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My Dad: Career Changer and Nontraditional Student

Though changing careers can be a scary thing, many people do it successfully and enjoy the rewards of new challenges and better pay. My dad, Harry Tolles, is one person who found happiness in a different industry. Midway through the nineties, my dad started on his path to a career change by going back to school to earn his Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree. Consequently, my forty-something father joined the growing numbers of non-traditional students.

Back to School
“Most of the students were 15 to 20 years younger,” he says. At 48 years of age, my dad may seem a bit old to have gone back to the land of frat houses and pep rallies, but the Department of Education reports that roughly 40% of students today are over the age of 25. For his part, my dad felt like the cross-generational interaction was actually a benefit to the program. “I liked meeting the younger generation and felt a renewed optimism that they shared similar values.”

Initially, my dad decided to get an MBA to reach a higher level of management. Working at Home Depot in the nineties, he saw plenty of opportunities to move up. Hindsight shows that the housing boom started at that time. The National Association of Home Builders reports that housing starts were around 1.3 million in 1995, which rose to above 2 million by 2005. This means that a lot of home improvement and trades professionals were keeping very busy.

Expanding His Skill Set
So my dad hit the books, all while balancing a full-time work schedule. I remember the days he came home from work and then darted right back out to go to class, not returning until late evening. It was a regular ritual for four years as he took night classes along with the occasional Saturday morning seminar to earn his degree. Overall, he took 17 courses covering a variety of business topics, including statistics, accounting, marketing, operations management, logistics, and stock market analysis, among others. A final capstone class drew all the business principles together.

My dad actually enjoyed the capstone class the most. “I really enjoyed doing simulation gaming,” he says. A computer simulation game was the core of the capstone. The groups were tasked to run a virtual shoe business with the goal of attaining the highest net profit. Teams of business school students worked together to decide upon price point, price reductions strategies, and manufacturing concerns.

In addition to learning about business strategies and profit margins, my father had to expand his communication skills. “In the time that I went through the MBA, the program was big on group work and public speaking,” dad says. “If there was ever a group leader, I was the one that gave the presentation.” Being able to present before a group is key in business, since effective verbal communication is integral to everything from interviewing to strategy to sales.

From MBA to Career Change
In 2000, my family gathered on campus to see my snowy-haired dad receive a diploma. Dad says the graduation was “absolutely wonderful. It was exciting to have actually achieved the goal.”

But ultimately, this story isn’t about how education alone helped my dad shift careers. In addition to the ideas that my dad learned, he also gained valuable connections and friendships that remain with him to this day. A promotion never materialized for my dad within the trades industry, but his friends from the MBA program helped him find a job in technical writing and patent research in the gaming industry. From there, he soon found himself in a whole new field, and has loved it ever since.

My dad says that he enjoys “the level of respect” he receives and loves “working with a highly educated group of people.”

Keys to Success
For others trying to make this change, my dad says that the two keys to making this happen are “persistence and hard work.” Although it took a few years for my dad’s MBA to pay off, he points to a saying from his father: “My dad always used to say, if you get knocked down, dust yourself off and get right back up.”

Changing careers can be a multi-step process–going back to school, acquiring new skills, making contacts. It was for my dad. Finding a job you enjoy, however, can make it worth the wait.

Publish date: March 11, 2008