Mortgage industry
Gerry Broome  /  AP
Archie Clark packs computer equipment at a closed HomeBanc Corp. office in Raleigh, N.C., this year. Tens of thosuands of mortgage industry workers have lost their jobs amid the housing slump and credit crunch.
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/7/2007 9:48:55 PM ET 2007-10-08T01:48:55

"Betty" has been working in mortgage lending for 24 years. At age 61, this senior underwriter has survived the last few housing crashes, but just barely.

This time she may not make it.

The California-based mortgage company she works for has laid off two people, and more layoffs are expected.

"I am relatively new here so thought I would be gone already but not so far," explains Betty, who didn’t want her real name used for fear of expediting her pink slip. "If things get much worse, I think it will be inevitable. I have many friends that are also underwriters — only four of us are still employed. The others have been unemployed from one month to over a year with no hope in sight."

Employees in the mortgage sector have been going through an out-of-control roller-coaster ride of job insecurity thanks to the housing slump and the subprime lending mess. To date, approximately 40,000 jobs have been lost, and economists expect more fallout in the months ahead.

It’s a major turnaround for an industry that was deemed a job mecca for years. People were clamoring to get in on the housing boom, taking jobs in the sector that promised riches for all. Now many workers are wondering if they can hold onto their jobs, if they haven’t lost them already. And many are realizing they may have to change industries.

Indeed, Betty is worried. “The problem is that it is not a general field," she says. "It is very specific, and people that do it have been in the business of doing it for years. You don't go to college to learn this industry, unless you count the University of Hard Knocks.”

It may not be an insurmountable problem, however. The many talents that Betty and others in the mortgage industry possess — risk assessors, good communicators, computer literate — are actually highly transferable to other industries. Now might be a good time for career mortgage folks to think about trying something new.

Some possibilities:

You can stay close to financial services and find a job that’s more closely related to what you’ve done. While there isn’t a lot of growth in the banking sector, there are some opportunities at credit unions and savings and loans, says Karla Robertson, a business coach and president of Shifting Gears.

Life insurance firms, such as Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. and New York Life, are also targeting people from the mortgage industry.

If you’re willing to try a whole new industry, the hot ones include pharmaceuticals and health care, Robertson adds.

Franchising is also an option, especially for operations that have a real estate focus. Many of the franchisees of HomeVestors of America, better known as the “We Buy Ugly Houses” franchise, are former mortgage and real estate employees, says Monica Feid, a company spokeswoman.

The possibilities are endless, so stop walking around like a zombie!

“Stop thinking this is what I’ve done and defining yourself in the confines of this industry,” Robertson advises. Think of yourself as a “breath of fresh air” for a hiring manager in a new industry who is looking for someone unencumbered by a how-things-have-always-been-done attitude.

“Sometimes the lack of experience can be a plus,” she says. If you can make it clear that you already have the talents and skills that are perfect for your newfound industry — ambition, a strong work ethic, the ability to change, a strong financial background — then you’re golden.

Many workers who were dumped en masse from the telecommunications industry several years ago thought there was no place for them to go, Robertson points out. But there was life after telecom, and people found work in everything from consulting to web development. “One guy I knew became an artist,” she adds.

If you want to start anew, Robertson offers the following tips:

  • What are your signature talents? Consider what you've been doing to be successful in your most recent positions? What themes keep coming up? Read the book "Now, Discover Your Strengths" and take the quick, free assessment offered at the related Web site.
  • Seek input from others who know you. What do they say are your talents?
  • Think about what you love to do. Consider what industry you would like to work in. What are your interests, passions?
  • When you are looking for jobs and find ones that resonate with you, seek to articulate your talents in terms of what that employer will value.
  • Do your homework and find out how you can connect your proven talents with the needs, products, services, mission of the company you want to interview with.

As for the almighty resume, get ready for an overhaul.

Your resume should start out with a one-paragraph summary explaining what you’re all about. Coming up with the right summary will require you to sit down and reassess what you did or do every day. What are your major accomplishments? How did you effect change?

Don’t specifically mention your mortgage background in the summary. Include a description of yourself that conveys you’re a go-getter, someone who finishes projects before deadlines. You also want to play up here that you have a record of getting sales and growing the business, if that’s applicable; or that you had a strong reputation for bringing in clients, or implementing new methods to make day-to-day functions smoother.

Robertson suggests also adding a list of bullets at the top of the resume, before the chronological jobs section, that includes your talents and accomplishments. Any proficiency in technology can also go here.

It’s critical to take the career bull by the horns ASAP.

If you see the handwriting on the wall at your firm, it’s a good time to start looking into other opportunities in other industries or pursuing your dream job because it’s always harder to find a job without a job.

That’s just what Lon Cohen did.

Cohen, who lives on New York's Long Island, adopted a unique strategy. In April, he decided to demote himself from manager to loan officer even though it meant a big cut in pay. “As a loan officer I balanced my desire to pursue my budding writing career and still derive some income from selling loans,” he explains.

In August, he closed his last loan, and “now I am writing full-time, getting some business by writing articles about the mortgage industry, especially with this implosion in the subprime market.”

As for Betty, the last e-mail I received from her made it seem her days in the mortgage business were numbered:

“Well, another underwriter friend of mine got laid off on Friday. That leaves only three of us still employed out of my group. About my future — if you find a crystal ball lying around, send it to me, OK?”

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