Extreme Career Makeovers

career makeoverBy Dawn Allcot

Unhappy in your career? Struggling to find opportunities in today's economy? You're not alone. The good news is, whatever your age, there's always room for a change. Take it from three vocation adventurers whose back-to-school trek led to an extreme career makeover.

Amy Gray: Right Brain, Left Brain

Amy Gray's story might seem familiar to many women: She put her dream on hold for the sake of family. More than 20 years ago, Gray earned her undergraduate degree in psychology but didn't pursue the path any further. Unable to find a job in the field, she became a bank teller.

Dissatisfied with the work and her income level, Gray went back to school to earn her MBA and became an accountant, first with major firms and then in her own practice. The career choice worked at the time, Gray says, because she wanted the flexibility to spend time with her children. She admits, "It might be politically incorrect to say, but I grew up with a stay-at-home mom, and that's how I pictured my life to be, too. I think, long-term, I really just wanted to be a mom."

As her children grew, though, Gray grew more and more unhappy with her career choice. "I was a tax accountant for 20 years, and I didn't like it. I never felt passionate about it," she says.

When her oldest child entered college, Gray did the same. She enrolled in the University of Colorado's psychology program and earned her master's degree, graduating second in her class.

Today, Gray changes lives across Denver as a collaborative therapist, working with couples and individuals to help them set goals and find practical solutions to their problems.

Gray says her life experience gives her a unique perspective to help others. "For so many years I wasn't following my dreams. I wouldn't encourage people to do things that are super-practical if they don't really like them."

Chris Fink: From Mortgages to Motors

For Chris Fink, his extreme career makeover was all about practicality. At the encouragement of friends, he became a mortgage loan officer in 2000 at the height of the real estate boom. "The real estate market potential was what interested me at first, and as I progressed in the field, I learned I had a knack for sales," Fink says.

In 2008, when the mortgage industry headed south, the inconsistent paychecks caused Fink to begin searching for a different career.

He enrolled in the Rancho Cucamonga, CA, campus of Universal Technical Institute to study to be a Ford automotive technician.

"One of the main reasons I wouldn't stay in the mortgage industry was the outrageous pay intervals and instability," Fink says. "One month you could make thousands, and the next month, zero." He views the security and stable pay as two of the key benefits to a career as an automotive technician. It's also comforting, he says, to see the continued demand for auto mechanics -- a demand that's not going away.

"I think it's an industry where there's always money to be made. You just have to find your niche," he said.

Working on cars is not new to Fink because he learned how to do his own car repairs early in life and says he's always viewed it as "a necessity -- something you should know to be useful around the house." His formal education gives him the advantage he needs to advance quickly in the field. Once he has a year of work experience under his belt, he'll be prepared to test for ASE certification, an industry-standard credential for automotive service technicians. "I feel great about the many choices that lay ahead for me in the auto industry."

Susan Sparks: "Laughing in Peace"

When it came to pursuing her passions, Rev. Susan Sparks, senior pastor at New York City's Madison Avenue Baptist Church, refused to make a choice. After leaving a 10-year career as a trial lawyer, Sparks pursued a career in ministry and standup comedy. "It was a job that, frankly, didn't exist," she says. "I had felt a call to the ministry for some time, but was unsure how a comedian would ever fit into organized religion."

But Sparks knew she could no longer fit into a life as a lawyer. "Law matched my skillset but not my heart. It took me a while to realize that to be happy, you have to bring all of who you are to what you do. My ultimate motivation? The fear that I would keep saying, 'I'll make a change soon' and that I might wake up 40 years later and [realize] it's too late."

With this commitment driving her, Sparks took time off to find answers -- and looked everywhere. "I traveled the world hoping to find some – any -- kindred spirits." Sparks worked for Mother Teresa, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and drove her Jeep Wrangler from New York City to Alaska. "Everywhere I went, whether it was the laughter of Buddhist monks or the sacred clowns of the Navajo, I found examples of how comedy -- joy and laughter -- was an integral part of being holy. It was that realization that empowered me to return, enter seminary, write an honors thesis on humor and religion and begin this unusual career path."

After attending the Union Theological Seminary in New York City where she earned a master of divinity, she became the first female senior pastor for the Madison Ave. Baptist Church. She is currently touring as a comedian on the "Laugh in Peace Tour" with a standup Rabbi and a Muslim comic.

While one might think blending the two careers is a challenge, the vocations are surprisingly complementary for a pastor who brings humor into every sermon. "The church comes first," Sparks says. "That said, both careers are a ministry... Laughter is holy gift we receive at birth, yet one we tend to lose over the years. My call is to encourage people to remember that gift through the pulpit and the punch lines."

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