Apprentice vacations


The last year or so has been all about the staycation — staying local or at home in the spirit of penny-pinching as we ride out the recession. But as companies continue to execute layoffs — January’s 9.7% unemployment rate was considered an improvement over the month before, which was at 10% — people who can still afford to take a vacation are trending toward a different kind of “time off” by learning new skills. It’s like summer school for adults. A vocation, if you will.

Through a Portland, Ore., company Vocation Vacations, people can test out their dream job by shadowing a mentor in just about any field they’re curious about. For anyone who has harbored a secret desire to own a bed and breakfast, for example, there are 14 B&Bs around the country to choose from. The same goes for the profession of boat captain, vineyard owner, script writer, forensic pathologist and 170 more.

Owner Brian Kurth came up with the idea for Vocation Vacations 10 years ago while stuck in Chicago traffic and daydreaming about how he’d rather make a living over working at the phone company. “There has to be a company out there that lets people test-drive careers,” he thought. “Something for people in their 30s, 40s, 50s. Not [college-aged] interns.” The idea stuck in his head until he started Vocation Vacations as a hobby six years ago. Now he has nearly 500 mentors representing 180 career types in 30 states.

Since starting his company, he’s found a few categories to be most popular: culinary, fashion, sports, entertainment and working with animals. In the last couple years, however, he’s also seen the demand increase for vocations in the green and nonprofit sectors, which should come as no surprise. If there’s one good thing about this era, it’s our collective do-good spirit.

That spirit helps explain why so many people have signed up to be mentors. “There’s the feel-good aspect,” says Kurth, who stresses the rigorous process of selecting mentors. “They need to be wildly passionate about what they do. They need to be recognized in their field. They need to be considered the best. And they need to have a personality that’s compatible with being a mentor.” It should also be mentioned that mentors get a cut of the profit.

A Vocation Vacation isn’t cheap. Most of the mentorships last just a few days and cost up to $1,999 — though the average price is $900 — and that doesn’t include travel and lodging. It’s not wasteful spending, though: Before going on their vocation, people discuss their  options with a career consultant in order to be placed in the “job” best for them.

Do some mentors end up hiring their proteges? It has happened, says Kurth, but he stresses, “We don’t tout that. It’s not our mission.” Still, he says, thousands of people are now in their dream jobs thanks to his company.

Paula Lewis, for example, opened up a studio after visiting Crewest Gallery in Los Angeles, learning the business behind custom mural rendering. “My Mentor, ManOne, generously shared his time and talents, openly relating business experiences and the processes involved with finalizing a job. He shared great ideas for self-promotion. In addition, we practiced actual aerosol painting techniques,” she says.

Kurth has options at lower price points too. There’s career consulting and local mentor recruitment for $597. And for less than $20, there’s his DIY guide, “Test-Drive Your Dream Job: A Step-by-Step Guide to Finding and Creating the Work You Love.” As for his original mission to give Baby Boomers and Gen Xers an opportunity to re-imagine their careers, it’s been realized: they’re signing up for vocations, but so are Gen Y kids.

Published in Brand X on February 22, 2010. Learn more about my work at Brand X.