After 30 years in hair, Paul Gretschel turned to air.
In 2008, Gretschel, then 59, was co-owner of Paul James Haircutters in St. James, but he also had a second life as a small-plane pilot and part-time flight instructor. So, after he and his brother, James, sold the salon, Paul steered his avocation into a job with the Federal Aviation Administration, based at Republic Airport in Farmingdale.
"I had a hobby that turned into a job," he joked. "Now I need to find a new hobby."
James, then 56, eventually sought "a little part-time job that was going to offer me some benefits." It didn't take long. The East Setauket resident was hired to work on a merchandising execution team for The Home Depot setting up displays, and now works in the Selden store.
Second career, second life
When it comes to boomers changing careers, the Gretschel brothers have plenty of company. Merrill Lynch and the consulting firm Age Wave surveyed 1,850 self-described "working retirees" last year and 58 percent said they went into a completely different line of work after leaving their previous professions.
For Paul Gretschel, the change has been ideal. Since he was hired in May 2010, he's been promoted a few times and is now an FAA Safety Team program manager. "I get to meet pilots, I get to help them. I've gotten to fly in a lot of very elite types of private jets that I really wouldn't have done prior," he said. When managing FAA inspectors at the annual air show at Jones Beach on Memorial Day weekend, "I get to meet the rock superstars of flying. And the kicker is, I'm getting paid to be there." He said he knows he's fortunate. "It's not everyone who gets to have two careers that they love."
His transition to the FAA was viable because of his air experience. By the time he and James sold the salon, Paul had far more than the 1,500 hours flying time and 200 hours' experience as a flight instructor he needed to get hired. His biggest obstacle was the tough competition, mainly from retired commercial pilots.
Paul said he and James decided to scale back from their successful careers as hairdressers when running the shop wasn't as much fun any more. "Thirty years was a respectable time to own a salon," said Paul, who lives in Coram with his wife, Karen, 58. They have two grown daughters.
Experts say that when the old career flags and workers are in their 50s and 60s, they may start thinking about retirement. But those years can also be the best time to launch a new career. With the kids grown and mortgages paid, there's more freedom to try long-delayed dreams; a last chance to take a different path.
50 years in one job?
"If we're living longer, and you're going to be working closer to 50 years rather than 30 years, that's an awfully long time to do the same thing," said Marci Alboher, a vice president of Encore.org, a nonprofit that helps people in midlife and beyond use their work experience to tackle social problems.
For Jonathan Orgel, the time to make his career move came in 2010 after his son graduated from high school. "I always wanted to be a therapist," said Orgel, 58, of Glen Cove. He shuttered his family's manufacturing business in Manhattan to enroll at Adelphi University for a master's degree in social work. He earned the degree 16 months later at age 54, and today he is a mental health and substance abuse counselor with North Shore-LIJ Health System.
"What held me back" from changing careers, Orgel said, "was that the job I had paid a tremendous amount. The thought of having a child and providing, versus starting over at much less money, kept me from it."
Counseling work and other forms of health care are popular among older career-changers, according to Alboher and other experts. The health field offers new job specialties, such as wellness coaching, that don't require exhaustive credentials, she said.
After getting laid off from her job in 2011, Ada Graham of East Patchogue wanted to do something that would have a positive social impact. She was 64 when she was let go from her job doing technical writing, training and operational support at CA Technologies, then based in Islandia. "It made me reassess," she said. "I've always believed you've got X number of days left here on Earth. Did I want to spend it fulfilling a big corporation's needs, or see what I can do to make things better for me and for other people?"
Looking for inspiration
To figure out where she wanted to focus, Graham spent the next two years as a volunteer. At the Bayard Cutting Arboretum in Great River, she learned QuickBooks accounting software. She also helped seniors do their taxes through an AARP program and worked with the Gateway Playhouse in Bellport to develop a theater-curriculum guide for local third-graders. Last year, Gateway hired her as its full-time office manager. Her new accounting skills helped Graham land the job, as did her writing and operational expertise from CA. "I brought a whole lot of that big-company mentality" to Gateway, she said.
Often, changing careers can mean tight finances. Luckily, Graham had a generous severance package from CA to see her through the volunteer years, as well as 401(k) accounts for herself and her husband, Alex, 65, a retired computer programmer.
For his part, Orgel got student loans to cover most of the cost for his master's degree -- about $55,000 -- which he paid off in two years. His wife has a full-time job in social services, and the couple adjusted to the drop in salary by cutting back some on restaurants and movies.
To support himself during his two-year wait for the FAA job, Paul Gretschel kept working as a part-time flight instructor. He and his wife still work part-time at the salon under the new owners.
James Gretschel, who is divorced and has two daughters and a grandson, also continues to cut hair part-time. He said it wasn't easy going from being the salon boss who managed 25 people, to working at Home Depot. "The hardest part for me is learning how to punch a time clock," James said. As he compares the company's management style to his own, he added, "There's 100 things I know I could do better -- but my experience tells me there's another 900 things I don't know that go on. You have to be humble. That's something I learned the hard way."
Orgel said that his skills in running the family business didn't help in his new career; more applicable are his decades of life experience. "When I spoke to people at [social services] agencies, it was clear that my niche was needed, because I was a man and a little more adult," he said. He was offered his current position even before earning his master's degree.
Orgel, Graham and the Gretschel brothers all say they took pay cuts of at least 50 percent in their new careers, although Paul Gretschel said he is almost back to his six-figure salon income now, thanks to three Civil Service grade promotions. Orgel's salary now is about one-third of the "low six figures" he made in his family business.
Despite the drop in pay and the psychological adjustments, they say they have no regrets about their career moves. As a substance abuse counselor, Orgel said, "I'm helping people improve their lives. When you see people that have been getting high . . . for 10, 20, 30, even 40 years, and all of sudden they're learning new ways and starting to cope and enjoy life -- it's making a difference."
If you're thinking about changing careers, experts offer these tips:
Network in your desired field.
Volunteer in fields of interest
Be open and willing to take risks
Remember, your years of experience and skills may be more transferrable than you think
-- FRAN HAWTHORNE