Photograph by Mike DeFilippo
For most of us, this question prompts a single answer. But for others, the practice of "career slashing" means finding unique ways of staying busy/employed/fulfilled. We drop in on three St. Louisans who've given their own spin to what workplace experts say is a growing trend
No, "career slashing" doesn't mean cutting jobs. It's the latest buzzword for what has been called career shifting, job shifting, free agency, portfolio careers and the temping of America. "Career slashers" are people who, instead of pursuing a conventional career track, move from one field to a completely different one or combine two or more different fields or income streams — and thus have "slashes" between their various occupations.
Marci Alboher, for instance, is a lawyer/career columnist. She is the current high priestess of career slashing, with a New York Times blog called "Shifting Careers." Though the Times invited her onboard last fall, Alboher essentially created the position for herself by writing and promoting a best-selling book celebrating career slashing, One Person/Multiple Careers: A New Model for Work/Life Success.
With Alboher's NYT.com column, career slashing officially arrived. But traces of this trend go back at least to the early '90s, with a spasm of alarmist reports, articles and books in the wake of that decade's "jobless recovery." In 1994 English professor/business consultant William Bridges offered advice and a warning in his book Jobshift: How to Prosper in a Workplace Without Jobs. By 2001 workplace columnist/author Daniel Pink was cheerleading the change, writing that we were becoming a "free agent nation" (his book's title) of mobile team members, liberated from bosses and cubicles. Career slashing has many cheerleaders besides Alboher and Pink. As a March Wall Street Journal article on portfolio careers put it: "This alternative approach to work isn't just about cobbling together a patchwork of freelance gigs, but rather is a distinct career path that allows people to combine their interests and not be seriously penalized in the process." Neither is it simply about "moonlighting," which Alboher says suggests "an after-hours gig tacked on out of financial necessity." So-called "slash careers," she told an interviewer with the midlife Web community LifeTwo, "are taken on less out of necessity — although they often have an economic benefit — and more in pursuit of greater satisfaction and balance."
While these shifts are certainly happening, hard data has been hard to come by. Career experts say that slashers are still poorly captured by our current statistics and suggest that a large number of formerly middle-class workers are flying under the radar in their now-multiple roles. Beneath all the categories — temporary workers, contingent workers, part-time workers and so on — one key question writers on the subject would like to answer is how many of us are "slashing" by choice and how many by necessity.
Instead of the traditional career ladder, the picture that authors like Bridges, Pink and Alboher paint seems more like a lake full of stepping stones heading in all directions, some of which rise and disappear without warning. While doctors, architects and accountants will probably always have defined career ladders, the rest of us may be stuck on that lake, hopping from one stone to the next, jumping sideways or even backward just to stay above water. In career-slashing terms, that might mean more career and life opportunities for a handful of already well-positioned boomers — and insecure temp jobs with no benefits for the rest of us. Is the slasher world a winner-take-all environment? And where does St. Louis fit into this new landscape?
Lisa Schneider's job provides her with an observation post for these workplace shifts. As St. Louis branch manager for leading staffing service Robert Half International, Schneider has definitely seen an increase in portfolio careers. She sees more people making what used to be called lateral moves to jobs that might not offer more pay or benefits, but do offer flexibility and the opportunity to seek fulfillment (both paid and not) in additional areas. But a large number of people also have to move on to a series of new options in order to stave off feelings of stagnancy. "Many companies don't have a lot of advancement opportunities, including some you'd think would have them," she says. "They've simply flattened out their middle ranks so much that there's not a lot of room for some to move up."
Some of these people account for area "slashers" — individuals who have placed a foot in different fields. As the following portraits illustrate, there is no set definition of career shifting — Alboher calls them "custom-blended careers" for a reason. While some shifters might welcome a permanent chance to focus on the single role that moves them most, others are satisfied only when they've got more jobs than they have hands to do them.
Ask Ron Olshwanger about his 30-year career selling office and residential furniture, and he'll quickly find a way to turn the conversation back to those other topics about which he's more enthusiastic: firefighters, policemen and his photography that serves them both.
It's not that he didn't occasionally enjoy business. "I was happy when I made customers happy," Olshwanger says. But retail — even part store ownership — was never what drove him. He formed a lifelong devotion to the policemen and firefighters he came to know at the age of 13, when he began tuning into a police-band radio, then sneaking out of his parents' house at night to take pictures of fire scenes and accidents. Sometimes his pictures appeared in the Post-Dispatch or the Globe-Democrat; other times insurance companies came calling.
Olshwanger wanted a career as a policeman or fireman, but his parents opposed his fire-chasing and looked down on the officers their son admired. So during the 1970s (when Alboher was but a child) he set up his first slash, selling office furniture while — after an eight-week police academy — heading up the reserve unit of the Olivette Police Department. His fondest memories from those years are of scaring kids straight. "The first time I caught a kid with drugs, I threw them down the sewer and let him go," he recalls. "But I scared the hell out of him first. I told him what drugs did to people. I told him the next time he was going to jail. His parents would know. His life would be ruined. I still get people coming up to me 30 years later, shaking my hand, telling me I saved their lives."
For many of those years, Olshwanger gave himself the third title of photographer, in one instance launching himself into the highest ranks of the profession. On December 30, 1988, he rushed to the blaze of a four-family flat on South Boyle Avenue; on-site, he captured the striking image of a St. Louis firefighter trying, too late it turned out, to resuscitate a 5-year-old girl. The striking photograph ran in the Post-Dispatch, then won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography — one of the few Pulitzers won by an independent photographer rather than a staffer. Suddenly Olshwanger was famous — receiving national interview requests and invitations to shoot outside of St. Louis (even, strangely, a wedding at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York). Instead, he stuck to what he was interested in: photographing accident scenes and fires with the dual goal of educating the public about safety matters and about the work police and fire officials do.
In 2002 Olschwanger retired from his work in the furniture industry, which he describes simply as "boring." As the current director of the Creve Coeur Fire Protection District, he is now finally able to spend all his time on the one part of his life that has always meant most to him. "If you're in business," he advises, "you'll burn yourself out if you don't have something else in your life." Olschwanger has always had something else.
Marie Moore fits the profile championed by Alboher: She seized an opportunity to chase a long-held dream. The catalyst for Moore's dream came from a loss. When her friend and mentor in community theater, Dennis Shelton of Curtain Call Repertory Theatre, died in July 2006, Moore learned he had left her 3,000 theatrical costumes in his will. Moore had acted in community theater for 30 years; now she had an opportunity to begin a business that stoked her passion — Curtain Call Rep Costumes. Her years of acting meant she had a built-in customer base, since she knew just about everybody who was anybody in St. Louis community theater.
Just cataloging her treasure trove consumed a lot of time. She devised a software database and spent weeks rummaging through the costumes, sorting them into plastic bins. She cross-referenced costumes by period, gender, age and degree of elaborateness.
Moore now offers her costumes at $20 to $50 per costume per week, as opposed to the $45 to $50 that traditional renters charge. She operates as a nonprofit, with a third of her revenues going back into the business via dry-cleaning costs, costume repair and new costumes. Another third goes to a fund to revive Curtain Call the theater group — which has been on break since Shelton's death — and the final third goes to local charities.
While Moore's nonprofit status has its advantages — she gets a special dry-cleaning rate — she would love to convert it into a full-time for-profit business. Ironically, one reason Moore sees opportunity for expansion is that traditional, fully staffed costume rental companies have gone out of business, having found they can't keep up with online companies that can ship anywhere and have larger inventories. But Moore knows it won't be easy competing with well-stocked Web companies.
As she slowly builds her solo business, Moore continues her work as a senior administrative coordinator for McCormack Baron Salazar. She appreciates the relaxed working environment and the fact that McCormack Baron Salazar is a very family oriented company. Moore says after the work day's done, she spends at least two hours each evening excavating the last 25 uncataloged bins, sorting and folding the costumes, and cataloguing her stock into her database.
Reversing the usual empty-nester pattern, Moore and her husband moved from the modest South St. Louis house where they raised two daughters to a larger Chesterfield home — after their children left. "We both needed home offices, and the large basement was perfect for the costumes," she says.
Luckily for Moore, she has a husband for whom a portfolio career is not a cause for concern. For his primary job, he examines building plans for Maryland Heights and flies all over the country educating people about building codes. When he's not doing that? He's a tinkerer who provides lighting, sound and special effects for theatrical productions.
Eric Brende embraces the portfolio-career life most fully. Avoiding anything like a traditional career path, Brende juggles not two, but four income streams.
Brende is best known in the larger world for his book, Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology. It chronicles the year that he and his wife spent living without electricity or modern conveniences among a Mennonite-like community. That book sold moderately well and got good reviews. Its success enabled Brende and his wife to move from Hermann, where they operated a bed-and-breakfast for seven years, to Soulard, where they bought a fixer-upper outright. Although the book has provided modest royalties for the past four years, Brende thinks this year will see a tapering off.
Brende's biggest income nowadays comes from Hermann Handmade Soap, which he makes — from his in-laws' family recipe — and his wife sells at Soulard Farmers Market. For several years soap sales doubled annually. Now the Brendes have to decide how far they want to go with the soap business. Sometimes Brende sounds like any other businessman who would like to grow — he plans to add several new products, including natural laundry detergent. But because he's "opposed to encouraging more Internet shopping," he says he has no plans to begin a website, which many would consider a must for any entrepreneur.
In the summer Brende operates St. Louis Rickshaw, pedaling tourists to sites in downtown, Soulard, Lafayette Square, McKinley Heights and Benton Park. He likes the work, especially the exercise, although he could do without the occasional abusive drunk. But he admits that the money side of the rickshaw business is almost a wash. "The problem is that my rickshaw is a prototype, so it has a lot of mechanical problems," he says. "I spend a lot of time replacing parts and doing maintenance. I'm a little bit ahead of breaking even, maybe a thousand dollars a year, but it's close."
For Brende, career slashing serves a larger goal of simplicity. Pace the March Wall Street Journal piece, Brende doesn't insist on a "distinct career path." Instead of identifying himself by any one of his occupations or even as a career slasher, he calls himself simply a "householder." Growing the soap business past a certain point would "betray my entire reason for living," he says. It also might put an end to one of his other fulfilling jobs — like tutoring home-schooled kids in music (he paid part of his way through Yale playing piano in bars).
In the end, Brende offers the biggest lesson of the whole career-slashing movement. It's a lesson that some embrace more easily than others: "We are bigger than our jobs."
Editor's Note: This article has been edited and updated since its print publication.