking about how my patients are doing."
Kevin Kupper made as drastic a change as Harper, but in a different direction. He went from Caterpillar factory worker to artist.
"We went through a period of layoffs and strikes, layoffs and strikes, and it was just kind of tough," said Kupper, 49, of Peoria, Ill. "In 1989, I figured I'd had enough of this."
Kupper took Caterpillar's $3,000 offer to waive his recall rights and bought some art supplies. Since then, he's earned most of a living doing pen-and-ink drawings of buildings and homes.
"It's a small artistic niche," he said. "But I really enjoy it."
Kupper's career move came from a sense of personal dissatisfaction. He had always been artistically inclined and was innately fascinated by architecture and design. He remembers going to movies with his family at the old theaters in Peoria, but spent more time studying the details and facets of the ornate ceilings than watching the screen. But life has a way of intervening in future plans, and Kupper moved without much thought to a well-paying job on the factory floor.
"I guess working in the factory, I was always sort of disappointed I hadn't done something else. I felt like I 'settled' for Caterpillar," said Kupper, whose art skills are mostly self-taught. "Now I'm doing something I love and something that gives me a lot of pleasure. For my health and sanity alone, it was worth it."
Lots of people are making lots of interesting job career choices. Each story can be inspiring to anybody who feels stuck in a dead-end career but lacks the moxie to make the life-altering change.
Denise Adams of Pekin, Ill., left behind 14 years as a medical technologist working in a research laboratory at the University of Illinois campus in Peoria to become a Realtor. The last three years she was in the top 6 percent in the nation at her company.
Jeff Tipps of Morton, Ill., shucked 23 years in advertising and management to strike out on his own as a handyman.
"I make my own hours, answer to no one but my own family, and am happier than I've ever been," he wrote. "So far, it's been the greatest two years of my life."
Todd VanDyke of Bartonville, Ill., went from printing press operator to firefighter and emergency medical technician.
Jill Crotty of Washington quit her job as a dental assistant to open a bridal shop.
"Going from a dental assistant to a retail shop owner was a big change, and people laugh when I tell them how and why I got started, but it turned out to be a great change for me," Crotty wrote.
Louisa Wells, of Washington, Ill., made a change four years ago that might not sound too drastic -- from school administrator to State Farm program analyst -- but the move changed everything.
"I had a good career in education, but my living circumstances were forcing me to look to making a change. I wasn't burned out in the job, but I thought I could be at some point in the future," Wells said. "And I was raising two kids by myself and had some real safety concerns for my family."
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