Marketing and communications professional Carole Wehberg of New York City hates the term “midlife reinvention.”
“Redeployment," she says, "is more like it.”
Wehberg would be the first to admit that she doesn’t quite fit the profile of many other Career Shift stories that Next Avenue has published. (Some are linked in this story and in the Related Links.) Her road has been far bumpier.
On the eve of the Great Recession five years ago, Wehberg left her job as director of training for The Foundation Center — a philanthrophy information nonprofit — due to a mutual parting of ways and took a four-month break. “I needed time to get my head straight,” says Wehberg, who declines to give her age.
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As her severance check dwindled, she started job hunting and applied for unemployment. “I networked myself silly,” she recalls.
Over the next two years, Wehberg made it to the top slot for open positions three times — and lost out.
Since Wehberg’s unemployment checks weren’t enough to pay her apartment's $2,200 monthly rent, her son, Koert, moved in and split the cost for a while. But once he left after several years, that pushed her to the financial brink.
Patching It Together
“I’d been patching it together with some freelance gigs and unemployment," she says, "but I had to give up the apartment.” So Wehberg put her belongings in storage (for $320 a month) and moved into a spare bedroom in her brother’s Brooklyn apartment.
Keen on finding a well-paid, high-level communications job, the former speechwriter for the Girl Scouts of the USA enrolled in New York University for a masters degree in graphic communications management and technology. “My goal was to learn enough about digital media to get an internship and a foot in the door,” she says.
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But Wehberg dropped out halfway through the program, which cost $3,000 per course. The epiphany came during an Adobe Photoshop class, where she was the oldest and least experienced student.
“I realized there was no way someone my age would get a decent communications job competing with 22-year-olds who’ve been using Adobe since high school,” Wehberg says. “I’m glad I stopped the bleeding when I did. It was sucking every penny out of my pocket."
A Helpful Women’s Network
For emotional support, she joined The Transition Network, a national group for professional women over age 50 featured in Kerry Hannon’s Next Avenue blog, "Why Women Should Join Networking Groups."
“When you’re in a career crisis, you become isolated,” Wehberg says. “I needed to talk to women in the same situation.”
Her finances in tatters, she also asked a free New York City credit counseling service for advice on paying credit-card bills and restoring her tarnished credit score.
For months, Wehberg scanned websites of the city's major cultural institutions, hoping to land a part-time job. Finally, after nearly one year, countless emails, an employment test and an audition, she landed a position in October 2009 at Lincoln Center, giving tours in English and Spanish.
“That really lifted my spirits and rekindled my love of languages and travel,” says Wehberg, who has studied Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian and Dutch and traveled extensively in Europe with her former husband.
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The part-time gig, however, didn't pay enough to dig Wehberg out of her financial hole.
Part-Time Turns Full-Time
Then another Lincoln Center guide mentioned a part-time travel reservations job at Relais & Chateau, an international group of 500 luxury boutique hotels and restaurants. Wehberg snagged that position, which last year morphed into a full-time job with benefits, allowing her to continue leading weekend tours at Lincoln Center.
“So, now I get to use my languages and help people plan their trips in the Loire Valley or wine-tasting in Argentina," she says. "Plus, I get free opera tickets at Lincoln Center!”
Wehberg is making half as much as she earned in her last salaried job, but that's OK. She's deliriously happy. “It’s the first time in four years that I’ve been fully employed,” she says. “After all this time, I finally feel I’m coming out of the shadows.” Although she's still living with her brother, Wehberg is in the process of looking for her own apartment.
3 Lessons for Midlife Career Shifters
Wehberg says her bumpy road offers three important lessons to anyone in midlife who is unemployed and considering a career-shift:
1. Don't wait to find part-time or volunteer work to meet others and restore your self-confidence. Begin networking as soon as you can, if only for your mental well-being. “I wish I had done it much sooner,” she says.
2. If taking classes or job training isn’t working out, don’t be afraid to go in a different direction. “Dropping out of NYU was a hard decision, but I’m so glad I did it,” Wehberg says.
3. Keep an open mind. “It took me awhile to change my mindset and stop looking for another full-time job that would pay as much as my old one,” she says. “You have to be open to what the universe brings or you’ll end up rigid, upset and angry.”