Mid-life career changes: the rule, not the exception

Robert Barmore hadn’t planned on a second career after decades as a designer, developer and builder of vacation homes in Colorado.”This was a niche market and we thought it was mostly recession-proof,” Barmore said. But his assumptions were tested when the early tremors of a collapsing real estate market began to be felt in early 2007. Within a few years, his former business was no more, and Barmore and his wife Susan transplanted themselves to Portsmouth.Barmore began an unexpected second entrepreneurial career, this time as CEO of Therma-Hexx, a company that designs and manufactures what he calls a “game-changing” technology that turns concrete slabs into energy producers.Barmore is not alone in branching out. Second, third, or even fourth careers have been nothing new for Americans even during flush economic times. But the economic upheaval that began in 2008 may have had a more seismic impact on career and job choices at any time since World War II.”I believe the effects of this recession have required people to change careers much more than in previous recessions,” said Ross Gittell, a University of New Hampshire economist who was recently appointed chancellor of the state community college system. For example, during the recovery from the severe real estate-based recession of the early 1990s, Gittell said while many people left the state in search of employment, most did not have to change careers.But Gittell said the “creative destruction” aspect of capitalism unleashed during the recession of 2008 was different. State budget cuts have led to a historically high number of public servants being laid off, moving production tasks overseas has led to the decline of many low- and medium-skilled manufacturing jobs, and sizable productivity gains due to greater technological applications have led to a need for fewer people.”There has been major transformation in a lot of industries,” he said.Different this time”I saw the writing on the wall for the economy,” said Barmore.He said his business model of building and selling high-end vacation homes on speculation had survived economic downturns since the 1980s, but he realized it was no longer going to be viable as the Great Recession reared its head. “You could see the coming economic bubble was going to be bad.”Barmore and his wife began the process of de-leveraging themselves from their old lifestyle and began a four-year journey of different jobs and attempting to sell homes on Nantucket and in Colorado. It was during this time frame that Barmore brought his concept for ThermaPAVER from conception to production.”I was looking for change and I’m a creative guy,” said Barmore.Shifting his focus from construction deadlines to finding the right manufacturer in China, he secured a grant through the Green Launching Pad program at the University of New Hampshire and rounded up a second round of investors after realizing it would be unlikely that he could self-finance the company.Finding that financing has been even more difficult this go-round, said Mary Collins, director of the New Hampshire Small Business Development Center.Collins — whose agency offers counseling and assistance to new and established small businesses — says the shock of the downturn has been different from other recessions and has made it even more challenging to pursue entrepreneurial dreams due to a lack of cash.”That’s the main difference I see,” Collins said. “More people had retirement money they could tap into to start their own businesses. Many people coming out of this recession don’t have the cash available, and it’s a critical issue.”In the past year, Collins has hired part-time SBDC business counselors who are themselves in the midst of career changes.Dartmouth graduate John Casey returned to the area after working as a financial adviser on Wall Street and in the film and entertainment industries.”I left Florida as the economy was falling apart,” Casey said.After a career working on a much bigger financial scale, Casey is happy to offer assistance and insight to a wide range of entrepreneurs striving to succeed and is using the opportunity to network in preparation for his next career shift.He’s under no illusion that the economic situation will greatly improve soon.”The great stock market crash of 1987 was a slight bump in the road. This is much worse, much more protracted, with severe unemployment,” Casey said. “I don’t see the economy recovering for years because there are deep-seated problems with the economy and the nation’s tax structure.”Just how deep and quantifiable the career and employment changes stemming from the recession of 2008 may not be known for years. But a groundbreaking 30-year study covering 1979 to 2009 by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that job market fluidity had already been extensive before the recession – and the era of punching the proverbial clock at the same job for decades had become more myth than reality, especially for the youngest of the baby boomers.The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth results for those born between the years 1957 and 1964 found that workers held an average of 11 jobs from ages 18 to 44 (a job is defined as an uninterrupted period of work with a particular employer). An additional breakdown from the survey showed that 25 percent held 15 jobs. Only a minority of respondents, (12 percent) held from one to four jobs during that 26-year time frame.The survey covered 9,964 men and women who were ages 14 to 22 when first interviewed in 1979 and ages 43 to 52 when interviewed most recently during the 2008-09 period. Formal education was a main variable — workers with higher education levels had fewer jobs than those with lower education attainment.As for Robert Barmore, he said his second career is moving at supersonic speed.ThermaPAVER came from a simple but challenging quest — how to derive energy from the natural heat collectors known as pavers, the large concrete slabs found on high-rise building rooftops, pool and deck patios, plazas and sidewalks.”Their temperature can surge to over 140 degrees Fahrenheit on sunny days, creating an intolerable environment,” Barmore said. “In winter, snow and ice accumulate on them, rendering the areas dangerous or unusable.” Barmore began tinkering and tinkering some more over 3 1/2 years until he began to see the outlines of ThermaPAVER, which is in the process of being patented.”We decided to roll the dice on this,” he said about his second career.