When he's not handling the tragedy of child-abuse cases as an assistant state's attorney for Cook County, Ray Chao is making people laugh at the Second City comedy club and at other venues across the city and its suburbs.

But unlike some of the aspiring comedians who wait tables while they wait for their big break, Chao, 40, who is single, has a good job and a steady income. He also has an inkling that it might be easier to break into showbiz behind the scenes instead of in front of an audience.

So he took a vacation. Not to relax but to work at a TV production company in New York. Chao is one of a growing number of the curious who have signed up with Vocation Vacations (www.vocationvacations.com), a company based in Portland, Ore., that lets people "test drive their dream job," as founder Brian Kurth put it.

Vacationers can choose from a variety of jobs -- from winemaker to dog trainer to wedding planner. Kurth's company has pioneered the concept and, though some holidays seem a little unrealistic (play director or golf instructor), the firm has signed up dozens of "mentors" in a variety of fields who are willing to open their businesses to interested novices.

Brent Wasser, cheese maker for Sprout Creek Farm (www.sproutcreekfarm.org) in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., said having extra hands can mean extra work for him -- sanitation is critical in the food industry, he said -- but it can spread the word about his cheese as well.

"I think it's a great thing to be able to attract people from other parts of the country," he said. "When they go back, they might talk about the product."

The goal is to let people see if their dream job is all they've built it up to be in their minds. Although, in some cases, such as golfing with PGA pro Brian Henninger, the itinerary Kurth has created is simply meant to be a unique vacation, nothing more.

For Chao, the cost was $1,100 for the two-day experience, plus airfare and lodging.

"I'm paying to work, which is kind of unusual," he said with a chuckle.

But it was worth it, Chao added.

"Very rarely in life do you get the opportunity to say, 'Oh, I wonder what it would be like to do this.' And you actually get to do it."

Kurth got his epiphany as he sat in traffic in late 2001 on another too-long commute between his Chicago home and the corporate job he didn't like.

Wouldn't it be great, he thought, if you could test the waters of a new career before diving in? And wouldn't it be cool to start a company to let people do just such a thing?

When Kurth was laid off from his job not long after that, he moved to Portland with his life partner and launched just such a firm, his own dream job.

His timing is fortunate. Between United Airlines' pension woes and thousands of jobs migrating overseas, there is a palpable unease among workers. The Corporate Board, a nonpartisan, nonprofit business research and networking organization, issued what is becoming an annual report on job satisfaction earlier this year. It found that employees are more unhappy than ever.

Only 50 percent of Americans are satisfied with their jobs; in 1995, that number was 60 percent. Even among the satisfied half, only 14 percent describe themselves as "very satisfied."

In the meantime, author and entrepreneur Tom Siciliano said he thinks Kurth may be on to something.

"If someone can indeed have a chance to dip their toes before they jump in, that's always the best way to do it," said Siciliano, co-author of the new book "Shifting Into Higher Gear: An Owner's Manual for Uniting Your Calling and Career."

And you don't have to be in a midlife crisis to make major changes, he added. A college student, for example, might work hard for four or five years as an education major, only to find out in student teaching that this is not how he wants to spend the rest of his life.

"So many people in their mid- to late twenties -- or even their early thirties -- they say, 'This is what my goal was five years ago, but it's not what I want now. I'm uninspired, unfulfilled. Now what?' "

That's precisely why Chao recently found himself in the editing room at Brave Street Productions in New York, which has done shows for Discovery, Bravo and E! The team, led by the director and producer, was working on whittling 55 hours of tape down to one hour for a reality-based pilot.

"They had a story line they were trying to create, with character development," Chao said. "And that was very absorbing. They were able to be a storyteller and be creative with their story, and that was an aspect of production I had not thought of.

"I think I was worried that production would be much more administrative."

Chao also got a look at how in-studio interviews for documentaries are done. And, because he's a lawyer, the bosses at Brave Street Productions also had him review some contracts to see if being an entertainment attorney might be a good fit, too. He found it boring.

He's still not sure if he'll take the plunge and change careers -- for that matter, he's torn between performing and behind-the-camera work. But he's glad he took his vacation.

"I'm a very practical person, and this is something I would need to do sooner rather than later," Chao said. "The more dramatic the change, the more difficult it is to implement it -- and this is probably as dramatic a change as I could come up with."

Sometimes a Vocation Vacation ends up being just that -- a nice break from the daily routine. So it was that Julia Auburg, 44, a successful financial adviser, found herself and a friend making cheese at Sprout Creek.

She quickly found out her real job was a more fulfilling slice of life.

"I had this idea of painting my nails in between letting cheese set," she joked. "It was hard physical labor. It was good to find out, plus it was a good time."

Ray Chao, an assistant state's attorney, gets to try out TV production work arranged through the Vocation Vacations Web site.Ray Chao, center, is introduced to the intricacies of video camera operation while on Vocation Vacation.