by Meridith Levinson

Take This IT Job and Shove It: Test-Drive a New Career

Jan 17, 20085 mins

Want to trade software development for golf instruction or pastry creation? VocationVacations' internship program provides an immersion course with a pro in your dream field.

Keli Rhodes had been working as an IT consultant for eight years, hitting the road every week for several days at a time, when she began questioning her career and lifestyle. She wondered if she really wanted to continue running herself ragged.

In mid-2006, she read in USA Today about a company called VocationVacations that lets people “test-drive their dream jobs,” as founder Brian Kurth describes it. The Portland, Ore.-based company serves individuals of all ages interested in pursuing new careers, setting up one- to three-day internships with professionals who have succeeded in those careers, whether they be golf instructors, dog trainers or photographers. (IT jobs are noticeably absent from VocationVacations’ list of most popular careers.)

But VocationVacations attracts lots of IT professionals who wish to do something different. “Attorneys are our number-one [customer] group,” Kurth says, “litigating attorneys who are fed up and exhausted. Next is financial services, people who are making great money but are burned out. Technology is right up there. It’s probably number three on our list of clientele.”

Rhodes, who had dreamed of opening her own bakery, Sweet Geneva Jane’s (named for her grandmother and confectionary inspiration), decided to give VocationVacations a shot. In October 2007, she worked side by side with Dawn Casale and Dave Crofton, husband-and-wife operators of One Girl Cookies, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based bakery that’s been endorsed by such taste makers as Gourmet, Food & Wine, Martha Stewart Weddings and InStyle Weddings magazines.

Cure for the Bourgeois Blues

VocationVacations provides an antidote for Americans’ growing dissatisfaction with their jobs. According to the results of a 2007 Conference Board survey, more than half of all employed Americans are dissatisfied with their jobs, and 20 percent want to do something different. VocationVacations gives people with ample disposable income an opportunity to see what it’s like to turn their passions into professions, and helps them decide whether such a move is right for them.

“The common denominator across all ‘vocationers’ is that they are lacking complete happiness and fulfillment, yet they’re striving for it,” says Kurth, who founded the company in April 2004. “They’re passionate people who want to be more passionate about what they do day in and day out.”

This Ain’t Club Med

Each VocationVacation includes the internship, which lasts from one to three days depending on the profession; a Myers-Briggs evaluation; and phone consultations with experienced career coaches who contract with VocationVacations.

Rhodes, who is 34 and currently works as a project manager for document imaging company Perspective software, says the career coach with whom she spoke explained the results of the Myers-Briggs evaluation to her, asked her why she was embarking on a VocationVacation and what she wanted to get out of it, and helped her prepare questions to ask the owners of One Girl Cookies. After the internship, Rhodes had a follow-up call with the coach, who asked her what she had learned from the experience and helped her identify next steps. Rhodes describes her discussions with the coach as high-level and helpful.

Prices for VocationVacations range from $549 for some of the one-day packages to $2,999. Most cost less than $1,300, says Kurth. Prices don’t include travel or accommodations. Rhodes says her VocationVacation ran around $900, not including travel, and was worth every penny.

“It gave me the opportunity to try something out without having to invest a lot in it,” she says. “It confirmed everything everyone tells you about starting a business, that it takes a lot of work and that planning is really the key.”

Rhodes describes her internship as fast-paced and fun. She worked at the bakery from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day, serving customers, baking pumpkin pies and macaroons, and learning how to manage a bakery’s money.

“It’s very real,” she says of her experience. “You go into another person’s business, and they open up the doors for you. They don’t sugarcoat anything.”

Half-Hearted Mentors Need Not Apply

Kurth says VocationVacations has contracted with hundreds of mentors across 40 states. Mentors are paid by VocationVacations, but Kurth declined to say how much, for competitive reasons. He and his staff scout potential mentors. Business owners who wish to serve as mentors also seek out VocationVacations, but Kurth says his company isn’t quick to contract with everyone who contacts him.

“We say no to many prospective mentors who contact us because they don’t meet our criteria,” he says. “They need to be financially sound and they need to be in their dream job for at least five years.”

He’s especially leery of business owners who are just looking for people to buy out their businesses.

Dawn Casale, the owner of One Girl Cookies, had been informally dispensing advice to women interested in starting their own businesses, so when Kurth pitched her on VocationVacations in the spring of 2007, it seemed like a natural fit.

“I felt if there was anything I could offer to prevent someone from making a mistake or to encourage them to move forward with their dreams, I wanted to do it,” she says, adding that she wishes VocationVacations had been around eight years ago when she was exploring the possibility of starting her own baking business.

She also derives satisfaction from reexperiencing through the vocationers the thrill of stepping out on her own. “I remember that feeling myself, and it’s nice to be able to experience it again and to help someone do that,” she says.

Indeed, 20 percent of vocationers have moved into their dream job, and the number is growing, says Kurth.

As for Rhodes, she says she’s not ready to open Sweet Genevas this year, but the move still remains a goal. To that end, she’s taking some business classes to verse herself in law, business development and how to write a business plan.