Opinion

Turn economic setback into opportunity

Many laid-off workers are striking out as entrepreneurs or helping out as volunteers.

By

Even economic storm clouds have silver linings.

Few knew it at the time, but the recession started in December 2007. Since then, it has eliminated 7.2 million jobs and erased trillions of dollars in wealth from the battered housing and stock markets. In June, the nationwide unemployment rate hit 9.5 percent. The news is filled with stories of doom and gloom, and there's no denying that the recession has invited pain into US households.

It's easy to feel overwhelmed by the onslaught of bad news, as psychiatrists' reports of rising rates of depression can attest. But while we recognize that the situation is serious, it is also important to remember that there is an upside.

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Take unemployment: In a booming economy, many employees describe themselves as burned out, working without passion, or turned off by office politics. When unhappy workers are laid off, they often discover a world of new horizons and a release from a job they were staying in out of inertia, not desire.

For workers with a good mind-set, sufficient savings, and the resources to stay afloat while looking for a new job, a layoff can be a blessing in disguise – an opportunity to gain new skills, change companies, or even start their own new venture.

Especially in an economy like this one, when so few companies are actively hiring, many of the newly unemployed have realized that the best opportunities may be self-created. Entrepreneurs are springing up in all sorts of industries, and in many cases are achieving success. Take Iris Chau and Stephen Chen.

Both were once employed in the finance industry, Ms. Chau at JPMorgan Chase and Mr. Chen at the now-defunct Bear Stearns. After the Wall Street meltdown cost them their jobs, they took advantage of an opportunity to combine their skills and start a new business transforming old tires into environmentally friendly recycled shoes.

GreenSoul Shoes has sold thousands of pairs of sustainable footwear, and with each pair sold they donate another pair to kids in developing countries. It is a company that would not exist if not for the mass layoffs that led the founders to try something new.

Thousands of other laid-off workers are also putting their free time to good use. Nonprofits across the country are reporting a swell in volunteers. At a time of great need, many Americans are taking advantage of their unexpected freedom by getting involved in their communities – from serving as youth mentors to providing the manpower needed for renovating community parks and schools. These new volunteers will eventually return to the workforce, but their relationships and experiences will make them better employees, and their accomplishments in their communities will pay dividends for years.

The seeds of recovery are planted during downturns, and the US has a strong history of innovation and entrepreneurship under difficult circumstances. Corporate powerhouses employing millions of Americans – including Hewlett Packard, Procter & Gamble, Southwest Airlines, and FedEx – were all started in harsh economic climates.

What about the workers who have kept their jobs? For those who have escaped the threat of layoffs, a bad economy can be an opportunity for career growth.

When a company has to downsize payroll to cut costs, the workload doesn't always shrink proportionately. Those who remain have to accomplish more with less and may be given more responsibilities on short notice. When the good times inevitably return, the workers who stepped up to the challenge are rewarded with promotions they may not have qualified for in a better economy.

For the millions of Americans sending out résumés and waiting anxiously for replies, talk of a silver lining may seem absurd. But America has a long history of resilience in the face of hardship, and of bouncing back from even worse situations than the one we face today.

Tawni Hunt Ferrarini is an economics professor at Northern Michigan University.

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