Five years ago, Steve LaRose decided he was no longer content to sit behind a desk working as a computer programmer for somebody else.

The Eden Prairie resident, now 52, had been programming for 18 years. But he decided to venture out on his own and pursue a career built around his longtime passion -- woodworking. And today, LaRose owns a branch of Kitchen Tune Up, a company that restores or replaces kitchens and woodwork in existing homes.

Though such mid-career shifts are hardly new, Matthew Hanson, a University of Minnesota Counseling and Consulting Services psychologist and coordinator for career services, said he's seeing more people make the move now by necessity, as their jobs get phased out in the struggling economy.

While those with solid jobs now show "more of a tendency to stay put" because of all the economic uncertainty, there are also more people facing imminent job losses who are actively looking for alternatives.

Janet Pelto, a LifeWork consultant and psychologist at the College of Continuing Education at the University of Minnesota, said she has never been busier than in the months since last fall's economic crisis.

Helping alumni and community members, Pelto said she has been working with more and more people who have lost jobs and haven't had success finding a new job.

Some are making big changes. Recently, Pelto worked with a client who went from a career as a marketing manager to becoming a landscape architect. Another went from practicing law to teaching in a public school.

Pelto said most people shy away from such dramatic career changes -- like Hanson, she finds that people are actually less likely to risk a wholesale career change in a shaky job market. But many are looking to use the skills they already have in new ways, and want to learn how to make themselves more appealing to a new employer. "Sometimes adults don't need another credential. They need a knowledge or skill."

Without sending them to another semester of classes, Pelto said she usually suggests an internship, where experienced job seekers can gain knowledge by doing something hands-on.

She also said the most important thing to do when looking for a job is to network with people. "In today's job market, it's critical."

The big career move

Still, for people like LaRose, a total career overhaul can be the right move.

Before he made the switch from programmer to small-business owner, LaRose asked himself, "What type of business can I run or own that would not be affected by a world economy?"

He began a branch of Kitchen Tune-up, a wood restoration and kitchen and bath remodeling company, in 2005. The company is part of a national chain that originated in South Dakota, revamping kitchens to make them look new for less than half the cost of an all-new kitchen.

The company also promises to do the work in a fraction of the time general contractors might take. The longest kitchen restorations take up to 10 days, LaRose said. Refacing a kitchen takes just three to five days, and a woodwork tune-up takes only one day, he said.

In the current housing market, where houses aren't selling well and most major home improvements are at a standstill, LaRose said his company is doing fine and growing.

He was worried when news of the souring economy broke last year, and for a while the phone did stop ringing. But by Jan. 1, LaRose said calls had started pouring in again. Though the company's business was off in the fourth quarter last year after some of the worst of the economic news broke, it now has bounced back. He said he's handling two times as many contracting bids as he did last year.

He attributes his company's success to the fact that many people are deciding to stay in their homes and invest in remodeling rather than move.

LaRose said his new career has allowed him the freedom to set his own hours and spend more time with his grandchildren in Waconia and in Tennessee.

And now he's building his own company.

"I don't have to ask permission. That's the freedom of owning a business."

Joy Petersen is a University of Minnesota journalism student on assignment for the Star Tribune.