Photo: Flickr/Creative Common, TireZoo.

In October 2018, Chris Ryall wrote his first mid-term exam in 35 years. “I’d forgotten what writing a test was like,” says the 56 year old. “In fact, I’ve been astounded by how much the entire college system has changed since I was a post-secondary student in my 20s.”

Luckily, Ryall, a veteran of the travel media industry, had primed himself for change from the moment he enrolled in the year-long Spa & Wellness Operations Management program at Algonquin College in Ottawa. Ryall is part of a growing trend of Canadians who are bravely changing careers in their 50s.

Chris Ryall decided to turn a longstanding passion for spas into a new career. Photo courtesy of Chris Ryall.

“I expected my day-to-day life would change as I started my transition into a new career. I was conscious that I was the oldest in my class and older than most of my instructors,” says Ryall. “But enrolling in the spa and wellness program was something I really wanted to do. I’d written about spas in the past and my research pointed to many opportunities in the industry. Doing my homework was an important part of my plan.”

Planning was also a crucial step for Karen Rapp, a seasoned TV producer in Toronto who is now the only professional olive oil taster in Canada, certified by the prestigious National Association of Olive Oil Tasters based in Italy. “I’d worked in broadcasting for a long time and the writing was on the wall,” she says. “It was becoming so challenging to get the work I wanted and I was ready for a change. After a trip to Italy, I was online searching for a special olive oil and I came across a blog written by a guy in New York who called himself an olive oil sommelier. I didn’t know there was such a thing. I was fascinated.”

“If you make a significant career change in your mid-50s, make sure it’s something you’re absolutely, totally passionate about. Don’t go half-way.”

Rapp, then in her early 50s, recalls how she “went into intense research and planning mode” and enrolled in week-long olive oil sensory-aptitude course offered through the prestigious Organizzazione Nazionale Assaggiatori Olio di in Rome. That was four years ago and Rapp doesn’t regret the move, though she did have a few anxious moments at the beginning of her career-change journey. “I had all kinds of peers and connections within the TV world – and none within the olive oil importing business in Canada,” says Rapp, “but it felt right. Not only did I identify a consumer need, I was passionate about the industry and knew this change would be worth the risk.”

From TV producer to olive oil sommelier, Karen Rapp finds joy in her new pursuit. Photo courtesy of Karen Rapp.

Lana Thompson also took a risk – one that surprised her financial advisor – when at the age of 51 she gave up a 25-year career as a mechanical engineer to become the owner-operator of Quilt Junction, a quilt and fabric business in Waterford, Ontario. “My well-paid, fast-paced and intense engineering job had taken me to Northern Alberta, Venezuela and Australia, but I was looking for a lifestyle change. After years of travelling I wanted to settle down in one place.” Thompson found her new home in Port Dover in southwestern Ontario and began looking for employment opportunities. “The engineering opportunities didn’t really suit me, so I took a step back. Sewing and quilting had long been two of my greatest passions –  and were my go-to stress relievers during my stressful engineering days. I conceived the idea of opening a quilt shop or fabric store and, to make a long story short, that’s exactly what I eventually did.”

Lana Thompson expresses her creativity through her new quilt business. Photo courtesy of Lana Thompson.

In 2011, Thompson purchased an existing company called Quilt Junction, which continues to grow annually. She now employs a staff of six full-time employees and a handful of part-timers. One of the biggest benefits for Thompson: “My new career fulfills a creative element that I wasn’t able to tap into as an engineer. Everyday I go to work in a place that’s joyful and all about creativity. It’s a huge amount of work but running this fabric business speaks to my passion

Kerry Hannon, author of What’s Next? Finding your Passion and Your Dream Job in Your Forties, Fifties, and Beyond, notes: “Being passionate about a new career choice is very important.”

While every career-changer’s path looks different, Hannon urges people to address a number of issues before leaping into a new profession:

  1. Understand what’s behind your desire to make a change.
    “Maybe you are starting to become disillusioned with work. You’re bogged down. Perhaps you’re no longer on the way up,” says Hannon. “This is the time to step back and think about life more broadly.” Is it the career you want to change – or your work situation?
  2. Get your finances in order. “Crushing credit card bills and a huge mortgage can kill your dreams,” Hannon points out. “You need enough savings to tide you over until you start generating regular income.”
  3. Ensure you have support. Ryall credits the support of his partner, Sarah, for enabling him to return to school full time. “Not only are there financial considerations,” he says, “But my student life also means I’m in Ottawa three to four days each week, leaving Sarah to handle everything at home in Burlington. I couldn’t have done this without her.”
  4. Find a mentor.
    Seek advice from someone who’s been successful in your chosen field.
  5. Volunteer or moonlight
    Volunteering one night per week or working part-time in a chosen field can help career-changers determine if that desired profession is a good fit.
  6. Research, research and research
    Experts, including Hannon, and career-changes like Rapp, Ryall and Thompson, all stress the importance of researching job prospects and opportunities. “Passion is one thing – but you also have to be practical,” says Hannon. In Rapp’s case, her intense research confirmed there a consumer demand for the services of a professional olive oil taster and importer.
  7. Keep your hand out of the cookie jar
    “Don’t dip too deep into your core savings,” emphasizes Hannon. “Of all the mistakes older workers make in launching second careers, this is probably the worst.”
  8. Do something every day to work toward your goal
    “Changing careers can be overwhelming and time-consuming,” says Hannon. She urges career-changers to take small steps on a regular basis toward their vision.
  9. Ask yourself: how badly do you want this?
    Rapp reflected long and hard about her career change from broadcasting to olive oil tasting and importing: “Make sure your new career is something you’re absolutely, totally passionate about. Don’t go half-way.”