Resilience, or…Starting a new career in middle age

Any complete career change is a crapshoot when you’re a middle-aged person. I have a Master’s degree which I never used, and from the time in the mid- 1970s when I graduated, I spent twelve years as a hospital pharmacy assistant, gaining one of the first licenses given out after they were required by Washington State law. My last pharmacy job was as lead IV tech at Seattle Children’s Hospital, and like most hospital jobs, it involved rotating shifts. While there, I wrote a paper on pharmacy tech duties in the Pediatric Hospital sector, and I presented it at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hospital Pharmacists.  After that, my paper was published in one of the first issues of the magazine Journal of Pharmacy Technology.  At Children’s, I worked three weeks of day shift, then three weeks of evenings, and various assorted weekends and holidays.

As I’ve already written about here, in 1984 I re-started playing the violin after not having played for 25 years. I took lessons, and went to adult summer music camp. At camp, I was recruited to play in two different community orchestras. The problem was, I needed to have my evenings free to play in an orchestra. Something had to give. My husband and I discussed what to do, and since I had helped put him through college and he now had a great engineering job, he told me that I could quit my pharmacy job while I looked for a new source of income that didn’t involve rotating shifts. So, I quit my pharmacy job and started trying to decide what I wanted to be when I grew up.

I reviewed my previous work experience, and remembered that the most interesting job I had while I was in college was a “traffic clerk”, working in the Shipping Department at the Ford Motor Company Parts Depot in Seattle. I enjoyed learning about freight transportation, and I thought I might like to get back into traffic, with the ultimate goal of being some company’s Traffic Manager with responsibility for inbound and outbound freight. So I found myself a gentleman who was a traffic consultant, and went to visit his office to find out what he did. His specialty was freight claims, and that sounded interesting. Basically, I asked if I could be an unpaid intern-he would teach me his business, and I would do scut work for him, like reviewing freight bills and typing up proposals and visiting clients. He was glad to have me, and we had some interesting times together.

We visited many trucking companies and railroad offices, and he let me take a class he taught in freight claims. I learned a lot about freight transportation and freight claims, and met traffic managers at local companies. Finally, however, I decided I couldn’t work with him any longer, as (you’re gonna love this) he was a heavy smoker, and his office just stank of cigarette smoke. I was starting to get bronchitis, so I decided that I needed to strike out on my own. The first job I got after this was as a traffic clerk at a local office-furniture company. It was pretty interesting, and I did well, but the boss was a retired Marine who just loved to “invite” me into his office by bellowing down the hall when he needed me. Needless to say, that sort of behavior didn’t make me very happy, so I resigned from that job.

And I did remember, during my time with my traffic consultant mentor, he said that when layoff time came to most businesses, one of the first middle managers laid off was the Traffic Manager, and the freight-routing duties were normally given to the Purchasing manager, as the buyers were familiar with all the inbound and much of the outbound freight for a company.  I was able to use this to my advantage later.  Read on.

I had been keeping in touch with my traffic consultant friend, and he told me about a friend of his whose business was as a roving freight-damage consultant. He would go to various businesses who had expensive freight damage, take pictures, and assess for the company how best to file claims against carriers for the damage. I tagged along as his assistant, and helped him with clerical tasks, and some photography. It was pretty interesting, and I got to see some pretty ugly freight damage. On one of our journeys, we went to a company that manufactured fancy ultrasound machines. I kept my eyes and ears open, and learned that the company was looking for someone to work in their stock room. I had met the manager and liked him, so I applied for that job, and was hired.

I worked in Stores at Quantum Medical Systems (later bought out by Siemens, and still located in the same town) for over a year, helping manage on and off-site inventory. Once a month, the production manager and I would drive up to Oak Harbor, where their main contract manufacturer was located, and we’d count and verify inventory, and help solve any production problems they were having. I also worked in Receiving, unpacking boxes, receiving purchase orders, and shelving all the parts. I actually enjoyed doing receiving-it was sort of like Christmas every day, opening boxes and seeing what was inside. As a part of my receiving duties, I was running back and forth to the Purchasing department, nagging the buyers to get those purchase orders entered so I could receive the parts that had already arrived. Back in the olden days, buyers phoned in most of their orders, and entered them in the computer later.

I discovered that Purchasing seemed to be a pretty interesting job, and I watched and listened to the buyers closely while I was there. One day, I was talking to their senior buyer, and he told me that Shoreline Community College had a two-year Purchasing Management program. So, I quit work and went back to the Community College, at the age of forty, to get into the purchasing field.

I’ve always been a pretty good student, and I just loved being a full-time student again. There I was, surrounded by eighteen-year-olds, taking Accounting, Economics, Computers, Business Law, Business Math, and Communications. It turned out that the teachers there were top-notch, they really cared whether their students learned the material, and they loved us adult students. We only had to be told once to type our homework, and we always arrived on time. I had an informal study group with a couple of other adults in our Accounting classes, and it really made a difference in how well we did. I made the President’s List the first year, and got the only 100% A grade the computer teacher gave out (she told us the first day that she NEVER gave out A grades, and I took that as a challenge).

The Purchasing classes were taught in the evening, by a manager at Boeing, who was their head Capital Equipment buyer (there’s a guy with a budget!). The other students were people already working in the field, and I made lots of new friends. One night, the teacher came to class and made an announcement. He said he had a friend who owned a local small company, and they were looking for an inexperienced buyer to learn their business. Well, I looked to my right and my left, and I thought, “I’m as inexperienced as the next guy”, so I applied for the job. The company turned out to be a small electrical control-panel builder. After two long interviews, I was hired as their sole purchasing agent. It was great to finally be on my way in Purchasing, starting at the top of my company!

Which went downhill from Day One. I came to work my first day on the job, called a well-known catalog distributor to place my first small order, and was told the our company was on “credit hold”. Yep, we had to pay for the previous order before they’d ship the new one. So I began a very close relationship with the accounting department, who was rationing payments as money came in from their customers. I learned a lot about the items that go into a big control panel, from switches and relays to circuit boards and big enclosures. And I learned how to juggle orders and payments to multiple suppliers. Because they liked working with me, many suppliers would ship us parts for our projects, even knowing that they would get paid late.

This, unfortunately, could not go on for much longer. After only ten months on the job, the company folded and I was out unemployed with next to no experience, and not eligible for unemployment insurance since I hadn’t been at the job for long enough, and I’d been in school before that. Life was not much fun in the ensuing couple of years. I went through an uncomfortable divorce, moved out of town for a while, then came back and lived with my parents while I looked for work.

I thought things were looking up when I was hired as food buyer for a small chain of pizza restaurants. The manager was happy to have a buyer who had been through the Shoreline program, and he wasn’t too worried that I didn’t have much experience. I’ll tell you, buying perishable commodities is entirely different from buying electrical components! I was responsible for purchasing 30,000 pounds of a special blend of cheese on a weekly basis, and also pepperoni that had a five-week lead time. I learned how much that restaurant pays for those bags-in-a-box of Coke syrup, and where they get all the spices and sauces that make up a pizza.

I was confident enough in this new job to buy myself a small condo with the money from my divorce settlement, and it was neat being a short distance from work, right across town. It turned out that my confidence was misplaced. Two weeks after I moved into my new abode, with a nice new mortgage, I was laid off from my job. So here I was, with a new house and a mortgage to pay, and no job. I did now qualify for a little unemployment insurance, but it was a very little and for only a few weeks.

The next year was most uncomfortable. I registered with at least three temp agencies, and got some short assignments, but the job market at that time was pretty pitiful. I spent much of a summer working at a medical-equipment rental company that wasn’t able to pay much-just exactly what I would have gotten in unemployment, but it was work. Then, they went under too. So I gave up, and got my pharmacy tech license renewed and went back to work as a pharmacy tech in a retail setting.

But I was still looking for a purchasing job, and finally I found one. I was hired as the “passive-components” buyer for a contract manufacturer, and I did very well there, finally settling into my new career. My career as a buyer has been as varied as can be, but I’ve worked for some great companies in the Pacific Northwest.  I’ve been laid off more times than I can remember, but I always land on my feet. In 1999, I became the Business Survey Chairman of the local Purchasing Managers organization (which I joined when I was a student) when the previous chairman retired, and I love having my finger on the pulse of the Western Washington economy. I just celebrated my eighth anniversary at my present job, working for an aerospace company, and I love it.

Here I am, 66 years old, and not planning to retire any time soon. I feel like I’m just hitting my stride in purchasing, and I look forward to being a productive member of society and my department for a long time to come.

9 thoughts on “Resilience, or…Starting a new career in middle age

  1. nandapanjandrum

    Interesting odyssey, RB…Note: Unless the USMC kicks someone out, they’re a retired Marine or Marine vet; no exes or formers as a rule… 🙂

  2. Anonymous

    The title of your article says it all. Your resilience is amazing and just reading about your journey has inspired me to take on even more challenges at the ripe old age of 69. Very impressive.

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