For years, Cumberland lawyer Dennis McCarten was a crack litigator who loved nothing better than matching wits with opposing barristers and winning over juries.
These days, however, McCarten is expressing himself in a far different way — crafting and repairing violins and reveling in the Irish music he loved as a child.
"I loved going to court," said McCarten, 60, who runs a one-man violin and string instrument repair shop in the Hope Artist Village complex on Main Street in Pawtucket. "But there came a time when there were fewer opportunities to do that and my job became less and less satisfying."
McCarten first experimented by building a violin from a kit, then enrolled in a violin-making program at Boston’s North Bennet Street School – one of the few schools in the country offering education in the art.
After three years, McCarten emerged as a highly skilled string instrument repairman and violin maker. He also rents stringed instruments.
The lawyer, who opened his new business in 2006, said repairing violins and cellos isn’t as lucrative as trying cases, but he’s never regretted the change.
"I find it much more satisfying," he said. "It’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself."
Same goes for boating enthusiast Max Taylor, recent victim of downsizing in banking technology, who turned his love of sailing into a new job as a marine electrician and installer at a boatyard in the Cataumet section of Bourne.
Taylor signed up for training last year at the International Yacht Restoration School in Newport, R.I., and earned certificates in electrical and diesel technology and electronics.
"This is something I’ve always thought I might like to do," said Taylor, an active boater who has owned powerboats, as well as sailboats.
While his new job doesn’t pay as much as his previous occupation, the Taunton resident says there are compensations.
"The thing I really enjoy is the tangible accomplishment of knowing that I did something myself," he said. "That plus the fact there’s a much nicer view here."
Going back to school is a strategy for an increasing number of Americans who are seeking new career paths because of the recession or to satisfy long-held ambitions.
And big changes no longer seem out of the question.
The nation’s community colleges, offering a wide range of career programs ranging from culinary arts to nursing, are witnessing a major influx of career changers.
According to Norma Kent, vice president for communications of the American Association of Community Colleges, enrollment nationwide ballooned by 17 percent between 2007 and 2009.
Community colleges, where the average student age is the late 20s, have been a traditional haven for adults seeking to retrain or expand their skills.
Baby boomers who have been laid off or whose retirement accounts have been deflated by the recession are also among those looking to retool.
More than 84 percent of community colleges in a survey last year reported they are offering programs aimed at over-50s, and many say they are planning to add more.
Bristol Community College in Attleboro, which offers a variety of degree and certificate programs, ranging from business administration to marketing and accounting, is enrolling more mature students seeking new careers, as well as younger students joining the work force.
Kathy Torpey Garganta, dean of the local campus, said that for many students the harsh reality of the current economy has come with a silver lining.
"While in many cases it may be a forced choice, students are in a position where they can re-evaluate what they’d really like to do now," Garganta said.
Some may want to unleash an entrepreneurial streak by starting their own business, while others may strike out in new occupational directions, such as health care.
The recession and the shift of manufacturing jobs overseas has also fueled a boom in the number of private technical schools and colleges to serve growing demand from workers who want to upgrade their technical skills or train for new careers.
In 2008, alone, enrollment at for-profit, degree-granting institutions increased 23 percent, according to the Career College Association’s senior vice president Bob Cohen.
Most are enrolling in programs aimed at specific career choices, rather than just going "back to school."
"People want to go to school for reasons that are very tangible," Cohen said, such as preparing for a career in computer repair or to become an HVAC technician.
Currently, heaviest demand is for educational programs in the health care and medical fields, Cohen said. Information technology and business-related programs are also drawing strong interest.
New England Institute of Technology in Warwick, R.I., is reaping a record number of applicants from students seeking training in fields ranging from automotive technology to medical careers, Admissions Director Mark Blondin said. Many are 50-plus.
"We’re seeing a lot of people in two categories: people who have lost jobs and are looking to train for new careers and people who are still employed but look around and see their neighbors out of work and conclude, ‘This could be me tomorrow,’" he said. "They realize they need to update their skills for career and security reasons."
General colleges are also benefitting from an increase in workers seeking to switch careers or just add to their qualifications by returning to school.
"We’re getting a lot of people coming back to finish that degree they started," said Mary Fuller, director of continuing and distance education at Bridgewater State College.
Many are veterans and mothers looking to return to the work force.
Significant career changes are becoming more common both among baby boomers seeking new horizons after successful careers and changes in the economy forcing workers to re-invent themselves, said Dan Moran, founder of Next Act, a career-change counseling service in Albany, N.Y.
The most difficult step in making a career change is determining what to do next, then matching the person’s personality, interests, geographic location and skills to available options, he said.
But just as important to a potential career changer is what truly motivates them, Moran said.
"Discovering what you are passionate about is just as critical," he said. "You may be passionate about helping others, or giving back to the community or want to turn a hobby or interest into a career. Follow your passion and truly enjoy what you do."
Sometimes, family or personal circumstances may make it difficult to make a clean break into something totally new all at once. But, that’s an ideal time, Moran says, for doing what he calls "building a business while you’re in a business."
While you’re still working at your current job or business, he says, devote a few hours each week toward developing a new business opportunity or acquiring skill training that coincides with your ambitions.
That way, when the time is right or opportunity knocks, you’ll be prepared.
Moran said that while switching jobs might seem like a big step, don’t fear making a career change.
"Embrace it as a new beginning and new opportunity to do what you want – on your terms and for your benefit," he said. "It’s not selfish. It is just the right thing to do for yourself, your family and those you associate with."