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Three Who Switched Careers

While changing careers has always been an option for American workers, it is being given new urgency by the decimation of many industries in the U.S. economy. Do you work in advertising? Print publishing? Financial services? Automotive? Chances are, the opportunities in your field will never return to their levels of just a few years ago. Job insecurity and a narrowing corporate ladder may well be the reality for years to come.

But in the dynamic U.S. economy, there are always opportunities somewhere. We won't kid you: It's not always easy to wriggle your way into more promising fields, especially if they're completely different from what you've been doing. But it can be done — and the following stories are proof.

SEO specialist Alysson Fergison

Name: Alysson Fergison, 32

Previous profession: Customer service manager

New profession: Search engine optimization (SEO) specialist

Reason for switching: A $50,000 salary, bonuses, and plenty of responsibility weren’t enough to keep Fergison working as a customer service manager for a national lawn-care company. After transferring to the company’s Jacksonville, Fla., location, Fergison decided she wanted out of lawn care and into Web work — specifically an SEO job, where she saw much greater potential.

Strategy: To make the switch, Fergison did what career counselors suggest: She first took a job similar to her previous position but in her target industry. Fergison secured an entry-level position as a customer service agent for a Web site design and marketing company in Jacksonville, where her duties included helping the firm’s small-business customers with their SEO needs.

How she got it: Since there was — and still is — little formal SEO training available, Fergison essentially taught herself by reading tons of blogs and trade magazine articles about SEO, building model Web sites to test what she’d learned, and using Twitter and social networks to connect with SEO practitioners. After two years in her initial position and a short stint with a local software developer that recruited her for an in-house SEO position, Fergison was confident enough in her skills to open her own SEO business in January.

Complications: Despite the recession, companies are still spending on Internet marketing, so demand is there — but so is competition. To distinguish herself from other SEO consultants, Fergison offers clients lots of extras, including SEO audits, keyword research, and Web site development. Lack of a stable income has been a drawback, but Fergison expects to match her old lawn-care company salary in six months and exceed it in a year.

Pediatric nurse Jeremy Russie

Name: Jeremy Russie, 36

Previous profession: College English instructor

New profession: Pediatric nurse

Reason for switching: Partway through a Ph.D. in English and leading a college class in English composition, Russie, a former Army paratrooper, realized he was bored in a classroom. He missed the adrenaline rush he’d experienced answering the call of duty and wanted to duplicate it in his post-military life. He also wanted to make more than the $30,000 to $40,000 that Ph.D. candidates could expect to earn as first-year associate professors.

Strategy: Russie didn’t have to look far for inspiration. His wife, Christa, was a nurse and regularly regaled him with tales of her high-intensity job inside a hospital ICU. In 2007, he swapped his Ph.D. studies at Georgia State University for a spot in the school’s 18-month accelerated registered-nurse program, which cost a total of $8,000 plus books and fees.

How he got it: While finishing his RN, Russie attended a university-sponsored job fair and met representatives of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. He was eventually accepted into an incubator program the children’s hospital had started to quickly bring entry-level RNs up to speed. Russie joined the program in July 2008, working full-time in the pediatric cardiac unit.

Complications: There’s not much Russie doesn’t love about nursing, even the overtime he works due to the ongoing personnel shortage. Those extra hours could come close to doubling his $52,000 base salary if he continues at his present pace. That should help erase the one downside of his decision to enter nursing: debt. Russie’s wife went back to school to be a pharmacist at the same time he started his RN program, and together they’ve amassed close to $250,000 in student and home loans. That will be a financial burden for the next few years. But in return, Russie now enjoys job security, a feeling that he is doing good every day, and that buzz of excitement that he had been lacking. Says Russie, “This new career has been worth every penny.”

Green-technology business development manager Dean Samara-Rubio

Name: Dean Samara-Rubio, 39

Previous profession: Semiconductor engineer

New profession: Green-technology business development manager

Reason for switching: After getting a doctorate in electrical engineering, Samara-Rubio held several jobs designing microprocessor circuits and optical communications for Intel, but then caught the green-tech bug. Though eager to branch out, he was equally reluctant to give up the six-figure income and generous medical benefits he had at the Silicon Valley chipmaker. So he looked for opportunities to go green while remaining at Intel.

Strategy: Samara-Rubio learned that getting from his engineering gig to a green-tech job wasn’t as straightforward as going from Point A to Point B. So he took several different jobs over the course of a few years, with each step bringing him closer to his ideal position.

How he got it: Samara-Rubio and a partner initially tried to get funding for a solar project they’d dreamed up from an internal company incubator. While the project wasn’t picked, the incubator’s managers liked his resume and ideas enough to offer him a job vetting other employees’ proposals, many of which were green-related. While in that position, Samara-Rubio met an Intel executive who was pitching a clean-energy initiative to Intel’s environmental technology division. Samara-Rubio liked the project so much that he volunteered to help the executive with it on the side. When Intel green-lit the project, the executive asked Samara-Rubio to run business development.

Complications: Intel gives raises based on an annual review process rather than job moves or promotions, so Samara-Rubio’s new position didn’t automatically mean a salary bump. Samara-Rubio had to negotiate a 20 percent raise, to $150,000 a year plus a 30 percent bonus, by showing his boss that, aside from cost of living increases, he hadn’t received a real raise in 10 years. But Samara-Rubio advises not getting too caught up in compensation concerns when making a switch. “Understand what you can do for the company, and don’t worry too much about title or salary, because if you’re confident, you can climb back up the ladder,” he says.

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