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Back to school
More and more people dissatisfied with their careers are hitting the books for new and different degrees. How to make the switch?
Where to find them

• Bancroft School of Massage Therapy, 333 Shrewsbury Street, Worcester, (508) 757-7923; www.bancroftsmt.com.

• Lesley University, 29 Everett Street, Cambridge, (800) 999-1959; www.lesley.edu.

• Northeastern School of Professional and Continuing Studies, 360 Huntington Avenue, Boston, (617) 373-2400; www.ace.neu.edu/spcs/.

• University of Phoenix, (800) 697-8223; www.phoenix.edu.

— ES

Ken Cotton is a risk taker; always has been. So the decision to close his shoe-repair shop after 10 years and pursue his dream of becoming a teacher was not a difficult one.

"One day I found myself giving a canned response to a customer, one that I had said so many times, so I decided it was the right time to sign up for a class and I did it," recalls Cotton of that day back in 2001. "It had been weighing on me for a while."

At first, Cotton got his toes wet by registering for a class at Framingham State College. He found he loved being back in school so much that he decided to pursue a master’s in education after hearing about a program offered by Lesley College, which allows people to earn a degree while they work. For the next two years, Cotton spent an entire weekend every month taking classes. Today, the 37-year-old teaches sixth grade in the Natick public schools.

"It was hard. It was very hard," he sighs. While the weekends were long and tiring, Cotton, who has two sons ages nine and seven, says finding the time to get all his schoolwork done while still holding a job and being with his family was the toughest part.

Yet more and more adults are following suit. According to a nationwide online survey of more than 6000 working adults by the University of Phoenix, nearly one-quarter — 23 percent — are dissatisfied with their current careers and are considering a career switch. The July 2004 survey also found that this group is most interested in pursuing "helping careers," such as education (13 percent), health care/medical (nine percent), and nonprofit (eight percent). Some 61 percent of survey respondents currently considering a career change cited "the opportunity to do something more fulfilling" as the main impetus.

"We’re seeing a real shift in working adults who are re-careering into fields that offer greater job fulfillment," notes Jacquelyn Armitage, vice-president and director of Massachusetts campuses for the University of Phoenix, the country’s largest accredited university. "This often means going back to school to earn post-secondary degrees and networking with others who can help them pursue their career aspirations."

That desire to help people was what motivated Rob Burton, 43, to shift careers from selling software to becoming a certified massage therapist last year.

After college, Burton began his career as an electrical engineer at Raytheon and eventually segued into selling recruitment software to corporate human-resources departments. But after 10 years, the market had slowed and Burton was finding it increasingly difficult to handle the drawn-out sales cycles. At the same time, his mother became ill in 2002 and required medical attention, and Burton felt he needed to devote more time to her care. That meant not working a regular nine-to-five job.

"I was ready for a career change and I looked at a number of industries, one of which was wellness and health care," says Burton, who lives in Framingham. "I’ve always been interested in the massage business as a client, and I thought this would be a good opportunity to expand my horizons."

He began researching programs and spoke to a number of therapists before deciding the industry had growth potential. "More and more people were using massage for therapeutic purposes as opposed to a luxurious treatment, for stress and pain management," says Burton.

Most of the massage-therapy programs Burton found were 18 to 24 months long, which he felt wasn’t doable in his situation. Then he came across the Bancroft School of Massage Therapy in Worcester, which had just launched an accelerated, full-time program to earn a certificate in 11 months by attending classes three full days a week. Burton applied and received his certificate in August 2004.

Burton says that going back to school in his 40s was definitely a challenge. What helped was that his particular class was composed of a small group of eight adults, three of whom were changing careers, and there was a good support system. "It was absolutely the right thing to do for my personal situation," he says. "I wake up enjoying the opportunity to go out and meet new people and help them."

Armitage says the University of Phoenix is seeing a trend toward second careers in both the education and health-care fields. Education has appeal because some people view it as a way to "give something back," and both tend to be recession-proof and provide job security.

Northeastern University also has programs geared for students who want to work while they attend school. Todd Leach, associate dean for academic affairs and graduate education at NU’s School of Professional and Continuing Studies, says he sees a lot of people coming back to either adjust their career direction and augment their skill sets, or change careers altogether.

"People expect to change careers more frequently than in the past," says Leach, noting that in particular, the dot-com boom and subsequent bust had a big impact on many people’s careers. "A lot of people were displaced and moved into different positions, and the faster pace of technology is causing people to change careers in general." He says there are many companies emerging in the technology industry, particularly in biotech, which is becoming a major employer.

Leach says people thinking about switching careers need to find a program that’s flexible for their lifestyles. Northeastern, for example, recently created an 18-month program designed for people who didn’t complete their college degree but need the extra knowledge and leverage a degree can provide as they look to advance. Some of Northeastern’s programs allow people to "stop in and out" or attend fewer classes, or even take a quarter off while they work, notes Leach.

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Issue Date: January 28 - February 3, 2005
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