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Shifting Gears

Kyle McIntosh

AFTER 23 YEARS working in corporate finance for companies such as Amgen and Patagonia, I’m making a career switch this fall, becoming a fulltime lecturer at California Lutheran University. While I always enjoyed my corporate roles and liked my colleagues, I’ve long had a passion for teaching and wanted to make it my fulltime work.

While some co-workers and friends assumed this change was an impulsive decision driven by a midlife crisis or brought on by some epiphany while working at home during the pandemic, it was actually years in the planning. Hoping to make a similar career shift? Based on my experience, here are five important steps to take.

1. Develop a plan with your family. Depending on your personal situation, a career change may impact more than just you. While there should be positives to aligning your passion with your daily work, there could also be downsides, including lost income or a new work schedule. For the downsides that are an unavoidable part of your new career, such as a lower income, you need to decide whether the negatives are outweighed by the positives—and you need to do so as a family.

2. Test-drive your new career. Before making a significant job change, it’s critical to check that you’re truly interested. This may involve taking a class, doing part-time work or volunteering. You may have a blind spot, seeing only the benefits. Your best bet to identify unseen issues is with hands-on work in your new chosen career. In my case, I was able to teach four semesters on a part-time basis, while continuing my corporate role. This time in the classroom—as well as behind the scenes grading papers and preparing for classes—showed me that this was the career path I wanted to pursue. On top of that, I gained valuable experience that made me a viable job candidate.

3. Reconsider retirement contributions. A career switch may come with a short- or long-term cut in pay. To help offset that reduction, you may need to scale back contributions to tax-advantaged accounts like 401(k) and 529 plans to maintain your lifestyle. While I know that this approach is heresy in the financial planning world, I see such reductions as a reasonable choice if it’s necessary to pursue your passion, provided you can still achieve your long-term savings goals. In my case, I’m somewhat ahead of where I should be financially, thanks to maxing out contributions to my 401(k) for most of the past 23 years. While more will be needed for retirement, I believe I’ll be in a good long-term position, even if I don’t contribute up to the IRS limit over the next few years.

4. Defer income. While not available to everyone, some companies offer deferred compensation plans that allow you to defer current income into the years following your departure, which can have tax benefits if you expect your income to be lower in future years. Knowing I’d likely be making a career shift to a lower-paying role, I saved a small amount of my salary in the company’s deferred compensation plan over the last five years. In 2021 and 2022, I’ll receive this deferred compensation, which will be taxed at a lower rate than when I was in my corporate job. This income will also partially offset my new teaching position’s reduced pay.

5. Just do it. I’d urge readers not to overanalyze their situation. There’s always more you could save, as well as countless reasons you can think up to resist making a change. My view: If you have a well-thought-out plan, you’ve gotten yourself to a good place financially, and your gut tells you it’s the right choice, you should take the leap when the right opportunity comes your way.

Kyle McIntosh, CPA, MBA, is a fulltime lecturer at the California Lutheran University School of Management. He turned his career focus to teaching after 23 years working in accounting and finance roles for large corporations. Kyle lives in Southern California with his wife, two children and their overly friendly goldendoodle.

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R Quinn
R Quinn
1 year ago

While I admire your courage following your dream, your optimism regarding finances would make me very nervous. You mention cutting back investing to maintain lifestyle, why not adjust lifestyle? What happens when the deferred compensation runs out and there is still lower income?

I stuck out the corporate world for fifty years in the same company. There were ups and downs and times of depressing lows like when one of my employees filed false claims of theft against me because she didn’t like her performance review. I went through hell for months. But in the end the rewards were worth it. Especially in retirement.

Don’t mind me, enjoy your teaching. We need enthusiastic individuals in the profession. Best of luck.

Jack Hannam
Jack Hannam
1 year ago

I suspect more than a few would like to switch careers as you have, but are reluctant to do so on account of a lower income. I think one needs to be honest with themself about work-life balance, be willing to downshift spending if necessary, and I especially like paragraph number one.

parkslope
parkslope
1 year ago

Excellent advice. As a former academic I strongly support you career change.
My wife and I both became full time professors in our mid-40s. Our career changes were costly and playing the tenure game in mid-life was no walk in the park. However, we both have no regrets and recently retired after 25 rewarding years as academics. Our efforts to ensure a comfortable retirement included maxing out our 403(b) contributions, working until 70 and 71, not claiming SS until 70, and managing 3 rental properties in the four family owner-occupied brownstone for 20 years. (I might be unique in holding both a doctorate in business and a NYFD certificate of fitness for inspecting apartment building sprinkler systems.)
I applaud you for teaching before making your career change. I hired numerous adjuncts from the business world during my 8 years as chair of a management and marketing department. Several of my former colleagues found that they loved teaching and their ability to apply their work experiences to their teaching made them very effective instructors. However, teaching isn’t for everyone and even with careful screening my retention rate was less than 50%.

Kyle McIntosh
Kyle McIntosh
1 year ago
Reply to  parkslope

Thanks for the note. Since leaving my employer, I’ve had close to 10 folks talk to me about wanting to teach at some point down the road. The #1 thing that I tell them is that they need to teach as an adjunct. It’s easy to idealize what it’s like to be in the class room, but until you have had to prep, grade and even fail a student, it’s hard to know if teaching will be for you or not. Cheers! Kyle

Rick Connor
Rick Connor
1 year ago

Congratulations Kyle. My neighbor made a similar move after 15 years in the corporate world. After a few years he found he had enough experience and free time that he was able to find additional consulting work that greatly helped his retirement savings.

Kyle McIntosh
Kyle McIntosh
1 year ago
Reply to  Rick Connor

Thanks Rick. That’s definitely a possibility, but I do worry that doing such consulting could negate many of the benefits I’ll have from teaching. Once the kids are off to college in 5-10 years, this will likely become more of an option.

DrLefty
DrLefty
1 year ago

Your thought process here reminds me of a job transition my husband made in 2016. He moved from a 100% secure state job he’d been at for 20 years to a private sector job that paid more but had little to no job security. He was 56, so this was no small risk we were taking. He retired from the state and started taking his pension. Because he was there a full 20 years, he and were 100% vested in health, dental, and vision care.

We penciled it out. We figured out how much pension income he was leaving on the table by retiring from the state at age 56 rather than continuing to accrue service time into his 60s. We figured that if he made it at least to three years in the new job, we would meet our short-term goals, such as hitting a particular number in our retirement accounts and getting completely out of debt except for the house. We made a commitment to not splurging with our newfound higher income until after we’d reached that three-year mark. Further, since I have a secure job (I’m a tenured university professor), we weren’t going to starve no matter what happened.

Maybe more importantly, I was 100% behind him doing this. Though the new job added a certain type of stressor, the job he was in had become very political and very difficult. Salary considerations aside, I thought he’d be healthier and happier in the years to come by making the change. When he tells the story now, he says he wouldn’t have made the jump if I hadn’t been encouraging him to do so.

He’s coming up on four years at the new job in September, and his place at the firm seems very secure. No regrets, either personally or financially. (And I just got a new car for my 60th birthday this month!)

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