Is it ever too late to reinvent a career?

A late 50-something executive with an MBA, regarded as a leading figure in his field, gets laid off with a nice (nearly $200k) severance payment and is having extreme difficulty getting a job.

Michael Blattman, with a long career in the student loan business, has sent out 600 job applications in the last 18 months, and has had only three interviews. Imagine the rapid downward spiral that has him on the ropes emotionally, if not financially just let. Let him tell you how he feels:

“Here’s the reality. I used to be somebody, I had a job. Not anymore. Everything ground to a halt. No sense of purpose. No self-esteem.”

There’s nothing in this personally revealing piece that indicates whether Blattman has contemplated switching fields or using some of his severance to start a business, or at least do some self-employed consulting work while job-hunting. At his age none of these options is easy, and the way the job market works now — especially in this economy — is a cold shock to those who haven’t had to look in decades. It must be an absolutely overwhelming feeling of paralysis and the fear of change.

But do I know someone his age whose position was eliminated after four decades with one company. He also got a nice severance, though probably not close to Blattman’s sum. After months of grueling consultations with a career counselor, accountants, lawyers and small business owners, he’s launching his own company. It’s a difficult grind, and several times a week the long days are extended by evenings at networking and business association meetings.

What is even more daunting than jumping in the deep end is passively sending out tons of job applications. This tactic simply isn’t going to cut it in this economy. I haven’t sent out nearly as many as Blattman, but I know this firsthand. I just got a reply today from a job application I sent out more than a month ago: “We are unable to further your candidacy for this specific position . . . ”

Can’t you just feel the human warmth exuding from those words? At least there was the courtesy of a response; I’ve not heard from from at least a half dozen black holes for jobs whose qualifications I meet or exceed.

I realize that some displaced workers can’t, or won’t, be able to cut it striking out on their own. I know several people who keep sending them out constantly, landing an interview here or there, but little more than that. They’ve never thought of anything else but going back into the workaday world, because that’s all they’ve ever known.

But as it appears that any economic recovery will likely be a jobless one, plenty of professionals of all age groups are trying to create something for themselves. As I wrote about last week, many are mid-career or older, having the same fruitless experience looking for a job, competing with workers who could be their children. No surprise whom employers are going to choose for the jobs they do have.

If I could suggest a few things to Blattman, it would be these: Expand your network beyond people who are also unemployed; spend some of the time writing a second novel to outline a business plan; and use professional and personal contacts not just to get a full-time job, but to help find clients. The “chaotic and rude” experience sending applications via e-mail is something we’ve all come to know. Shrug it off. This is the way of the job-hunting world.

Remaining stagnant is not an option. Blattman does come to understand this:

“I’ve got to the point — no one’s going to do that for me. It’s all about me making it happen. I can’t rely on the old world to take me back.”

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