Second Acts: Turning Your Passion Into a Paycheck

A growing number of baby boomers are looking to profit from their passions.

Retired couple.
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[Read: How to Reinvent Yourself in Retirement.]

The franchise route. For entrepreneurial types leery of starting a company from scratch, franchising can be a viable option. That was the path chosen by Jerry Lawson of Lansdale, Pa., who took an early retirement package in 2009 at age 55 from Johnson & Johnson. Lawson, whose experience at J&J ran the gamut from launching consumer products to training salespeople, was trying to figure out his next move when he had to have one of his knees replaced. The rehabilitation process was trying for Lawson, who lives alone, but it was also an inspiration. "My daughter and girlfriend helped," he says. "It made me wonder, what do other people do when they don't have anybody to help them?"

Lawson's experience led him to Right At Home, a franchise that matches health aides with people who need care at home. The parent company set him up with all the marketing, operations, and technology tools he needed to get off the ground quickly. Within three months of starting the business, Lawson says, he was making enough in revenues to pay his bills. (He shares 5 percent of his sales with the parent company, as is typical in franchising arrangements.)

Before zeroing in on a company, Lawson made sure to talk to other franchisees. Initially, he thought he was interested in a different, competing firm, but of the people he spoke to, he recalls, only "three I would probably pick to work for me—I wouldn't want to work with the others." Using the networking site LinkedIn, he came across another veteran of J&J who owned two Right at Home franchises. "He said the people who run Right at Home are the caliber of people I was used to working with at Johnson & Johnson at the most senior level," says Lawson, who was sold.

Anyone hoping to turn a passion into a paycheck, whether by launching a business or by switching bosses, can get a feel for the new field by volunteering in it while still employed, suggests Amanda Augustine, a job-search expert at the online job-matching service TheLadders. That can be especially valuable for people interested in transitioning to the public sector, an excellent source of jobs for older workers, she says. "Education, the environment, health, government, social sciences, non-profits—it's the feel-good stuff." But you may need a new credential, too. "You should look for training opportunities to fill in gaps in your skills," Augustine advises.

Those opportunities are multiplying. "For everything you could possibly think of doing, someone has developed a program to train you," Collamer says.

Across the country, community colleges are teaming up with local employers to train workers to meet their unique needs. And thanks to funding programs such as Encore.org's Encore College Initiative, dozens of colleges have launched training programs designed for career changers over 50. Middlesex Community College in Bedford, Mass., trains health professionals to become adjunct teachers in nursing at the state's community colleges, for example. Coursework at Community Colleges of Spokane, in Washington, allows older students to explore jobs in the "green" sector. Institutions receiving grants as part of the American Association of Community Colleges' Plus 50 Initiative have launched courses for seniors covering everything from computers and health IT to landscape horticulture and childcare.

The Encore Career Institute in Los Gatos, Calif., offers online courses at the University of California-Los Angeles in subjects from nonprofit management to college admission counseling. Students can take the courses on their iPads and earn an official UCLA extension certificate.

Job-search pros say it's essential these days for folks over 50 to exploit social-media tools for networking and researching opportunities. LinkedIn is particularly good for reconnecting with old colleagues, posting CVs, and searching job listings. You can also join online groups there associated with your chosen career.