Stock car

Credit: sutherlandje,

It used to bug me when an adult age 30-plus describes a career quandary as “what do I want to be when I grow up?”  Not the career change part. It’s the “when I grow up” phrase that grated. Until I met Wes Hill.

Yes, he uttered that once-dreaded phrase when telling me his story. But then I heard how he turned a boyhood passion into career success by  creative leveraging of accrued skills and life experiences that, at first thought, seemed unrelated.         

Wes had done a little bit of everything to earn a paycheck, from working at a gold mine in New Guinea to painting buses for Seattle’s King County Metro Transit. For weekend kicks, he raced stock cars.

But in 1999 he decided he wanted something different. He wanted a true career—a profession—doing work that deeply engaged him. What that work was, he didn’t know.

On blind faith, Wes enrolled in a “computers for dummies” course (his description). He didn’t realize he’d taken his first step toward marrying passion and profession. Today, he is president and chief instructor for Automotive Adventures, LLC.

It’s a far cry from painting buses—and much more lucrative. Car manufacturers including Hyundai send him all over the world to facilitate meetings with distributors. Jaguar has him stop at their dealerships on the West coast to provide sales training on features, functions and benefits for the customer.

At night he takes consumers for test drives (at the end of the ride, half of those customers write a check on the spot). Other clients include Hummer and Rolls Royce.

You might think Wes has a dream job. And even he couldn’t have guessed the doors that continuing education would open for him. But look closer and you see how one step at a time he’s built on accrued skills and life experiences.

That first “computers for dummies” course? Wes leveraged it into a computing internship at Eddie Bauer and then into full time employment there.

When he saw his department transitioning to a project management model, he enrolled in a certificate program to learn those skills. Within three weeks, he began to apply on the job what he learned in his classes at night.  

On the strength of those new skills, Eddie Bauer made him a manager.  Then came 9-11 and Wes was laid off in the aftermath.

Wes was volunteering with local car clubs, teaching high performance driving skills. When Acura hired him as a professional driver for a press event, he couldn’t help but analyze the event plan through his project manager eyes. His suggestions about time management, identifying stakeholders and more were so helpful that word got around. More work came his way.

Wes soon realized that he could double his professional driver pay by hiring on as an event facilitator or presenter. But how to formally break into that role? He enrolled in a certificate program for corporate trainers.

Today, 80 percent of his work is as an event facilitator. “The certificate program helped me make the leap into the next job category,” says Wes. He earned a credential but more importantly, the program gave him the language to describe problems and solutions.

Take the Hyundai sales training program, for example: Hyundai had planned to use photos in class rather than gathering students around a vehicle. But after Wes described learning styles and why many people need to touch the buttons to learn and remember, Hyundai made vehicles available. The course earned rave reviews as a result.  

Wes also credits the certificate programs for teaching him about business development and promotion. “The concept of creating Automotive Adventures as an LLC came from an instructor,” he says. “That’s one more benefit of learning from instructors who work in the field.” 

Career change can be daunting.  The path might unfold in surprising ways, as it did for Wes.  “You don’t have to be comfortable with change – you just have to work with it,“ he says. “Courses and certificate programs help people make transitions and know that opening up new paths is okay – they help people feel comfortable with change.”

Remember the “Friends” episode where Chandler gets an advertising internship and feels out of place because of his age? I could be wrong, but I’m getting an image of him on roller sneakers, running into walls while “researching” the product assigned to his intern team. Turns out there are a lot of Chandlers out there.  

That’s based on a CareerBuilder and Harris Interactive survey of more than 2500 hiring managers in 2010. Among the findings: nearly a quarter (23 percent) of employers reported interest in internships from workers with more than ten years of experience.

“Internships are no longer just for college students and recent graduates,” notes a U.S. News magazine article on the survey. “Experienced workers are increasingly applying for internships to network at a desirable company or change careers.”

I thought of Chandler again on the last day of a continuing education program I’d enrolled in, a University of Washington certificate program in advanced interactive marketing. Each of our five student teams had consulted for a client over the past six months and now we were presenting our final marketing plans to the executives of “our” companies. And Chandler would have fit right in.

Unlike Chandler’s fellow interns, we were all working adults with years of professional experience. We ranged in age from about 25 to 50 with the bulk of us in our 30s and early 40s.  UW program advisors say that students in its certificate courses often learn as much from each other as they do from the instructors and that was true in our class.

Take my group, team Moving Comfort (Moving Comfort is a Seattle-based supplier of women’s fitness apparel for national and international markets). We were united in our interest in the company and its product line but as individuals brought different skills and knowledge to the table.

Two of us had direct marketing experience in the outdoor industry, a great jumping off point. Thank goodness for the teammate who shared her expertise in search engine optimization. I profess undying gratitude to our resident MBA—not only did she perform needed quantitative analysis, she patiently taught us some of the basics, too. And bless the designated project manager who kept us on track. Experience in PR, blogging, client relations…the list of our aggregated skills goes on.     

Even so, Chandler with his expertise in statistical analysis and data reconfiguration would have contributed another dimension to the marketing plan we developed. (No, I didn’t remember what he’d done for a living either—I read it in an episode plot summary.)

Perhaps the best part? Chandler wouldn’t have had to quit his day job—our class and team meetings were scheduled nights and weekends. No strange looks from acquaintances or former colleagues to make him doubt himself. No roller sneaker projects here, either. Other clients included an upscale grocery chain launching a catering service and a startup quality apparel company targeting tall men.

My experience is far from unique. A good number of certificate programs accessible to working adults in the Seattle metropolitan area are built around a practicum or “capstone project.” Read course descriptions carefully to identify them. For example, offerings from UW Professional & Continuing Education range from a course pairing IT professionals with clients seeking cyber security strategies to a fiber arts program that culminates in mounting of an exhibit.     

If you’d like to pursue a traditional internship experience at mid-career, check out InternsOver40, a website that reports more than 500,000 visitors in 2011.  But remember that there’s an excellent alternative for adults with career and life history to build on.