10 Great Jobs for Midlife Women

The best career moves you can make when you want to reinvent your job.

By Annetta Miller, with additional reporting by Patti Greco

Reinvent Your Career

What defines a great job for a midlife woman?

It’s one that gets you up every morning eager to work: "It’s a perfect fit,’‘ says Becky Lessard, a finance chief and green czar who’s looking at windmills and biomass to power a sock-making factory in Osage, Iowa. "I’m never bored,’‘ says Cheryl Chalfant, a landscape architect and former advertising executive who loves it when her environmentally conscious teenagers brag about her projects. "This feeds my soul and my intellect,’‘ says Brenda Wheeler Ehlers, a New Jersey pastor.

It’s a job that’s in a growing sector of the economy and where the premium isn’t on youth but on smarts, savvy, even experience.

Finally, it offers the fluidity — working remotely, flexible hours — and the pay that so many midlife women want. Sit in a wireless cafe in Rome, defending your client from IRS aggression at $400 an hour? It’s not impossible.

MORE spoke to headhunters, educators, and other experts about societal trends, up-and-coming careers and workplace options. The results: 10 hot jobs that may make you want to change your life.

1. Chief Environmental Officer

Bring an organization out of the past and into the green. Find the money and technology that will pump up a company’s profits or shrink its carbon footprint.

Why Now?

Going green is mandatory for most organizations today, whether to enhance productivity or image. In December, President Bush signed the Green Jobs Act of 2007, authorizing $125 million for green-job training programs.

Getting In

Becky Lessard, 53, had worked only in finance at Fox River Mills, an Iowa sock maker, until 2006, when she designed a new job and took on the additional role of chief environmental officer. She had already proven to her bosses that smart environmental policies (recycling materials, painting walls lighter colors to save on electricity) could cut costs. She’d also worked in her community with Wes Birdsall, a nationally known green activist, to get feel for local green politics and PR issues.

At smaller organizations, you may be able to carve out a green job — or part of one — based on business experience and time spent volunteering on environmental issues. But there are many paths to the top jobs. Some require a science degree and credentials in manufacturing or marketing. Elysa Hammond, 51, staff ecologist at Clif Bar & Company, the Berkeley, California-based maker of energy bars and drinks, has a background in agricultural ecology. Colleges and professional associations are working to add programs that bring people up to speed.

Pay and Perks

Lessard got a raise, a second title, and more influence, she says. Although compensation varies widely, a chief environmental officer will often report directly to a CEO and earn six-figure salaries.

Must Love

Navigating politics, inside and outside your organization.

To Find Out More

For nonprofit listings, visit:

2. Religious Leader

Spiritual multitasker: worship leader, sermon writer, advocate, counselor, and teacher.

Why Now?

The demand for clergy is growing in post-9/11 America, where there is a large cohort of faith seekers. A wave of retirements has left some congregations facing extended searches for a leader. "It’s no longer just the white guy in the pulpit," says Brenda Wheeler Ehlers, associate pastor of Morrow Memorial United Methodist Church in Maplewood, New Jersey. Even in some more conservative settings, there are roles for women, such as chaplain.

Getting In

Ehlers’s story is common among midlife women in the field. At 43, she was running a successful public relations firm and was restless. "From a young age, I’d always felt the ministry would be part of my life,’‘ she says. She enrolled in a theological school and got a job as a youth pastor at her own church. She’s now working on a doctorate. At church, Ehlers’s projects have included youth service trips to Louisiana and to the Haiti-Dominican Republic border.

Pay and Perks

According to salary.com, pay for pastors can range from $48,000 to over $100,000. Ehlers works long hours and pulls in much less money than she used to. One bonus: She sees a lot more of her kids because they go to many church events.

Must Love

Life as a public role model.

To Find Out More

Beliefnet.org has news, blogs, and links relating to many religious faiths.

3. Fund-Raiser

Network, network, market, network. Create buzz. Make passionate pitches, in person and in grant proposals.

Why Now?

As government funding has been cut, in areas from the arts to housing to law enforcement, private money has become increasingly important. Headlines about philanthropists like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have given momentum to the expected growth of donations from a prosperous 50-plus population. With more groups competing for dollars, there’s demand for women with good communication and interpersonal skills, highly developed networks, and the ability to project authority and tolerate rejection.

Getting In

Fund-raisers (also known as development officers) come from psychology, marketing, financial management, and education, among other fields. No particular degree is required, although an MBA with a concentration in nonprofit management doesn’t hurt. It’s inexpensive to learn grant writing (go to foundationcenter.org for information on courses and reading materials). Meanwhile, write a real proposal — for your kids’ debate team or your synagogue’s green program. Even if you don’t get the money, you can increase your credibility. This is another area where volunteer work can open doors.

Pay and Perks

Average first-year salary is about $50,500, according to data from the Economic Research Institute. But salaries vary tremendously depending on responsibilities and an organization’s size. Much of the job can be done outside a nine-to-five framework, on the phone or online. Josette Kaufman, 48, a former analyst for Fannie Mae, is now executive director — and chief fund-raiser — for the Arthur R. Marshall Foundation, which is working to save the Florida Everglades. Kaufman loves the variety in her job: She can be planting cypress trees on an island in Lake Okeechobee one day, planning a black-tie dinner the next.

Must Love

Cold calls, small victories.

To Find Out More

Association of Fundraising Professionals

4. Genetics Counselor

Translate complex science into real-life options.

Why Now?

Medical advances are creating new dilemmas for patients. Should I have a preventive mastectomy? Should I be tested for Alzheimer’s? Genetics counselors deliver the guidance that doctors can’t always give. Nationally, there are about 3,000 genetics counselors; that will grow by about 23 percent in the next five years, estimates Angela Trepanier of the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC).

Getting In

Many jobs require a master’s degree, typically two years, in genetics counseling. Georgette Bruenner, 52, a former marketing manager, now works at the Brooklyn Hospital Center in New York. She got her master’s degree from a program at Sarah Lawrence College. Tuition at such schools can be pricey — from $3,000 to over $30,000. But financial aid is available, and hospitals offer internships for enrolled students.

Pay and Perks

The average salary in 2006 was about $59,000, according to the NSGC. Bruenner loves being in a "helping profession" that’s also on the cutting edge of science.

Must Love

The double helix; helping patients handle heart-wrenching decisions.

To Find Out More

National Society of Genetic Counselors

5. Landscape Architect

Envision the future of any outdoor space — garden on an urban street, beautiful but secure grounds for a high-tech headquarters — and make it come to life.

Why Now?

Demand for landscape architects is expected to grow by 16 percent in the next six years, according to ASLA, the American Society of Landscape Architects, as Americans focus on how public spaces affect community relations, economic health, the environment, and security.

Getting In

Licensing requirements for education and experience vary by state; passing a national exam is also necessary. Cheryl Chalfant, 43, got her master’s degree at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, working as a graduate assistant to help pay tuition. She is now with the Indianapolis office of Rundell Ernstberger Associates, where her favorite projects include a university amphitheater, with trellises holding 18-foot-tall hydrangeas.

Pay and Perks

Average earnings for landscape architects (including salary and bonuses) is about $90,000, according to a 2006 survey by the ASLA. Chalfant likes the combination of indoor and outdoor, intellectual and hands-on work. "I can spend the rest of my life learning, practicing, and being creative."

Must Love

Community politics; working in a team.

To Find Out More

American Society of Landscape Architects

6. Tax Expert

Help the average American taxpayer prepare forms and handle audits.

Why Now?

With the IRS increasing its audits of individuals and small businesses in recent years, taxpayers need specialized help. According to IRS data, the number of individual "sit-down" audits jumped nearly 23 percent from 2005 to 2006, and audits of small businesses more than doubled from 2004 to 2006. For taxpayers who want help, the IRS authorizes what it calls enrolled agents. The agents can be less expensive than an accountant or lawyer. They have specific training and can get access to taxpayer files and other IRS information.

Getting In

Mary Fran McCluskey, 58, of San Rafael, California, is a former graphic artist. She studied business, then paid $700 to take an online prep course, before taking the IRS’s rigorous licensing exam, which requires hundreds of hours of study.

Pay and Perks

Agents charge by the tax form, case, or hour, with rates ranging from $50 to $400 per hour, according to Eva Rosenberg, a California-based agent who also trains people to pass the exam. But the flexibility is the real draw for many agents. "You control your hours and choose your clients and area of specialty," Rosenberg says. McCluskey expects to get her license this spring and plans to work from her home in the Bay Area, from a vacation house, and from Europe, where her daughter is studying.

Must Love

Numbers.

To Find Out More

National Association of Enrolled Agents

7. Education Advocate

Fight the system — or at least negotiate it — to get children with special needs the right education.

Why Now?

Families with special-needs children face a complex, fast-changing set of options. About 14 percent of the school population, or 6.7 million students, are using special services. That’s up 20 percent from 10 years ago, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics. Diagnoses range from dyslexia to bipolar disorder. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act says that the federal government will fund up to 40 percent of costs for disabled students; in 2007, it contributed less than 18 percent. Congress, the courts, local districts, and parents are debating how to deliver the best special education.

Getting In

Lorraine Saari had spent 20 years in classrooms, principals’ offices, and school board meetings, advocating for her own four kids (now grown), all of whom had special needs. Her epiphany a few years ago: Why not use that hard-won savvy to help other parents — and earn a living? "I wanted to help families be families rather than case managers," Saari says. Her firm, Safe Harbor Family Solutions, in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, now has three employees. Most clients are parents, but Saari also consults for school systems. Advocates can work solo, in small practices or for law firms that supplement their ranks with nonlawyer advocates. Two good routes in: teaching and social work.

Pay and Perks

An advocate working for a nonprofit can earn up to $60,000 a year, depending on her experience and the organization, says Susan Henderson, head of the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund. Independent consultants can charge a lot more, up to $100 an hour, she says.

Must Love

Kids, parents, teachers — and bureaucrats.

To Find Out More

Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates

8. Financial Adviser

Help clients plot their financial future.

Why Now?

With people in their 50s and up holding an estimated $8.5 trillion in assets, there’s a built-in and growing clientele. Firms are eager to hire female planners who can relate to their customers; independent practitioners also do well.

Getting In

Women make the switch from careers as varied as teaching, engineering, or insurance sales, says the Financial Planning Association’s Heather Almand. Just about anyone can hang out a shingle as an adviser; getting credentials as a certified financial planner will give you access to more and better clients. That requires several steps, including practicing for three years and passing the exam given by the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards. (Almost 70 percent of those certified by CFP are between 40 and 59, says Carol Lee Roberts of CFP.) Employers will sometimes cover the cost of training and continuing education. To sell financial products as well as advise clients, a planner must fulfill licensing requirements. Gail Nickse, 51, started in the business designing brochures for Putnam Investments and opened her own practice in 2005. "I listen well and get to know each of my clients personally," she says. "I’m pleased by how many are willing to tell me their secret dreams and aspirations."

Pay and Perks

Earnings vary widely. According to a 2006 survey by the College for Financial Planning, the average salary for a first-year financial planner is about $120,000. As a bonus, Nickse says that her own nest egg has grown more quickly as she gains experience helping others plan and invest.

Must Love

Fluctuating interest rates and stock prices.

To Find Out More

Financial Planning Association

9. Online Professor

Prove that you can not only do but also teach. In the process, help advance the frontier of higher education.

Why Now?

Universities call it distance learning. Internet classes are the fastest-growing segment of the education industry, with thriving online operations like Capella University and Kaplan University (sister to the well-known test prep group), as well as programs at traditional colleges and universities, adult schools, and professional associations. There aren’t many tenured or full-time positions, and most part-time adjuncts are paid modest, per-course fees. But demand is growing. Improved software for managing course work (check out blackboard.com) has helped foster growth. And a diverse mix of students, many part-time, are demanding more flexible options.

Getting In

If you have experience in a specialized field like economics, accounting, or criminal justice, you can often get hired without an advanced degree. In other fields, requirements vary. For midlife women, teaching just one course is a great way to break into a particular institution, build academic credentials or gradually amp up the workload. Karen Cummins, 44, of Bluegrass, Iowa, a mother of six and a former nursing professor at a bricks-and-mortar college, was skeptical about teaching students she’d never met. Now she’s a convert. "I know my online students better, possibly because the written word — in e-mail, instant messaging, and assignments — is more expressive,’‘ she says.

Pay and Perks

Full-time staff jobs with benefits are less common in online academia, although Kaplan says it has more than 100 of these positions. Pay varies widely. Adjuncts at some schools earn as little as $1,500 for one course; a full-time instructor can make as much as $70,000 a year, teaching three or four courses a term. Some instructors at traditional schools increased their salaries by thousands when they added online courses, according to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Cummins, who works for Kaplan, loves the flexibility: "I can teach a class on my laptop, sitting in the car, while my husband is driving."

Must Love

Screen time.

To Find Out More

United States Distance Learning Association

10. Commercial Real Estate Agent

Buy and sell property to businesses. Negotiate hard, juggle egos, imagine the future.

Why Now?

Residential markets are flooded with agents, most chasing falling prices. The commercial side is under new pressure too, but is typically more lucrative. And commercial firms, long dominated by men, are actively recruiting women. "Many of our members are in their 40s and 50s and have come from other professions,’‘ says Marianne Ajemian, past president of CREW Network, the Commercial Real Estate Women Network. Midlife women often have the financial and emotional reserves to handle the personalities and roller-coaster business conditions.

Getting In

There’s a learning curve, but people can make the jump from corporate jobs, law, and other fields. Architecture was the springboard for Shawn Rush, 51, now a broker at CB Richard Ellis, in Seattle. "I still work with space and buildings," she says. "I just look at them from a new perspective." The network she’d already built helped her get clients quickly. "The guys I used to compete with in architecture are happy to see me on the other side.’‘

Pay and Perks

Median annual earnings of real estate brokers were about $61,000 in 2006, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Labor. Commissions make up most of that income, and the percent paid on commercial properties is typically higher than it is on residential properties. Rush loves the excitement and flexibility. She does some of her work each day on a commuter ferry from Bainbridge Island and gets home to her family by 6:30 p.m. "You can do this anywhere, anytime,’‘ she says. "It’s just you and your database, as long as your phone battery holds out.’‘

Must Love

Working on commission, cliff-hanger deals.

To Find Out More

Commercial Real Estate Women Network, crewnetwork.org; National Association of Realtors, realtor.org.

Annetta Miller is a freelance writer based in Princeton, New Jersey.

Originally published in MORE magazine, March 2008.

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First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 17:18

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