Q&A: Financing a career change

Dear Liz: I am 48 and planning on a career change. I was looking at a culinary school website and it looks pretty exciting. It is a two-year, full-time program and the cost is about $65,000, which doesn’t cover the dorm or apartment expenses for living nearby. Of course, the institute’s counselor told me they have financial aid and asked, “How can you put a price on your future?” Right.

What would be the payback on something like that compared with an average salary of a chef? I will be 50 or so when I complete the program, and I’m not sure I want the big payment plan on my back. Can you help?

Answer: The counselor’s question is ridiculous. How can you not put a price on your future, particularly when it involves such a huge expense? Smart students consider the price not only of their educations but the incomes that education will bring them.

Many students sign up for these for-profit schools with visions of being the next Gordon Ramsay dancing in their heads. A little research would show them that this field is not exactly lucrative or booming.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for a chef or head cook was $42,480 in 2012. Employment is expected to grow 5% in the next decade, which is “slower than average for all occupations.”

So the payback isn’t great, especially if you have to borrow money to foot the bill — and most of the financial aid you get at these schools is loans rather than grants or scholarships. Even for someone with a 40-year working career ahead, taking on that level of debt isn’t smart.

You would have much less time to make an investment in a second career pay off — 15 years or so, and that’s if you can tough it out in a hot, hectic environment into your 60s.

If you really want to take this chance, at least minimize your investment by getting trained at a community college. Even better, get a part-time job in a restaurant and see how you like the work first before you commit to the field.

A more thoughtful approach to a career change would involve meeting with a career counselor to consider your strengths and experience, then looking into jobs in which those are an asset. Any training you would need should be reasonably priced and preferably something you could do while hanging on to your day job. Just think about that culinary expression “Out of the frying pan and into the fire,” and try to avoid getting burned.

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  1. For a while, when I was in college, I was feeling disillusioned with my major and was dreaming of going to culinary school instead. My boyfriend at the time said “It seems exciting now, but in reality you’re going to spend your days getting yelled at by people who think your food is inedible because they put too much hot sauce on it.” That image has stuck with me.

  2. Chris Bennor says

    OMG, NO!!! My late husband was an executive chef. It’s an exciting career with low pay, usually no sick days, no vacation days, brutal on your body (and that’s if you’re in your 20s or 30s), little to no job security, UGH. If you think cooking is exciting, then find a career path where you actually have a shot at earning a living and throw fabulous parties with fabulous food on the weekends.

  3. I am a pretty good cook and I love doing it, so people frequently ask me why I didn’t become a chef. I just roll my eyes. Johanna and Chris are right. You almost definitely wouldn’t end up the next Gordon Ramsey; much more likely would be the person getting yelled at by some one who wished he were Gordon Ramsey! And the $42K salary of a head chef is a lot higher than what you’d be making when you first got out of culinary school, when you’d be doing all the scut work.

  4. Goalie Coach says

    My daughter went to culinary school.. 52k in debt and jobs hiring at 8.00 an hour.
    The school is a great learning experience but not if you want a return on investment and a new career.. You basically start just above dishwasher and work up.
    She is awesome and has tremendous skills BUT at thirty she has to get adjusted or she cant stand… Allergic reactions to the cleaning solutions.. (you clean your own space) burns and knicks from serving and preparing food…
    So in short take a food course for fun…