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Dipping a toe into a new career
Say cheese: Knowing what the job entails will help you make that career switch

Bob Mulroy thinks he may be a pioneer. Or an idiot. On an October day at Oregon’s Cristom Vineyards, he was labouring to figure out which.

Mulroy, an electrical engineer from Ellicott City, Maryland, had purchased 28 acres in Howard County, Maryland, and was thinking of planting some of the land with wine grapes.

His was no idle rumination: He was trying to decide whether to stay in engineering or become a vintner.

“First, I wanted to find out whether I’m making a mistake trying to grow grapes out there in the first place,” he said. “There are no registered wineries in Howard County.”

So Mulroy contacted Vocation Vacations, a Portland, Oregon, organisation that connects individuals interested in a particular career with mentors who are succeeding at it.

That’s how Mulroy met up with winemaker Steve Doerner, a 14-year veteran of Cristom, a 28-year veteran of the winemaking trade and one of the most highly regarded crafters of the noble Oregon Pinot Noir.

Vocation Vacations operates on a simple principle: It lets curious individuals test-drive their dream careers.

Prospective clients contact Brian Kurth, the founder and president of Vocation Vacations, with their fantasies. They tell him they want to be a sports announcer, a brew master or an innkeeper, for example; then he sets them up to shadow a professional in that field for an average of two to three days, from a list including more than 130 professionals in 70-plus lines of endeavour.

Most test drives cost between $349 — that’s for one day with an animal therapist in West Palm Beach, Florida, or with a cheese maker in Seattle — and $2,000. Some are even higher: You would spend $3,500 for two weeks with a boot maker in Guthrie, Oklahoma, or $5,449 for eight days with a fishing outfitter in Dillingham, Alaska.

Unlike the Alaska adventure, which includes camping and meals, most vacations exclude airfare and accommodations. Mulroy’s Vocation Vacation, which consisted of two lunches and two days of intensive immersion at Cristom, cost $995.

Realising dreams

“The idea for Vocation Vacations came while I was stuck in traffic,” Kurth says. “It was the late ’90s, I was living in Chicago, working the corporate grind, commuting two to three hours a day, not loving my lifestyle. I thought, ‘I have a vacation coming up; wouldn’t it be great to spend it finding out whether I really want to go work in a winery’?”

But instead, he did what so many do: He jumped off the corporate ladder and into the dot-com industry for a couple of years — only to be laid off. He decided to travel for six months, and it was on that trip that he refined his dream.

“I was amazed at how many people we met [who] apologised for the work they did,” he says. “They’d say, ‘I’m a lawyer, but I really would rather work with animals,’ or ‘I’m in banking, but I’d love to move to LA and get a job in the film industry’.”

He made note of every dream job someone mentioned.

Eventually settling in Portland, Kurth began working in sales in a family winery.

He thought that was his dream job, until he realised he was continuing to dream about the career matchmaker company.

In January 2004, with a stable of 10 mentors, he launched Vocation Vacations on the side. Two months later it had grown so large that he had to quit the winery.

His more than 130 mentors work in such fields as entertainment (sports announcer, TV producer); culinary arts (cheese maker, chocolatier); animal work (dog trainer, dog daycare owner, horse trainer); style (make-up artist, wedding co-ordinator); sports (raceway manager, pit crew member); and hospitality (innkeeper, chef). The company’s most recent mentor: A private investigator from Boise, Idaho.

Mentors receive a nominal daily fee; Kurth won’t say how much, but Doerner reports making $150 for every day he mentors.

And there’s another intangible benefit: “The main thing I hope to get out of this is a long-term customer,” Doerner says. “But I tell you what — I love my work. I think it’s incredibly rewarding to share it with folks who are as passionate about wine as we are.”

The good, the bad and the ugly

Doerner communicates that passion with straightforward good humour.

“Is this how you do it?” Mulroy asks as he takes the shears to a large cluster of grapes in one of Cristom’s vineyards.

With a chuckle, Doerner says, “Yeah, that’s how you do it, only about 10 times faster.”

By the midpoint of Mulroy’s first day, he had logged time at the sorting table, plucking stems and leaves from the grapes; topped wine barrels in the cellar; and taken two rather harrowing turns behind the wheel of the forklift. “I did wonder whether forklift driving was the best thing for me to be doing,” Mulroy says.

Vocation Vacations is a reality check, Kurth says. “Part of the mentor’s job is to remove the romance,” he says. “You’re in there, you’re working — you’re getting the good, the bad and the ugly. We have one winemaker mentor who only half-jokingly says to her clients, ‘My job is to dissuade you from becoming a winemaker’.”

Some aren’t easily dissuaded. Vocation Vacations doesn’t keep statistics on how many of its clients have changed careers, but it’s been in business long enough to have received anecdotal information from alumni.

“We see Vocation Vacations as the first baby step toward making the switch, the lightbulb that might lead a person to go back to school or get a small-business loan,” Kurth says.

Then there are those who leap more dramatically. David Ryan, a New York executive who had spent 17 years in international banking, took a dog trainer Vocation Vacation a few months ago. He quit his job and is living with a roommate in a two-bedroom apartment over a dog kennel in St Louis.

“And having the time of his life,” Kurth says.

Mulroy is unlikely to take such a drastic step. “It’s hard work growing grapes,” he says.

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