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Career 180: With Hours Chopped, Forester Moves to Senior Care

After decades in the woods, a job transition made Gale Brownlee take heart. Part of a series.

Sarah Berman 3 Sep 2014TheTyee.ca

Sarah Berman is an editor at The Tyee. Her writing has appeared in VICE, Adbusters, Maclean's, The Globe and Mail and many others.

[Editor’s note: It's an oft-repeated mantra: the job-for-life is over, today's economy requires workers to switch careers several times. Statistically, however, job turnover appears to have stagnated in recent years. And while it takes bravery to leave a job in uncertain times, it takes a special sort of courage to start from square one in a completely new field. In this four-part series, we share the stories of British Columbians who left behind career-defining jobs to pursue something completely different.]

Local author Bruce Grierson calls career transformations like Gale Brownlee's "a shift from the ethic of power to the ethic of care" -- a recurring theme in his 2008 book U-Turn. At 55 years old, Brownlee now works in assisted living for seniors after scaling logs for the timber industry for the last quarter-century.

"I was working for these big companies, and what do you do, just make money, nobody gets any benefit," says Brownlee of her time at Tembec and then Canfor in Parson, B.C.

With his book, Grierson was especially interested in chronicling stories like Brownlee's, where helping others through one's career becomes a priority. For these turners, "it's about purpose and what we're supposed to be doing" in life, he says.

Like many ethically-motivated career changes, Brownlee's necessitated a pay cut of $13-an-hour, but with no outstanding debts she's able to afford it.

"It's quite a bit of difference," she says of the drop. "My house is paid off. If I had a mortgage and a car payment, I'd have to think twice about this job."

Brownlee hasn't left the industry completely, nor does she want to. But the market forces that played out after the 2008 global recession changed things. "I really like my forestry work, but there's not enough of it. If forestry had kept busy, I probably wouldn't have made the switch."

On her off days away from seniors' homes, Brownlee continues to work as a forestry contractor for a small company in the Columbia Valley.

"It feels good at the end of the day when you just work for somebody to make money," she says of working the two jobs in tandem. "But when you work to enlighten someone's life, for me, I feel better in my heart."

Early inklings

The first seeds of Brownlee's career transformation began in 2002, when she started teaching a first aid course at College of the Rockies in Cranbrook, B.C. on weekends and during forestry's spring shutdown.

"Since I've been in the forest industry, I've always had Level 3 first aid," she says. "I wanted to give back to the community."

Brownlee also took on a caring role at home when her husband was diagnosed with cancer. Near the end of his life, Brownlee and her husband sought the help of in-home caregivers.

"Ray, my husband, wanted to die at home, so I kept him at home and just learned a few skills from the home support nurses who used to come," she recalls.

When Ray died in 2007, Brownlee began to further reflect on her desire to help. "I always liked hanging out with seniors. I thought it would be a good thing to help people out -- everybody needs help at some point in their life."

It wasn't until the forest industry was rattled by the global financial crisis that Brownlee committed to a new career pursuit.

"In 2009, the forest industry took a downturn," she explains of the more frequent seasonal layoffs. "I wanted to stay here in the valley. I have a little farm, and my husband passed away in '07, so I didn't want to move anywhere."

WorkBC data on the forestry industry shows limited growth of 2.1 per cent and overall demand for logging labourers is in decline. Government projections show the ratio of unemployed forestry workers to new job openings is expected to grow from four-to-one in 2010 to six-to-one in 2020.

With the rapid advancement of forestry technology, Brownlee says she didn't want to rely on a downsizing industry.

'I had a lot on my plate'

Brownlee decided to take a part-time health assistance program at the College of the Rockies, the same place she taught first aid at during the off season. She struggled with juggling school and work, but finished her program on time in April 2010.

"The challenge was keeping everything going -- having a hobby farm, working part time and going to school part time. My husband had just passed away so it was busy, and I had a lot on my plate."

After finishing school she took part-time work as a support worker, but didn't fully commit. "At first I didn't do anything with my course," she explains.

When she was offered on-call aid work at a residential facility, Brownlee says she found it hard to keep the unpredictable hours, eventually leaving the job. "I got a few part-time jobs, but it was too hard to keep the two jobs going."

Brownlee continued on this path until a big company buyout led to Tembec's Parson's office closing up for good. Brownlee was forced by circumstance to leave forestry in a bigger way.

"They told me I could keep my job three-to-four months a year or take a buyout," she says.

Brownlee took the buyout. "I worked for another forestry contractor, but they didn't have a lot of work."

Confidence in mission

This January, Brownlee spotted a newspaper ad for in-home assistance that would soon become her full-time job. With an aging population, data from WorkBC reveals a 5.1 per cent growth in the healthcare aid industry between 2011 and 2012.

Brownlee says job demand didn't factor into her decision; she just wanted to give back to a community that supported her through hard times.

"When my husband was dying, I took a leave of absence from Tembec and for at least one month there were no suppers cooked by us," she recalls. "The community just dropped food at our doorsteps."

On a day-to-day basis, Brownlee helps local residents get dressed, bathe, take their medicines and prepare for bed. By bringing her work in alignment with her personal values, Grierson says Brownlee has achieved what many crave, but few pursue.

"Some can live with just knowing the job they're doing isn't a perfect fit and express themselves in other ways," he says.

What remains consistent among turners like Brownlee is a sense of confidence in doing the right thing.

"You know you're helping them when they need a bit of support," Brownlee says of her new life caring for seniors. "Everyday I go to work and people are happy to see me."  [Tyee]

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