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Starting out on the right track
Career Liftoff was launched by two career-counseling veterans to help students match their interests with potential jobs.

Pioneer Press Press

In James Lewis and Gary Anderson's line of work, helping people get it right the first time is crucial.

During careers in human resources work and career counseling, the two former Control Data Corp. employees occasionally ran into people who had seemingly ended up in the wrong field.

A person coming in to talk about a career might end up deciding that "I'm a really good accountant, but I don't enjoy it," Lewis said. "It's better to sort that out at a younger age and find something you're interested in."

That simple advice isn't so simple to execute, and that disconnect gave Lewis and Anderson the idea to develop their own questionnaire and start a business.

They launched Career Liftoff in 2003. Four years later, their database boasts 15,000 users, and they say the business is starting to grow faster.

They developed Career Liftoff's survey from scratch, working with Ronald Page, a human resources consultant in Minneapolis with expertise in test development. One aim was to keep the inventory focused on the user's interests, Lewis said, as opposed to broader topics.

"What other inventories do is try to tell students about leadership or gender issues," Lewis said. "They try to cover everything other than interest. It confuses the issue."

The launch of Career Liftoff itself is a bit of a second career for both Lewis and Anderson, though it's obviously something that matches up with their interests. They started small, using their own money, and say they're ready for the company's growth rate to accelerate.

Anderson, 66, recently retired as director of the Career Development Center at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. Lewis, 71, has done consulting work for Fortune 500 companies and has a broad background in human resources work. Though some questioned their decision to start a company, the two said they needed something to keep them busy, and something they think is important.

"My best friend said, 'You've flunked retirement,' " Lewis said.

The multi-paged interest inventories commonly available have hundreds of questions that ask you to rate things like how much you like to garden, or to type in data, or play baseball.

On the list of potential jobs that the Career Liftoff survey could pick results from, "we scrubbed the database so the jobs are new and useful," Anderson said. For instance, they got a list of occupations but took out jobs such as "whale watcher" and "beekeeper."

The end result is a list of 240 questions that takes about half an hour to complete. That makes it shorter than competing inventories.

The difficulty, of course, is that Career Liftoff is trying to secure a spot in the already crowded world of interest inventories. Colleges and universities, not to mention high schools, can pick from any number of surveys that use high-tech approaches to crunching numbers from student surveys.

Their marketing efforts have focused on attending college and university-related trade shows around the country, where they've made many contacts and become better at selling their product, Anderson said. "Direct marketing has worked and we'll continue to do that," he said.

At the University of Florida, one of Career Liftoff's largest clients, the school's career resource center offers at least five assessments, said Farouk Dey, associate director for career development at the center. The competition includes the Strong Interest Inventory, and the Kuder Career Planning System.

"Sometimes students are interested in exploring skills or values," Dey said, "but when they say I'm not sure what I like, or how to translate my interest into majors or careers," they'll suggest the Career Liftoff assessment, he said.

After students take the survey, they have to come back to the career center to get the results, so that staff can guide them to the next step, Dey said. But not all of Career Liftoff's clients set up the assessment that way, and users are typically able to get immediate results - no waiting for e-mail or earth mail.

"Colleges' interest is to help those people select majors," Anderson said. "The challenging thing we found is that the good news is smart kids can do anything. And that's the bad news too." Kids may get pressured by their family to go in one direction, but they may not be picking something they'll really enjoy doing.

The company charges $20 for its online survey for individual visitors to its Web site, though it offers the service to larger customers at a reduced rate. Annual revenues are still relatively small, though they have grown 150 percent in the last two years as marketing efforts started to pay off.

Other large clients include the Walt Disney Co. and Ford Motor Co. employees who are part of the United Auto Workers union. Ford announced a year ago that it would cut its work force from 100,000 down to 70,000 or 65,000 in a huge restructuring. Those former employees who are trying to start a new career can all use Career Liftoff's interest inventory.

The founders also say their inventory works for kids at the middle school and high school level, although school funding at that level doesn't leave much left over for the types of service they offer. Still, they aren't dissuaded from trying.

"Somewhere down the road, this is something that really needs to get into every high school," Anderson said.

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