Am I marketable for a career change?
June 6, 2007 3:33 AM   Subscribe

Pre-mid life crisis. Early 30's male with a strong desire to travel, but constraints of life make it hard to do. Want to consider a career change that involves international traveling as a part of it. (a lot more inside. Come on in though, it's a good read)

(Please forgive me, my thoughts are all over the place, so this is not going to be the most organized of questions)

Here's the scoop: I am a 31 year old male, born and raised in New York and unhappy with my career at the moment. I have actually been unhappy with it for many years, but have been unwilling to change it as I am quite accustomed to the lifestyle it provides for me. I have always struggled with the idea of starting back at the bottom, so to speak. I have no formal education, however my work experience is quite extensive.

I grew up in the construction world and have been within my family's electrical business since I was in my early teens. Since then I have become a master electrician, and have taken over the business and brought it into the new century with automation control and high end home theatre set-ups in which I am certified in all areas. Throughout the years I have run the show myself, been an employee and managed projects that were large scale with dozens working under me. And the majority of the time it has been with employees that were up to 30yrs my senior with never a problem.

During this time period I have also run my girlfriend's business (she's a trainer) and started up a secondary business (Web design, hosting) which is growing quite rapidly.

This is beginning to sound like a resume, but I am just trying to express what my skill-sets are.

What I want to know is how far these experiences carry me in the real world. Am I marketable? Does my lack of a degree or college education prevent me from getting a position with travel possibilities?

Not sure I’m even looking for a full time position. Maybe freelance, consultation type work? Or possibly the exact opposite where there is a need for extended time at a location? I really have no idea what potential possibilities there are available. Or even how to find them.

Not so sure I’ve made much sense, but hopefully somebody with some insight has made it to the end. Any help is appreciated, even though I’m sure I’ll be told that my best options are to continue doing what I’m doing and save to travel or go back to school.
posted by wile e to Work & Money (21 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Not sure if this helps your specific situation, but I have found it useful to contemplate upon when confronted by similar situations you describe:

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover." -- Mark Twain

You seem to be looking for very specific advice/information/guidance. I think the point of the above quote is that sometimes you need to have some faith in yourself, and just explore the world. It will all work out. It usually does, believe me.
posted by vac2003 at 3:52 AM on June 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

I don't think you necessarily need throw over your current businesses to add some activities with a regular international travel component, and, in fact, I would argue that you shouldn't. Done correctly, such activities could add both profit and interest to your current activities.

One straight forward way of doing so is to become a U.S. distributor of a foriegn made product that aligns with your existing business, or to design a product that you'll have made abroad, for sale through your own businesses. For example, if you do a lot of home theatre work, you might decide to offer high end movie theatre style seating, which you would have made in Italy on a custom basis. You'd have a swatch book, and some catalog selection materials, but you'd take orders, and do the importation activities (payments by letter of credit, customs paperwork, international freight, etc.) and derive additional income in exchange for selling such a high end product in the U.S., and handling the importation. Your customers would benefit by having a source for exclusive seating to enhance their home theatres. And you would have a need to travel to Italy, once or twice a year, to see new styles, comparison shop at international trade fairs for related and competitive products, and keep abreast of developments in the home theatre seating business. You might then find that you need a lower end line of seating for your budget customers, which would lead you to look to Brazil or Mexico, for similar items at lower price points.

Along the way, you'd be learning how international banking works (by working with your bank to do letters of credit, and demand drafts), and how customs operates. You'd be doing some travel, to discover areas of the world that interest you. You'd be making international business contacts. And you might be having a minor blast, and making a buck doing it.

This is exactly how many small entrepeneurs get involved in international trade.
posted by paulsc at 4:00 AM on June 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

I work for a robotics company. In our specific case, we make underwater robots that are deployed worldwide. Our operations department has guys who never went to college and guys who leave to do PhDs at MIT. The Ops guys get deployed with the vehicles to act as combination customer service/operators/trainers/fix-it folks for days or weeks at a time. Lots of travel; up to 7 months of the year. One of our best guys has a background in theater lighting and control systems.

That's our specific case, but I know through a lot of our contracts that there are other companies with similar kinds of deployment; working for the military, certainly, but any engineering company that has to deploy a product is going to have to send someone with it. In your case, your background certainly qualifies you for working with systems like this, and the fact that you WANT to travel is a big plus (it drives me nuts hearing our ops people complain about going to Australia for two weeks... AGAIN).

Be warned, though, that lots of the companies deploying technology internationally these days want to send you to Iraq for lenghty periods of time. Careful of companies with lots of military contracts.
posted by olinerd at 4:02 AM on June 6, 2007

An electrician's work is well outside of my area of expertise. However, several years back I fell in with a group of ex-pats who had all thrown their return tickets away and become long-term travellers (and were encouraging me to do the same). The longest-term traveller, Scott, had been on the road for 5 years, and he made ends meet by doing electrical work across Southeast Asia. Now this might not make the best use of your extensive skills, nor keep you in the lifestyle to which you have become accustomed, but it's nice to know that you could potentially also hit the road and pay for your travels, pretty much indefinitely, on the skills you have.

In terms of a career change, how about getting in contact with some of the larger engineering firms doing electrical work overseas? A steady, experienced man like yourself with a willingness to travel could be a positive boon to a company like that. Ideally, given your inclinations, you'd want something that kept you moving rather than simply setting up shop overseas, but that might be doable. There is really no need to stay put. Start searching for companies who might need your skills, research their work overseas so you know a bit about it, and contact them. Make sure you take any opportunities to highlight your competence in the field as well as enthusiasm for time spent abroad -- and experience abroad as well so they know you won't turn tail for the comforts of home. I'm jealous. Those are great skills! Good luck!
posted by dreamsign at 4:29 AM on June 6, 2007

Hmm, just caught that last line of olinerd's post and wanted to reinforce it generally. Do be careful. The world is not what it was 5 years ago. Don't stay home, but do be aware. That extends well beyond the middle east.
posted by dreamsign at 4:30 AM on June 6, 2007

I think everyone is marketable. You talk about your skill sets in a pretty specific way, which might seem limiting because of the fields you've worked in, so let's look at them from a more meta perspective:

- You've got a lot of management experience for a 31-year-old.
- You've reformulated the way your businesses worked and made them better, with a pretty diverse group of people.
- You're probably really good at solving problems and seeing the forest for the trees, so to speak.
- You're probably an exemplary communicator.
- You've got a great eye for detail.

Now, will these skills necessarily translate into a job where you possess the same responsibilities or standard of living you've got now? Maybe yes, maybe no. You claim to have a fear of getting in at the bottom, but have you considered entering a field without such a strong sense of hierarchy or organization? You'd probably appreciate the absence of ratraceness (to coin a term), and even if it didn't work out, the world is always going to need electricians, right? I say embrace the change.

My own working-traveling experience:

I taught English in Indonesia last year. Some of my non-Indonesian colleagues had Master's degrees, and some of them were British Royal Air Force vets (and their dads!) and ex-IBM employees who'd left school at 16. We all had some sort of English teaching certification, but this was easily obtainable (it took me about a month full time) and relatively low-cost. Few of us native English speakers ever became fluent in Bahasa Indonesia, but we didn't use it in class, so it didn't really matter as long as we could negotiate daily life, which eventually happened. :)

My students were pretty great, I enjoyed living and working somewhere for a long enough time that I could relax and really get into the pace and lifestyle of the place, and while the money wasn't amazing, it was so much more than most locals made it was absolutely enough to live on, travel inside Indonesia (which is huge and diverse and amazing), and have a little chunk left over when I got back. We had a total staff of about 25 teachers, our director was an ally and a friend, and I felt really valued as an employee. The mix of nationalities, relationships, ages, religions, and languages made the office a really fascinating, really fun place, and kept my social calendar really full - visiting people's homes and helping them slaughter a goat for Eid al-Fitr, six-hour drives to the beach over volcanic mountain ranges in an overloaded Daihatsu was a real adventure.

I could have stayed longer - I was offered a promotion, and could have taken a position with another company closer to my house, with fewer hours and twice the salary - but I was missing home and looking for some new places to plant my tent because my wanderlust is unquenchable, so I'm home now, looking for another English-teaching job in eastern Europe this fall.

Shoot me an e-mail if you're still curious - I'm happy to let you know how I did it.

posted by mdonley at 4:32 AM on June 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

And wrt olinerd's post, what about working somewhere like Dubai? Huge construction industry, stable, lots of other expats (like 70-80% of the population!). No personal experience, but I hadn't thought about the Middle East, and Dubai might have such a skills shortage that you'd be able to really clean up.
posted by mdonley at 4:34 AM on June 6, 2007

"What I want to know is how far these experiences carry me in the real world. Am I marketable? Does my lack of a degree or college education prevent me from getting a position with travel possibilities?"

I think one of the misconceptions of working and living internationally is that it requires an advanced degree, youth or massive experience in some management position.

Not true.

I wouldn't be surprised to find that your skills would be recognised on the list of skills that gain points for immigration in Australia. If you were a dental hygentist asking the same question around 10 years ago, I would have suggested Switzerland.

My point is that you shouldn't underestimate the value of the skills you've developed to other countries. What you have is a core capability that is essential to maintaining economic growth.

It's a big leap to emmigrate from your home country but the payback is enormous.
posted by michswiss at 4:38 AM on June 6, 2007

To pick up on mdonley's example, I'm a lawyer in my mid-30's, but I'm on a one-year leave of absence, teaching english in Japan. You don't conquer the wanderlust. The wanderlust conquers you.
posted by dreamsign at 4:45 AM on June 6, 2007

My impression in the workforce is that a degree would offer little advantage to someone of your position and experience, with the caveat that degrees can be offer a significant advantage for work visa and immigration purposes.
posted by -harlequin- at 4:46 AM on June 6, 2007

re. olinerd's post, to me 'underwater robots' says 'ROVs' (Remotely Operated Vehicles), which says 'oil industry' (or slightly more accurately, 'offshore support'). This then leads to things like 'loads of money', and 'crying out for staff'.

How do you feel about working on ships? Month on, month off to do whatever you want, quite possibly tax free (although I don't know how that works for US citizens), hard work while you're at sea but did I mention the month off afterwards?

In fact, even without the robots, ships need electricians too. There should be options available that way, you might have to do some kind of conversion course for marine systems, or it might be doable entirely with on the job training. There's unlikely to be more than one qualified electrician on a ship - unless it's really big and/or a passenger ship, that is - which means you'd effectively be head of department and certainly not working shifts the way an ROV operator would be. The magic words which once again apply are 'leave ratio'; cruise ships get the worst ratio, but on the other hand you're probably more likely to be able to take your girlfriend with you sometimes, cargo ships can vary between 2:1 and 1:1, offshore you're looking at shorter trips, eg 4 weeks on/off as opposed to 4 months. Electricians are also likely to be shared between a few ships in a fleet, so you might sail on two or three ships before you get to go back home.
posted by Lebannen at 4:51 AM on June 6, 2007

Seconding paulsc. There's no need to drop what you're doing to get into a line of business that involves international travel. One of my clients does a lot of business in Brazil. Originally, he imported stuff there. Now he exports from Brazil to the US as well, and owns some wholesale stuff down there, too.

He also does some wholesaling here in the US, among other things.

The point is, he travels so much that he gets burned out on it, and he still works in his original line, although much less than he did 5 or 10 years ago.

Once you have contacts, you can do things not so directly related to your original line of business, if you prefer. There's no need to work for someone else.
posted by wierdo at 5:30 AM on June 6, 2007

Re: Lebannen's -- AUVs, not ROVs, but close enough ;) Anyway, pointing out the ship electricians... a friend when to yacht school in the UK for a month, and he has just been hired as a lead engineer on a brand new private yacht. They're off to the Med for the summer. He's ecstatic. Good deal if you can find it.
posted by olinerd at 5:49 AM on June 6, 2007

you might look into the peace corps and geek corps. peace corps will actually cover your expenses; not sure about geek corps, but you'd probably be doing something closer to your skills set. google them and see if they have anything to offer.

alternatively, look into the state department. they have to support their embassies and i don't know how much they want to contract with the local population to take care of their sensitive systems--they very well may want an on-site electrician or operations personnel whose background they can check.
posted by thinkingwoman at 6:00 AM on June 6, 2007

What thinkingwoman said: When I was a kid growing up overseas at U.S. diplomatic outposts, the State Department had career employees with skills in construction, wiring, etc., to do maintenance on its facilities in many countries. I think it cuts down on spying.

Do you qualify for any of these jobs? If so, you might be able to travel the world on the government's dime, have real job security, and get pretty good benefits, too.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 7:38 AM on June 6, 2007

The big internet companies are all global and happy to find good people who don't mind moving around the world. Each of them is working on several land grab projects all over the place. You might not have your choice of where to move, but you'd have an interesting time of it. There's nothing like living abroad. Business trips won't even come close.
posted by scarabic at 7:50 AM on June 6, 2007

what about working somewhere like Dubai?

Dubai is probably a bad idea. Most of the construction in Dubai is being done by poor foreigners who often don't get paid what they're promised.

If you can parlay your computer skills into a contract technical job through a staffing agency, that can work out well. One guy I recently worked with at a major software company in the Seattle area (yes, the one you're thinking of) liked to work for six months, putting in as much overtime as they'll allow him, then travel for six months, then come back and repeat the cycle. I believe he's in Turkey right now. BTW, I have no real college degree (Associate's only) and I can easily make six figures contracting here, though my skills are somewhat more specialized than yours.
posted by kindall at 9:26 AM on June 6, 2007

Have you thought about the Peace Corps?
posted by YoBananaBoy at 9:35 AM on June 6, 2007

I’m sure I’ll be told that my best options are to continue doing what I’m doing and save to travel

I'm not saying it's your best option, but keep in mind that many places are very inexpensive to live and travel in, with the most expensive part of travel being the airline ticket. You could probably work for a month as a master electrician in the US and travel for a year if you pick the right area.
posted by yohko at 9:46 AM on June 6, 2007

As already confirmed, you have more than enough skills to find work in most parts of the world.

But the skills question is secondary, in my opinion. I think the key questions are:

1) what do you want? Are you just looking for a change (eg a break, a new adventure), or do you want to change your life, and never go back to what you do now?

2) It sounds like you are locked into your work more than usual. You're running businesses, which carries far more obligations than just being someone's employee. In order to get away, period, you will have to arrange the businesses so that they can continue (or be dormant) while you are away... or you have to get out of them altogether.

Scary stuff for sure. My recommendations would be:
- arrange stuff so you have more free time to pursue hobbies and recreation, and so that you can take decent vacations without having to be concerned with what's going on back home. Most people get happier with their current life if they are having more fun and feel more in control of their time
- plan an adventure, arrange your life so that it can happen, and then make it happen. Examples: plan to spend 6 weeks in Indonesia with some volunteer outfit, rebuilding tsunami-damaged areas. or plan a 4-week bicycling trip across France. You get the idea. This will scratch the itch, and will help you decide whether you want to make a total break.
posted by Artful Codger at 9:51 AM on June 6, 2007

Thank you everyone who has contributed here. You have really boosted my confidence and helped me realize that I might actually be able to make this transition.

vac2003- Great advice/quote. The words behind it are one of my motivating factors in this.

paulsc and wierdo- Thanks. I will definitely look into doing something like this. My wife and I have often discussed doing exactly this, as she is from Finland. Only problem is I really don't know where to begin with that...

olinerd- What you described is almost exactly what I was envisioning/hoping for. I actually neglected to mention in my above post of my affinity for gadgets/electronics. One of the main reasons I work in the automation field, it allows me to quench that thirst, so to speak. I actually know of one small robotics company that is beginning to go global, but I will definitely look into others of that similar field.

dreamsign- I have thought about contacting engineering firms, but my hesitation has always been my lack of degree. Of any business application I've seen, a degree requirement is always listed #1.

mdonley- Your words were by far the most inspirational. Thank you. Sometimes it is quite difficult to view certain aspects in a positive light. At the moment I am looking for more of a back and forth situation, before I commit to a full time overseas gig. I have often thought about doing exactly what you spoke of, just going out there and living but right now in my life I feel like I've built up too much here to fully walk away from it. So I am attempting to blend the two together (what I have here and my wanderlust as others have referred to it). I would love to hear about your experiences though, as it always fascinates me to find out how others have been able to follow their dreams.

michswiss- I'm sure I could find work throughout the world with my skills, its just that I don't want to just get by. As an American and a NYer to boot, I definitely have a capitalist mentality. I don't want to own the world, but wouldn't mind making a decent living.

harlequin- So very true. I don't view my lack of a formal degree as a hindrance but I do understand its significance in opening up certain doors/avenues. That is my biggest worry.

Lebannen- Thank you for the suggestion, but I don't think I would enjoy living on a ship for long periods of time. If it was work related, I could do it here or there, but not as a mainstay. Unless, of course, it was something similar to what olinerd's friend does. I could probably get used to that.

thinkingwoman,croutonsupafreak and yobananaboy- At the moment that is not on list. I am looking more for a career rather than a volunteering outpost. And as far as the state dept goes and that list of jobs, requirement number 1 is a degree. It actually won't allow you to view the full job detail if you check the 'no' box next to 'do you have a degree?'

yohko- that is my fall back plan. The other posters have given me some hope to try to make a career out of this, otherwise that is what I'll be doing.

Artful Codger- 1) I want the change of life, to never go back to what I am doing now. Not that I have a bad life, by no means. I just am ready for the next level. I've gone as far as I want in my field and am ready for my next challenge. I do expect to do those things you have listed (4-6week hiatuses) but also want to incorporate the rest in as well.

Once again I have written a short novel. Thank you to everyone that has offered assistance with this. I will be attempting to follow up on as many suggestions as I can.
posted by wile e at 8:10 PM on June 6, 2007

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