Thursday, April 27, 2006

Test-Driving Your Dream Job

Brian Kruth Story

Just one year ago, David Ryan was an international banker with HSBC. He had done stints in Bahrain, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Turkey, and London over the course of 17 years. However, by the time Ryan had landed in New York City two and a half years ago, he says, "the buzz for me was gone." Exciting as a two-decade spin around the globe once was, Ryan says, his chosen profession was simply, "not as exciting as it had been."

Ryan entered into what he calls, "a pretty long period of reflection" regarding his career path and future. Like many suffering from job ennui, Ryan was ready to do something new, the question was how to do it. Having nursed a lifelong love of dogs, Ryan realized that he was interested in potentially moving in that direction but was unsure of how exactly he could turn his passion into a sustainable career.
Enter a two-year-old Portland (Ore.)-based company called Vocation Vacations, a business that gives people the opportunity to "test drive" their dream jobs. Creating temporary but intense mentor/apprenticeship experiences, Vocation Vacations enlists professionals from a variety of fields -- everything from winemakers and makeup artists to architects and sword makers -- and pairs them with people who fantasize about leaving their day jobs and want spend a few days in a profession that they had previously thought beyond their reach.

Last April, Ryan signed up to do a two-and-a-half-day vocation working with a doggie day-care provider in Massachusetts. The following month, he spent three days working with a dog trainer in Oregon. Fairly quickly, Ryan figured out that he preferred training to day care and was confident that he could start his own business in the field.

Moreover, Ryan says the experience helped him to realize that he didn't have to abandon the skills he developed as a banker. Rather, he says: "It became obvious to me that there were a lot of kennels and trainers that were very good with animals, but business was not their specialty."

In June, Ryan resigned from HSBC and enrolled in a dog-training school in Missouri for five months to get certified. In January, he launched Beyond Dog Training in Rye, N. H. "It really sounds weird," he says. "But that two- to three-day experience has really been a lynchpin."

Vocation Vacations was started by Brian Kurth in 2004 after he made the leap from unhappy employee to dream-job entrepreneur. At the time, Kurth says he was burnt out working for Ameritech in Chicago and logging in three hour commutes.

"I didn't hate corporate life, or my job or my boss," he says. "But I hated the lifestyle. I wanted to do something more fulfilling. I was tired of going to dinner parties [where] people would talk about their exciting lives as architects or photographers and I worked at the phone company. People's heads hit their spaghetti plates when I told them. Nobody cared, and neither did I."

So in 2000, Kurth quit his job. In quick succession, he worked for a dot-com, got laid off when the economy imploded, and then sold his house and spent six months driving across the country, eventually settling in Portland. That city didn't have much in the way of industry and was in the midst of a recession, so he ended up working on a vineyard doing product marketing and sales for a family winery. Kurth found that there was something immeasurably rewarding about stepping outside of his routine and trying something new. Inspired, he came up with the concept and business plan for Vocation Vacations.

The idea is relatively simple. Participants pay anywhere from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand (transportation, lodging, etc., aren't included) to experience life as, say, a chocolatier, a fashion designer, or a race-car driver. The time spent immersed in their fantasy job allows them to get a 360-degree perspective without the risk of quitting their own jobs or investing heavily in a new career.

Laura Thomas says she's "miserable" in her job as a business-operations developer for a government contractor in Alexandria, Va. "My boss knows I'm not happy, and he's looking for something else [for me at the company], but there isn't a lot of opportunity for growth."

Not quite ready to quit altogether, Thomas recently took a turn through Vocation Vacations, shadowing a hotel concierge and a hotel general manager for two days. "It was really great. I got to be completely immersed in the environment. I got to see the good, the bad, and the ugly." And best of all, she says: "I really got to see it firsthand before taking the plunge and quitting my job."

Kurth, something of a dream-job rainmaker, has created a niche industry built on the hopes and aspirations of people like Thomas. Catering to the unhappily employed, Kurth has discovered an untapped market. Indeed, according to a survey by the Conference Board, a management and marketplace information nonprofit agency based in New York, less than half of all Americans say they're satisfied with their jobs. Taken in 2002, the survey reveals the highest level of discontent since they first conducted the study in 1995 -- with job satisfaction dropping from 60.9% then to 47.2% presently.

To date, Vocations Vacations has placed hundreds of people in the U.S. and Britain in occupations ranging from brewmaster and art-gallery director to music producer and cattle rancher. "We're on our way to thousands," says Kurth. The company has doubled the number of its available mentors to 500, with another 40 to 50 new possibilities in the works in such fields as Broadway producer, meteorologist, and zookeeper.

Kurth attributes much of his success to listening to prospective clients and addressing their areas of interest with relevant mentors and programs. Recently, there has been a growing demand and interest in marine biology, aquarium managers, and voiceovers. However, Kurth says there's a limit to the types of career vocations he will pursue. For instance, he says he recently turned down an offer from a pornography producer who wanted to become a mentor.

Kurth himself is expanding his own dream. He just signed a deal with Warner Books for a how-to vocational lifestyle book. On April 27, the Travel Channel is debuting a new series based on his "vocationers" called This Job's a Trip, chronicling the vacationing adventures of his clients. Kurth is also working on what he calls "ancillary products," such as DVDs, T-shirts, and a possible magazine. He says his expansion is all based on the "vacationing" lifestyle -- no longer daydreaming but living the dream.

Just ask David Ryan, who has had to hire additional trainers for his fast-growing business. "I get a lot of broad smiles when I tell people that I went from a million-a-year banker to a dog guy," he says. No doubt he's smiling back, all the way to the bank.