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Ready for a career change? Test drive a new profession

Some people quit whatever they’re doing to plunge headfirst into a new career.

As glamorous as it sounds to chuck everything for a new passion, it’s not practical. You need money to bankroll going back to school, start a business or make ends meet while working an entry-level job to switch a completely different profession. What if you decide that other industry isn’t for you? Back to square one. Instead, employment experts suggest taking a career change for a test spin before committing to it 100 percent.

There are different ways to try before you buy. Volunteer or work pro bono to see if something’s the right fit. Work on a startup after hours until you’re earning enough to make it a full-time gig. Get the training and connections you need to start over by going back to school part time.

“Trying something out first is important before investing in a whole new education,” says Paula Gregorowicz, a Philadelphia career coach who counsels small and women-owned businesses.

Here are the stories of three people who inched their way into a career change:

Back to (fashion) school
In her former job as a business consultant, Yasha Stelzner dressed for success. In the one she’s working toward, she aspires to help the fashion designers who create what she wears.

Stelzner, 38, already had an undergraduate degree and MBA when she went back to school to land a fashion-industry job. It was the quickest way to figure out which aspect of the business to focus on, and to get internships and connections that could lead to a job, Stelzner says. “Not working in the industry, you’re just isolated from it,” she says. “You don’t know who to talk to, the resources, it’s really hard. You could probably do it, but this just makes it easier, to embed yourself into the community.”

The San Francisco resident started attending classes at the city’s Academy of Art University in early 2011 while working part time in her old job. After taking a clothing construction course, she realized she could blend her business background and passion for fashion in a job as a product developer. People in those behind-the-scenes positions turn a designer’s sketches into patterns, fabrics and notions for a factory to produce the garments at a desired price.

School led to the industry connections and internships Stelzner hoped for. She’ll finish her masters of fine arts at the end of 2013, but already has picked up a few clients. She anticipates her first job will pay about what she was previously making, with the potential to make even more.

Her advice for going back to school for a career change: “Don’t worry so much about the grade but what you need to learn, and keep your focus on that.”

A five-year transition
Moonlighting in a new job while working in an old one is one way to ease into a transition, but it can years.

Tony Magee’s journey from salesman to microbrewery owner took five years. Today, the 52-year-old is well-known in beer circles as the owner of Marin County, Calif.-based Lagunitas Brewing Co., which makes tasty brews like Dogtown Pale Ale and Cappuccino Stout. Before that, Magee was a sales rep for a Bay Area commercial printing company, and before that, a musician.

The beer bug bit after Magee got a homebrew kit for Christmas, tried it and was so enthralled, he decided to start a brewery. But even after some early successes, he didn’t quit his day job. “I would get up at 3 a.m. and by 3:45 I was sitting in front of a Mac at Kinko’s working on labels and pamphlets,” he says. “I’d go to the brewery until 9 when my printing customers started showing up, and then I’d start that job.”

A long span from one career to another can take a toll. While Magee worked two jobs, the 100-hour work weeks almost ended his marriage. After a few years, his wife joined him at the brewery, which helped. Now she runs the company’s plant, logistics and hiring. “The life that it represents helped keep us together, and that’s a good thing,” he says.

Two decades after he started, Lagunitas has grown to 200 employees and sells beer in 38 states. Magee is getting ready to open a second brewery in Chicago to expand even more.

To people contemplating a career change, Magee suggests working hard and having faith in yourself that things will be OK. “Every lesson you learned in life will apply to everything else,” he says.

Doing the homework
You won’t know for sure what a new career is like until you research it. 

Anne Fleming routinely did research and product development as the senior marketing director for a Pittsburgh decorative lighting company, so before deciding to jump to a new career as a small-business owner, she spent two years investigating it. 

Fleming’s experience buying a car got her interested in creating a website where women could share their own stories about purchasing an auto, reviews that other women could then use to become better negotiators. As part of her research, Fleming wrote a marketing plan, got help from the University of Pittsburgh’s small-business development center, hired a marketing firm and in 2008 launched the website,

She worked on the site in her spare time until 2009, when the lighting company was acquired and laid off 31 of 36 employees, including her. Fleming used her severance, along with money from selling her house, to focus full time on the site.

From 2009 to 2011, Fleming built up the business by doing more research: using data from visitors to the site to write reports on women and cars, which led to more exposure inside the industry.

For the past year, Fleming has again worked two jobs, splitting her days between the website -- which she says is doing well enough to no longer need her 24/7, seven days a week -- and working as the marketing director for a local emergency-alert system franchise.

Besides doing research, those contemplating a career switch should line up a team of supporters, she says. “Have advisers who aren’t your BFF or your family. They’re objective stakeholders and they’re there for you and will give you feedback whether you like it or not,” she says.