For Some, Hard Times are a Gateway to New Careers

For millions of Americans, the recession has been a curse. For a relative few, it’s something more complicated: a catalyst for change. An opportunity to grow. A kick in the butt.
In some cases, economic necessity has been the mother of re-invention. It has forced people to pursue careers they might never have considered if they hadn’t gotten — or quit before getting — the ax.

So a lumber mill worker becomes a nurse, a bus driver turns to welding, a paralegal sets out to sell cosmetics, an interior decorator learns to cook barbecue.

Some unpack an old skill, like the piano. Others trade on a personal passion — for people, pets or, in one case, piñatas. Some get help from the government. Others go it alone.

Their optimism is based on two convictions: that even in hard times, people still will spend on things like their dogs, their kids and their looks; and that things such as flexible hours, casual dress and a shorter commute are worth a few lost dollars.

Above all, they agree that if they hadn’t been pushed, they never would have made the leap.

Andrea Kay, author of Life’s a Bitch and Then You Change Careers, says many people hang onto jobs they don’t like, oblivious to the fact that their unhappiness — which they mistakenly think they can hide — hurts their performance and attitude.

"Typically, not until someone is forced out of what they’ve been accustomed to doing do they feel the need to change," Kay says.

It’s the same in every economic downturn, says David Kyvig, a Northern Illinois University historian who wrote Daily Life in the United States, 1920-1940: "When things are going well, we tend to stay with what’s working. When they don’t, we explore something new."

In a surprising number of cases, we’re happier — "if, after the shock, anger and fear, someone is willing to see there’s an opportunity to do something different," Kay says. "Then they ask, ‘Why did I wait so long?’ "

Research indicates that workers who change jobs generally are more satisfied in their new positions than their old ones, even though they often take cuts in salary and benefits, AARP economist Sara Rix says.

In this recession, "I don’t want to whitewash things — some people barely scrape by," she says. "But there are success stories. They give other people encouragement that there is something out there."

Here are seven stories of the unemployed (and underemployed) who possess one or more of the following:

Sussy Deleon got her idea for a recession-proof business at her son’s first birthday party.

The young guests couldn’t break the piñata to get at the goodies. The piñata, made in China, was cardboard, not wire-and-tissue paper like those in Deleon’s native Guatemala.

When the recession dried up her real estate sales practice in Providence, she decided to import piñatas handcrafted by Guatemalan artisans in designs ranging from animals to clowns to spaceships. Deleon, 39, sells them at her new shop, the Piñata Center, for $40 to $50.

"People still have some money to spend, and they’re going to spend it on their kids" — particularly on special occasions, she says.

After four months in business, Deleon’s begun to make enough to cover her costs. Next she plans to introduce a smaller, cheaper piñata that she hopes will sell better and push her into the black. She’s also getting advice from the federally-funded Rhode Island Small Business Development Center at Johnson and Wales University on how to take her business national.

"Now that real estate is down, this is a chance to do something entrepreneurial, like I always wanted," she says.

Andy Palpant’s mother insisted he master the piano. She started dragging him out of football practices in grade school to take him to lessons. "Someday," she’d say, "you might need that skill."

Now, at 49, Palpant sees his mother’s point.

Three years ago he was laid off as an information technology manager at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, where he supervised more than 100 employees and made a six-figure salary. Then Palpant tried contracting, but that quickly dried up.

Finally he took a hint from his wife, who runs a dance studio near their home in Stockbridge, Ga. He put up posters offering piano lessons.

Palpant teaches four days a week and loves it — "the most satisfying thing I’ve done," he says.

"I discovered I’m a better teacher than a performer."

Years as a manager helped him define a successful music lesson: the kid wants to come to the next one. So he’ll help a student learn something by Coldplay, or prepare for a school talent show.

He gets $20 per lesson. The family income is about half what it was. They’ve cut out all the frills, save cable TV. "The fancy vacations are gone, but our garden is bigger."

And, given the satisfaction of helping a kid get into a music school or nail an audition, "I wouldn’t go back to my old job for twice the pay."

Sometimes, when he’s standing there in his scrubs in the clinic’s dialysis unit, Jay Kverno thinks about his old job lubricating machines at the lumber mill, about the heat, dust and fumes.

"I used to be filthy," muses the 50-year-old Bemidji, Minn., resident. "Now I’m sterile."

He’s a registered nurse, three years after he and scores of other Ainsworth Lumber employees were laid off. He’d worked there 25 years, made $40,000 to $50,000 a year, including guaranteed overtime, and knew nothing else. "I thought, ‘This is going to be bad.’ "

The state Dislocated Workers Program paid his nursing school tuition and fees of about $20,000, but getting his degree and license "was the hardest thing I’ve ever done." As instructors breezed through instructions, Kverno — no star in high school — says he sat there, thinking, "What?"

He likes nursing and hasn’t taken much of a pay cut. "I talk to the patients, joke with ’em, like at the mill. It’s not just go-go-go. This is my new life."

Other former Ainsworth workers are not as fortunate. One had to go to Afghanistan for a job; one hunts for leeches to sell to bait shops; one is depressed because he can’t find work. "His wife is hounding him. He tells me, ‘Hey, you’ve done really good.’ "

Given his success at retraining, "I’m not so fearful of change." In a way, Kverno says he’s thankful he lost his job: "What was best for me, I might not have done for myself. A higher power was guiding me through."

Caroline Blake knew what she didn’t like — her job — and what she did — animals. The result was a new career in pet care.

A year ago, Blake, 29, of Kenilworth, N.J, was a recruiter for an IT consulting firm that was laying people off. Fearing she was next, she quit.

She bought a Fetch! Pet Care franchise for $10,000. Some friends were skeptical. "You’re leaving a good-paying job to walk dogs?" she says one asked.

Blake often works seven days a week, starting as early as 6:30 a.m., with a last walk at 11 p.m. She went three months this summer without a Sunday off.

She has integrated pet care into her lifestyle — while sunbathing around the pool or watching TV. She’ll even jog with a dog.

She charges $18 for a 30-minute visit and $55 a night to keep a dog overnight at her home. She also provides overnight sitters. She says she still makes a fine living, about 75% of what she earned as a consultant. "Smartest thing I’ve ever done," she says. "Every day, a different dog."

It was an unlikely job for a self-described extrovert: hour after hour, reading the fine print in contracts and reports in the fluorescent-lit cubicle she calls "the old fattin’ pen."

That wasn’t the worst thing about Jamie Titus’ paralegal job at a mechanical engineering firm.

As business declined, the 36-year-old Dallas resident’s pay was cut and her workload increased.

There were layoffs.

Her neighbor, who worked for Mary Kay cosmetics, suggested she try sales. Sales? She’d once failed when she tried to raise money — for leukemia research. "Sales?" asked her husband. "You’ve always hated sales."

But the frying pan was getting hotter. In June 2008 Titus quit to sell Mary Kay cosmetics out of her home. Even in a recession, she figured, women will buy makeup. Why not from her?

Since she must buy the cosmetics, she earns only if she sells. She focuses on friends, relatives, people in line at the store — anyone she meets. She claims even to have sold a product to a caller who’d dialed the wrong number.

She won’t say how much she makes but predicts that within a year she’ll be earning at least as much as she did as a paralegal.

When she left her paralegal job, "I was scared. I took a huge leap of faith. But it was the right one."

Who has more job security than a city bus driver?

That’s what Jacqueline Springs thought when she joined the Charlotte Area Transit System last year. She failed to anticipate what the financial crisis would do to banking jobs and, in turn, ridership on her route.

Springs, 45, was laid off in April. In her next job she wanted security, and she wanted to make things with her hands. After considering more gender-typical jobs — nursing, teaching — she settled on a six-month welding program at Central Piedmont Community College, with $4,000 in tuition and fees covered by federal stimulus money.

She’s the only woman enrolled in the six-month program. Her first welding job should pay $28 to $32 an hour, about twice what she made as a driver.

As a single parent, she wants to set an example for her 14-year-old daughter.

"When you get knocked down, you brush yourself off and get up," Springs says. "My daughter’s watching my response. Does she see me wallow in pity or try something different?"

On Feb. 28, Dan Bradfield was a marketing executive for a home health care company in Lafayette, Ind. The next day he was unemployed; the owners’ medical bills had driven them into bankruptcy and out of business.

At 58, he wanted to use his college major — geology — and his experience years earlier doing soil testing.

Not so easy in recession-battered Indiana. So he sought help from staffers at a state displaced workers program, who helped him revamp his résumé and prepare for an "elevator interview" — to explain his skills and goals in 30 seconds.

One day in April he headed out to visit employers. First stop was Patriot Engineering. The receptionist was out, but in front he met a man who asked him, "What can you do?" Bradfield was ready. The man then looked at Bradfield’s résumé, and asked, "Can you really do this?"

He said he was the branch manager, and he was hiring geologists to do soil sampling at the site of a windmill farm.

"I was in the right place at the right time," he says (although he took a $60-a-week pay cut).

"And I’m doing something that’ll benefit my grandchildren when I’m gone. It’s like shooting an arrow into the future."

Now, he needs to get lucky again. This month he learned Patriot did not win a contract for the next stage of the windmill farm. So he’ll apply to the company that got the job.

"My résumé’s ready," he says.


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