In 2006, at the age of 62, Alice Longworth decided it was time for a change.
Shortly before being reorganized out of a full-time position in fundraising support, a role she long felt was a poor fit for her interests and skills, she began taking graphic design classes in Manhattan, not far from her home, then in Yonkers, New York. Over the course of seven years, Longworth studied part-time while taking on internships, short-term jobs, and connecting with people in her new-chosen field.
She applied for jobs that included graphic design (occasionally landing an interview), regularly attended career workshops and support groups, had some 40-50 informational interviews, completed two internships (the first unpaid with an arts council and the second paid with a medical center), volunteered for pro-bono design projects, and now is the graphic designer and communications coordinator for a church, a position she has held for almost two years.
On top of the applications and conversations, Longworth had to contend with the financial and social challenges that often come with trying to make a career switch over the age of 60. In our interview, condensed and edited below, she talks about these challenges, why she decided to make the switch, and how she stayed committed to her new career.
Why graphic design?
I knew in my 50s that the only way I could retire would be through an early demise. Since I hoped to live a long life, I knew I needed to work, but I wouldn’t need to work full-time. So I spent some time reflecting on when I was happy in my life, my professional life, and my personal life. Just before I began taking continuing education courses in graphic design, I read a book called The Artist’s Way and I started journaling. I homed in on the fact that I had done some work as a typesetter, combining words and images on a page to create something compelling. My entire career has been in nonprofits—as a social worker, then working in fundraising—so I knew I wanted to use these skills on behalf of nonprofit organizations.
After realizing that this was what I wanted to do, I knew going back to school was absolutely essential. I needed new skills. I began reading job descriptions: I noticed that nonprofits were beginning to ask for people who knew the Adobe Creative Suite and who understood graphic design. I knew I was going in the right direction.
What did you do during the transition?I kept focusing on the skills I would need to eventually get the job I wanted. A big part of that was informational interviews. These didn’t lead me directly to a job. They got me talking to people in the field I wanted to be in who gave me guidance on what I needed to do. For example, the director of public relations at a college spoke with me for 10 minutes and gave me excellent advice. While talking with him, I realized having an internship would be a good thing for me and he suggested that I be in touch with local organizations that used graphic design interns.
I reached out to organizations in Westchester County, where I was living at the time—mostly to public relations and communications directors at local colleges and other nonprofits. First I would email asking for 20 minutes of their time in person and explain, “I have a background in social work and development and am trying to make a transition to work in communications that would include graphic design, which I am currently studying.” Then I would follow up with a phone call. Most, approximately 70%, would say, “yes.”
I took on two internships as well as some pro-bono projects. Reverse mentorship was important, and books like The Big Shift by Marc Freedman were incredibly encouraging and just what I needed to hear.
Seven years is a long time. What challenges did you encounter? Did you ever have any doubts about the transition?
I certainly did. Money was an issue, even though I was living a frugal life. At one point, I had an internship at an arts council but I needed to be making money. My unemployment was running out and I started interviewing for jobs that weren’t a good fit for me. But I’ve been very lucky, at the eleventh hour on more than one occasion, I was able to find part-time employment that included graphic design, first at a community center and subsequently at a synagogue. These gigs kept me going and allowed me to stay on track. I also attended free programs for people who were unemployed to give me more support and guidance.
Being an older student studying graphic design was a challenge. It’s perceived as a younger person’s career. In all of the courses I took, there was maybe one teacher who was my peer age wise and the students were always much younger. The one student who was my age, was already a graphic designer and self taught, so it can get lonely. It takes an effort—and a sense of humor— to overcome preconceived notions about older adults. We may not be typical students but we can learn new tricks.
What kept you going?
I loved what I was doing. I read job descriptions and I knew that I was going in the right direction.
Also, it takes many years to become good in any profession, but I had to get good in a hurry if I wanted a new job. That’s why I needed those internships and began taking on skill-based volunteer work. I volunteered at The Center for Aging in Place, Volunteer New York!, and The United Way, all in Westchester. At the latter, I actually had a desk and worked onsite two days per week. This brought me references that helped me get the job I have now.
What are you doing now?I’m the communications coordinator at an open-minded Baptist church in White Plains, New York. One of the support groups—Connect to Care—of which I was a member posted a brief job announcement in one of their LinkedIn group emails. That was on January 12, 2013. From there, things happened fast. I immediately called the pastor, whose phone number was listed in the posting, emailed him my resume, and in return received a complete job description.
It seemed like a great fit and our interest was mutual. Shortly thereafter I had an in-person interview with the pastor and one church board member. At the conclusion of that meeting (approximately an hour and a half), the pastor and board member informed me I was their candidate of choice and they would like to check my references and recommend me to the church’s executive committee. My first day on the job was February 18, 2013. Aside from having the right experience for the job and excellent references from my medical center internship and my pro-bono work, having a master’s degree in social work (my first career) was a big selling point. Go figure. The letters MSW were virtually hidden at the bottom of my resume. Some folks are careful readers.
Like in any small organization, I do everything that has to do with communications, including graphic design, email marketing, and managing the website. My greatest joy right now is video. Last year, I took a wonderful course called Reel Change. It was inexpensive, geared towards nonprofits, and no experience in video was needed. It’s a capacity-building course that teaches video from soup to nuts to staff members at nonprofits.
This is what makes my job exciting, the diversity. Not everything is important at all times, but there is never a dull moment. It is as close to a perfect fit as possible. The content includes everything I love and I am looking forward to celebrating my two-year anniversary.
What advice do you have for others looking to make a career switch?
While money was an issue, I still had some flexibility in that I don’t have children in college, grandchildren, or aging parents to care for. It’s hard for older folks who have a lot of financial obligations to do some of the things I did. That being said, my advice would be to persist. A career change can be made in less than seven years. Think about going back to school. Volunteering. Informational interviewing. Think you might be happy in a particular career, talk to people already in it. Assuming the economy permits us to stay employed, these are things we have to do.
Alice is celebrating two years in her current job in February. Congratulations, Alice!
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