Christopher Pearsall earned $170,000 in 2004, a sizable sum for a blue-collar millwright at a Ford Motor truck plant in Norfolk, Va. But he toiled 12-hour days, seven days a week most of that year in the noisy and dirty factory. He sometimes dreaded going to work.
Today, the 34-year-old Pearsall is a $60,000-a-year product manager for Concursive, a business-software developer that's also in Norfolk. He wears slacks and polo shirts on the job rather than coveralls. Despite his lower pay, he says he is much happier at the desk job in a small firm. "He has effectively done a career do-over," observes Michael Harvey, the Concursive executive vice president who hired him soon after his December 2006 layoff.
Pearsall's rapid metamorphosis from an hourly manufacturing worker is an inspirational example of how to switch professions while trying a new industry. He found a double change is possible as long as you articulate your goals, don't make a leap of blind faith, adapt like a chameleon and are ready to take a few steps backward to make a huge leap forward. "My entire work life turned around," he recollects.
Amid a weakened job market, more Americans may soon follow suit. A dual swap, however, poses formidable challenges. You must create a fresh occupational identity, overcome recruiters' resistance and possibly accept less money. Pearsall was "willing to pay the price. A lot of people aren't," says Laurence J. Stybel, co-founder of Stybel Peabody Lincolnshire, a Boston leadership consultancy.
During his decade at Ford, Pearsall often lacked sleep but not ambition. He completed his millwright apprenticeship in just over half the usual four years and also got a community college degree. The finance and economics major was attending Old Dominion University part-time when he lost his job just before the plant closed.
Pearsall became a full-time student, assisted by a severance package covering his tuition and $30,000 partial salary for up to four years. When you make a twin transition, extra education offers a cocoon "to transform how one is perceived in the marketplace," Stybel says.
If you don't belong to a powerful union like Pearsall did, creating a career asset working capital fund now could cushion you during future retraining, says Mike Haubrich, a financial planner in Racine, Wis. You can figure the right amount based on how many lifetime job changes you expect.
Early last year, Pearsall sought a summer internship at Concursive after his Internet research suggested that product managers often advance to senior management. A resume sprinkled with misspelled words, however, nearly killed his candidacy.
"This is not, frankly, a good way to impress a potential employer," Harvey wrote him in an e-mail. A product-management internship requires "an ability to check your own work before forwarding it to others," the stern message continued. The Concursive official figured that he had scared the applicant away.
Instead, Pearsall immediately sent a revised resume, letters of reference and an apologetic note reiterating his desire to join the start-up. "He had done his homework," Harvey explains. "He was clearly very, very serious about making this double change."
Pearsall acted equally determined during his Concursive interview, where he expressed keen interest in permanent employment. "This is a $15-an-hour position. How on earth will you make this work? Harvey asked.
"It's inherent to the switch I'm trying to make, so I'm going to make it work," replied Pearsall, the divorced father of four. Privately, he worried about making ends meet.
Harvey also grilled the ex-millwright about whether he could handle software-development duties and an office setting for the first time. "Otherwise, you are dead weight," he warned.
Pearsall pledged to work twice as hard as someone from a white-collar background.
The intern kept his promise even though he says he initially felt frightened and "like the weakest link a lot." He arrived early and stayed late. At night, he volunteered to lug servers and help install switches for his information-technology colleagues so he could absorb their know-how. "Nothing was beneath him," Harvey notes.
Things didn't always go smoothly. At Ford, Pearsall never watched his mouth around his fellow male millwrights. Concursive was different. With a reprimand mainly aimed at Pearsall, Harvey told him and several male co-workers to stop commenting about women's physical appearance in their co-ed workplace.
Pearsall eventually proved "a really good utility player" who adapted well to a completely different environment," Harvey says. "It was clear he could fit in."
Concursive made him a product manager last July and pays his tuition an unprecedented benefit at the company. He graduates in August. Harvey believes his former intern someday could "meld both worlds" by running the division of a manufacturer.
"I do aspire to bigger things," Pearsall agrees. "But I'm not sure manufacturing is the right field."