Four Capital Region residents who decided that the time for a career change was NOW!
Ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, and they might say firefighter, teacher, or ballet dancer. As young adults, perhaps they’ll continue their education and the university will ask them to choose a major: biology, law, nursing. But where they go next is a different story. How they made the choice to take the leap and change careers.
According to EdX, as many as 15 percent of college graduates don’t use their major-specific knowledge at all in their current jobs. Even in 2019, the job listing site Indeed found that nearly half of workers have made a dramatic career shift, and 65 percent have at least considered doing so. The same research found, however, that only a quarter of Gen Xers and one in 10 Baby Boomers said they planned to look for different work after retirement.
That older workers are more leery of switching careers mid-life isn’t surprising. Following your passion can feel so fraught with potential potholes that many just let the dream remain just that—a dream. What if I can’t get a job? How will I pay my bills during the transition from employee to self-employed?
While mid-life careers changes and following your passion can feel (at times) like a fool’s errand, embarking on a new career can pay off in boundless ways: better work-life balance, higher compensation, and a renewed lease on your work life. Taking the leap from an idea to reality does take preparation. Here are four inspiring stories from Capital Region professionals who took the mid-life leap—and aren’t looking back.
You likely know Benita Zahn as a beloved Capital Region news anchor. Or perhaps you’ve seen her onstage in local musicals—or maybe even as an extra in the Amazon series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Today, she’s a one-on-one health coach who’s still a fixture of the regional theater community.
Zahn grew up on Long Island where she began her career in news at CableVision. From there she moved to Syracuse for 2 years, before moving to the Capital Region for a job as a reporter on News Channel 13 (WYNT). She figured she wouldn’t stay here long, either—hopping from market to market is a hallmark of a career in TV news—but after her mother died at age 48, Zahn decided to stay near friends and family. She started as a reporter before anchoring a number of different News 13’s programs.
As the face of Health Beat when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Zahn found herself in a position to help guide people through a frightening and often confusing experience. She was the right person for the job; in addition to her years of news experience, Zahn also has undergraduate and graduate degrees in bioethics. But as the river of pandemic-related information slowed to a more manageable trickle, she found herself longing for something new.
“I had the best job in town,” Zahn says about her time at Channel 13. But she found herself singing a tune from the musical Sweet Caroline: “There’s gotta be something better than this.”
Her greatest achievement, she says, is anytime she’s helped a viewer. Especially on Health Beat, she would get emails thanking her for information that had improved or even saved someone’s life. Health Beat lives on at wnyt.com, where Zahn still regularly contributes, but Zahn’s newest endeavor is as a private health coach.
In some ways that change is a logical one from her reporting work. Just as she worked to inform and empower viewers during the most fearsome moments of the pandemic, she now works with individuals to identify and achieve their goals. She suggests setting benchmarks at a variety of times: one week, three months, a year. “You know how to eat an elephant?” she quips. “One bite at a time.”
For those considering changing their careers, Zahn advises taking stock of what you need and want—and being honest with yourself. If you need social interaction or structure to be happy and successful, determine how to get those things. Consider how many hours you want to invest in your new venture.
“At the heart of it is always reinventing yourself,” she says. “If you don’t reinvent yourself, you become stale.”
Plus, be ready for the unexpected. “A roller coaster takes a lot of drops,” she says,
“but boy, don’t you love ‘em?”
David Rook’s career has taken him from a Japanese fishing trawler on the Bering Sea to Ground Zero after 9/11. Each experience has built on the next to make him the successful attorney he is now. But he doesn’t want you to think he did it on purpose.
“We often draw a linear narrative” when talking about career trajectory, he says. “I can also talk about it as a jumbled mess of connected accidents.”
Although Rook’s father and grandfather were both attorneys, he initially considered and rejected that career path, choosing instead to study biology as an undergraduate. He then worked as a fisheries observer for the National Fishing Service, a job that involved spending two months at a time at sea and then time on land filing reports. But after his first two-month trip, tragedy struck back at home in Albany: his family’s home caught fire, and he returned to help.
Back in the Capital Region, he joined the ranks of New York State employees. It was the right time to start a family, and his first child was born not long after. After trying out a few different roles, he moved to Buffalo for a government opportunity and got his MBA at SUNY Buffalo. Around that time, he started to reassess his work.
Rook says he remembers thinking, “Retirement is further away than I’ve been alive. There are possibilities here.”
After completing just one semester of a doctorate program in finance— ”It was too much with the kids,” he says—he returned home to Albany once again, this time to study law. A student society got wind of his science background and invited him to join. This is how he learned that there’s a separate bar exam for intellectual property attorneys and that only professionals with degrees in either science and engineering, in addition to law, are eligible to take it.
Spoiler alert: of course, he passed. Rook is now an intellectual property attorney, special counsel at Hoffman Warnick , who is satisfied and engaged by his work. But his career has also taken other detours.
One is related to the family tragedy that brought him back to the area: he became a firefighter in Colonie, then Slingerlands, where he joined their robust rescue team. This is how he ended up pitching in at Ground Zero.
Another sprouts from his work as a first responder. He was interviewed for a Friehoffer’s commercial, landed it, and became eligible to join the Screen Actors Guild, of which he is now a member.
For Rook, the hallmark of his career so far was working as a trial attorney, arguing cases before juries. “I consider that an achievement,” he says.
And for those considering changing careers, he warns, don’t become discouraged by others’ apparently lofty successes. “There’s a tendency to tell the narrative like everything they did led up to that place like they aimed there,” he says. “I think that’s rare.”
As an undergraduate, Renee Giannetti studied fashion merchandising—and, to be fair, she does sell clothes. But today they’re mostly for dogs, and her route was hardly direct.
For 31 years, Giannetti worked as a commercial interior designer. COVID threw a wrench into her decades-long career when she was furloughed, but she didn’t despair. Instead, she found an opportunity in the forced intermission.
“I always wanted to have a pet boutique,” Murphy says. She had also identified a hole in the market: she couldn’t seem to find handmade, socially responsible, top-quality goods for her Cairn Terrier, Rocco, and Havanese, Sebastian.
She had already given her business its maiden voyage at a couple of local pop-ups when the governor ordered statewide shutdowns. Thanks to a caveat that labeled shops with pet food “essential,” thus allowing them to remain open for business, she decided it was time for a storefront.
“I cashed in a couple of retirement accounts and my savings,” Giannetti says. Initially, she leased a retail space in North Greenbush. And while she loved the store and her regulars, whom she came to recognize by their dogs because everyone was masked, she wanted a spot that would get more foot traffic.
Her new space in Troy, which includes both a pet boutique and a spa area for dogs, officially opened in August. She’s filled the shop, which is twice the size of the previous one, with locally-baked treats, organic washes, and sustainable textiles. There’s also a small children’s section since she offers workshops for kids on how to train and handle their pets. She even has artisan goods for cats.
Giannetti, who is 55 years old, says she thinks a lot of people her age have probably thought about changing professions. “We’ve done it; we’ve had a good run,” she says. “We’re ready for the next thing.”
If you have support and a good idea, most people won’t regret trying something new, she says.
“My thing is life’s too short,” Giannetti says. “You’ve just got to do it. Personally, to know you’ve tried and done everything you can—that’s most important.”
Marcia White never thought she’d be leading a college as a 5th career. But she’s learned to lean in toward the unexpected.
“My life is and will continue to be a great and continual unfolding,” says White, who has depended on a combination of faith, optimism, and instinct to guide her career decisions. That attitude took her from nursing to the New York State Senate, and from the Saratoga Performing Arts Center to her current role as the interim president of the College of Saint Rose. “We’re all on a path,” White says. “It’s up to you to see the signs.”
White says the only career she’s chosen for herself, rather than been led to by circumstance or fate, was nursing. Although her high school guidance counselor suggested a career in the arts, Marcia wanted work that would ease others’ pain in part because her mother had died of leukemia when Marcia was 10.
Like many women, White’s second career was as a caretaker for her own children. A volunteer position with the Junior League of Troy led her back to the paid workforce as press secretary for the New York State Senate.
During her 15 years with the Senate, one of her specialties in that office was managing the arts, which is why, when Saratoga Performing Arts Center needed a new president and executive director, she was encouraged to apply.
“As SPAC celebrated its 50th Anniversary I felt I could take my final bow,” White says of her 12-year run. “I wanted to spend time with my family.”
After a few years as a consultant, White was tapped to lead Saint Rose where she is an alumna. Though it may seem circuitous, she says she often draws upon the skills she learned as a nurse all those years ago. “My nursing background has been a great asset,” she says. “Crisis management has been most of my life—balancing urgency with planning.”
For anyone considering a career change, White advises turning inward.
“One of the many powerful voices we can listen to is our own, but it’s the one many of us spend the least time cultivating,” she says.
“Follow your own destiny,” she adds. “You don’t have a right to the cards you believe you should be dealt. You have an obligation to play the hell out of the hand you get.”