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From theater director to cheese expert: Displaced workers in some industries switch careers to stay afloat

“We’ve learned just how precarious so many jobs were.”
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An employee busing dishes at a restaurant in Las Vegas last May.Joe Buglewicz / Bloomberg via Getty Images

With close to 1 million people still filing for first-time unemployment benefits every week, displaced workers in industries like travel, hospitality and entertainment are finding that they have to reorient their professional skills — and in some cases, their entire career trajectories — to keep making money during the pandemic. If this sounds like a drastic move, the workers making these changes say these are drastic times.

“This pivot has been so hard for me,” said musical theater director Walter “Bobby” McCoy.

McCoy, a Virginia resident, said he realized that his livelihood was a Covid-19 casualty as he watched some $30,000 worth of bookings vanish in a matter of days when shutdown orders swept the country in March. The 26-year-old tried giving voice lessons over Zoom, but the financial pressure mounted as his savings dwindled. Estimating that it would be at least another year before his profession recovered, McCoy took a full-time job in November working in the gourmet cheese department of an upscale grocery chain.

With late-night performances replaced by 6 a.m. shifts, “I sort of had to change my mindset,” McCoy said, but he added that there was relief in having a routine and co-workers again — not to mention a steady paycheck and health insurance. “I’m starting to get comfortable. I actually think I could be here one to three years depending on how things pan out,” he said.

Although it’s hard to know exactly how many, labor market experts say anecdotal reports indicate more American workers are undertaking this kind of calculus, weighing the prospect of abandoning their chosen career against a stretch of unemployment with no end in sight.

“This is a different kind of recession from the Great Recession,” said Maria Heidkamp, director of the New Start Career Network at Rutgers University. “We’re seeing a lot of older people who are dropping out of the labor market, and women who are facing child care issues. We don't have a precedent for this,” she said.

Women have been disproportionately affected by the child care demands of remote school instructions, with many leaving the workforce or looking for alternatives. A survey by social platform AllBright found that roughly 6 in 10 women said the pandemic had prompted them to consider a career change.

“Even pre-Covid, we know that there were future-of-work issues,” Heidkamp said. “I think we have to do a much better job of helping people make transitions.”

In a typical recession, it doesn’t make sense for people to throw away years or even decades invested in their chosen field. The pandemic’s distortion of the labor market, though, has significantly and perhaps permanently changed the employment prospects of millions, said Austin Nichols, an economist at research firm ABT Associates.

"Some of these job losses in hospitality, entertainment, tourism won’t bounce back. Folks have an incentive to give up on that line of employment."

“One thing that's different now are these sectoral losses — some of them are not expected to be temporary. There’s this concern that some of these job losses in hospitality, entertainment, tourism won’t bounce back,” he said. “You can find something temporary and not have to retool, [but] folks who are losing jobs in those industries have an incentive to give up on that line of employment.”

Data suggests that the picture will worsen before it improves: A poll by small business social network Alignable found that the number of owners who said Covid-19 is hurting their business rose in November, reversing a monthslong trajectory of improvement since the pandemic began. The number of owners who said they had temporarily shut their doors also reversed course and rose, while the number of permanent closures also ticked up slightly.

Leisure travel is one sector still under a near-total shutdown, forcing people who built their careers in the tourism sector to recalibrate. “2020 was going to be my year. I literally had a game plan to double my revenue,” said Danielle Washington, founder and CEO of Rogue Experiences, a travel concierge catering to women of color.

“It was heartbreaking,” Washington said, when she had to cancel all of her future business, but it was also eye-opening: “It was a big reality kick when I realized all my revenue was coming from one source, which was travel,” Washington said. “It helped me realize I needed to diversify.”

Washington organized a free virtual wellness summit for her existing clientele, which was popular enough that she saw it as a potential springboard. She launched a podcast and a self-help program, invested in certifications for life coaching, meditation and other wellness services. “I’ve learned how to pivot,” she said, adding that she hopes to be able to incorporate wellness offerings into her business once leisure travel does return.

While an ordinary recession might leave workers thinking they can’t afford to start over, the pandemic has professionals such as Washington thinking they can’t afford not to. This worries small business advocates, who see an uphill struggle for Main Street shops, restaurants and service providers seeking to rehire once the economy begins more robust improvement.

Hiring and training is a resource-intensive task, said Holly Wade, executive director for the National Federation of Independent Businesses, a trade group. “The vast majority of small business owners train in-house, and largely train employees to their individual processes. That’s why it was so important for a lot of businesses to retain their employees as much as possible,” she said. “Doing that all over is very costly,” she said, in monetary terms as well as human capital investments of labor and time.

Unlike in Europe, where governments have stepped in with direct wage subsidies so that employers could preserve jobs, policy experts say the U.S. response faltered because the private-sector banking industry was responsible for the lion’s share of distributing money to struggling businesses.

“Our system is terribly under-resourced. Other countries spend more and have more robust support for job seekers. Our programs tend to be very piecemeal in this country,” Heidkamp said. “Making transitions can be difficult in the best of times, and in a pandemic that has caused so much economic uncertainty, all the more so.”

As a result, some displaced workers open to changing career tracks find they cannot afford to do so.

Christina Berry, a 40-year-old wedding coordinator who lives in Washington state, turned her creative inclinations and crowd-management skills into a surprising new role: Teaching at a co-op’s outdoor preschool. “Last year I was building backdrops and drapes for weddings,” she said. “This morning, I built a rocket ship out of a puppet stage.”

The work, she said, was surprisingly fulfilling. “If you would have asked me five years ago if I would’ve thought I’d be teaching preschool, much less outdoor preschool, I would have said you were out of your mind, but I’ve realized how much of a teacher I really am.”

Although the pay is far below what she earned planning weddings, Berry said she welcomes the steady income, and she was able to negotiate a spot for her young son to attend the school while she teaches. But going back to school so she can pursue more educational positions is probably not in the cards: Berry said the cost makes her nervous, especially since she still has student loan debt incurred when she got her bachelor’s degree many years earlier.

“The affordability factor is something that has to be considered to make a mindful decision,” she said. “A person can leave college with so much debt to start off their life and not be able to pay it back.”

Along with an investment in professional development, research and training are needed to facilitate the shift in today’s pandemic-impacted workforce, Heidkamp said.

“The idea is to build in education and training as well as wraparound services such as child care and transportation on top of family-supporting wages and benefits,” she said. “We’ve learned just how precarious so many jobs were.”