The economy has an uncanny knack for forcing people to take stock of their lives, contemplate new careers and even reinvent themselves in a new profession.

The longest recession since World War II not only put millions of people out of work, it boosted enrollment at colleges and universities and sparked stampedes to career counselors and job coaches as people look to enhance their job skills and, on occasion, launch a new career.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't track the number of times people change careers in the course of their working lives, because it can be difficult to distinguish between a job promotion within the same industry or a move to a completely new profession. But in today's job market, the only constant is change.

Here are profiles of four Billings professionals who made changes in their careers, either by choice, or by circumstances.

Back to the classroomWhile working under intense deadline pressure to complete a software project, Marni Higdon-Tooley and a co-worker were fantasizing about ideal careers.

 

"I said I thought I would go back to school, get a master's degree and teach," she said.

Not long after that, Higdon-Tooley was handed an opportunity to pursue that goal. The gaming company that she was working for decided to disband its local research and development department, sending the jobs out of state. Higdon-Tooley was unemployed.

Higdon-Tooley had worked throughout the country in the software industry, but she realized her options were limited after she moved back to her native Billings.

"I loved working in the software industry because the people are fascinating. They're alarmingly intelligent and creative, and there's a lot of group brainstorming," she said. "You work on something that's tangible and it does some good."

Higdon-Tooley decided to contact Nancy Boyer, a career counseling specialist, for advice. She took a battery of tests to focus on her aptitudes, interests and goals.

"We looked at the test results, and we realized I had an affinity for teaching and education." The idea of teaching wasn't completely new to Higdon-Tooley, because she had taught English as a second language in South Korea soon after she graduated from college.

She enrolled in graduate school at Montana State University-Billings, and will graduate this spring with master's degrees in education interdisciplinary studies and educational technology.

Going back to school offered many challenges. "I hadn't written a research paper in years," she said. A highlight was when she completed her student teaching at Beartooth Elementary. Her mentor teacher, JoAnn Sustarsic, provided valuable support and guidance.

"Its extremely challenging and the kids are fascinating," she said. "They're so interesting, and they're interested in everything."

Higdon-Tooley plans to work in elementary education, but if no openings are available in the Billings area, she would be willing to teach at the college level. Another option would be to work in the educational software industry, she said.

As excited as she is about her career change, it comes with both advantages and disadvantages, Higdon-Tooley said.

She'll miss the creative process of developing software, and she'll be making less than she did in her former job. But the stress level will likely be lower.

"I knew I wanted to downshift from the 60-hour weeks and the routine of traveling for business on Monday and coming home on Sunday," she said.

A vintage careerWhen his job ended at the Beef Quality Assurance program at Montana State University Bozeman, Clint Peck was left trying to figure out what to do for a living. He decided to take the plunge into winemaking, and Yellowstone Cellars and Winery was born.

 

"The funding for that program had ended, and I decided I needed to do something different," Peck said. "I'm 57 years old and not ready to retire. My brother and sister in-law are winemakers in Washington, and I had been learning the trade from them for the past few years.

"I saw an opportunity, maybe a niche that could be filled in the Yellowstone Valley. I started putting together a business plan, and got more excited as I went along."

Peck said he sold his house, his cows, even his Harley, to raise the cash for the new venture. He also had a good relationship with Yellowstone Bank.

"I can't over emphasize the importance of a good credit score," Peck said.

The wines from Yellowstone Cellars are made from grapes raised in Washington's Columbia Valley, which is becoming a well regarded wine growing region.

So far, Yellowstone Cellars, at 1335 Holiday Circle, is offering cabernet, syrah and merlot from 2008. But other varieties will be added.

"I'll be heading out to the Washington wine grape growers convention in a few weeks, signing contracts for the fall harvest" Peck said. He'll truck the grapes back to Billings for crushing, fermenting, aging and bottling.

Peck believes that locally produced wine will be welcomed in Billings, just as locally produced beer and local produce are making a splash.

Will he ever take the next step and try to raise grapes in the Yellowstone Valley?

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"That's a much more complex question than whether we can grow grapes here," he said. "There are a lot of variables you have to consider."

 

Fulfilling a long-time ambitionJoy Stevens was in middle school when she first decided that she wanted to be a lawyer. But as she prepared to go off to college, engineering held more of an appeal, in part because of the perception that there were too many attorneys at the time.

 

"My mom suggested that I should go into engineering because I was good at math and science," said Stevens, who held a variety of positions in the oil industry after graduating from Montana State University-Bozeman.

Despite having a challenging career that paid well, Stevens never lost her desire to pursue a law degree.

She remembers one incident that stoked her determination to go to law school. A local attorney had attempted to intimidate her by using his knowledge of the law to his advantage.

Stevens swore that she would never let that happen again, and was accepted into the University of Wyoming College of Law.

To some, engineering and law appear to be about as similar as horned toads and kittens. But Stevens noticed many similarities between the two disciplines.

"You're trying to solve problems. To problem solve in engineering, you have to collect and interpret data. As an attorney, you solve problems by consulting the law," she said.

Stevens said she occasionally had second thoughts as she prepared to enter law school.

"I asked myself, what's the worst thing that can happen," she said. "If I flunk out of law school, I can always go back to what I've been doing."

Her engineering background proved to be useful during law school. When students were involved in moot court, she was often called on to testify as an expert witness for cases involving technical issues or natural resources.

Stevens didn't have much interest in criminal law, instead concentrating on business law, which has served her well after she graduated in 1999.

For Stevens, pursuing a law degree wasn't so much reinventing a career. It was simply enhancing her existing skills, she said.

The oil industry is highly regulated, so the legal training comes in handy in her job, said Stevens, who is working as a consultant these days.

It's not unusual for Stevens to testify before the Montana Board of Oil and Gas as an engineer and then return later as an attorney representing a client who has business before the board.

Stevens says the biggest challenges she has endured in her career haven't been due to economic turmoil or career burnout, personal issues surrounding family and community.

Stevens was elected to the Billings City Council in 2005 and resigned from the council in 2008 to take a job in Casper, Wyo., but moved back to Billings recently.

Family commitments, economy lead to changesRebecca Drake had staked out a successful career in California as a corporate trainer, a customer service expert and a human resources consultant. She had taught at the college level, and as a professionally trained singer, she even had her own nightclub act.

 

She headed two companies - Bank Leadership Training and Rebecca Drake Seminars - and led seven trainers and consultants who worked up and down the West Coast.

But she decided to move back to her native Billings in 2008 in order to be closer to her aging mother. Initially, she planned to split time between California and Billings. But when the national recession hit, Drake lost many of her California clients when the real estate and banking sectors went into a tailspin. She had to change how she did business.

"I turned my focus on local Montana businesses and essentially reinvented my company," she said.

Since returning to Montana, she has been the keynote speaker at a variety of conferences, she presented workshops for customers such as Edward Jones, Montana Health Federal Credit Union and Rocky Mountain Hospice. She has produced and directed two public service videos for Big Sky Senior Services and did coaching and performance review work for a number of businesses.

He also has taught courses on interviewing skills for people in the Passages pre-release center.

"As I work with clients and see how they handle their business and adapt to changing times, I wondered how I could do that with my own business," Drake said. "They may have to change the kinds of widgets they make, and I decided I have to change the kinds of things I do."

She produced and directed public service videos for Big Sky Senior Services, and conducted classes to help people in the Passages pre-release center learn better job interviewing skills.

 

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