Careers reconsidered

A decade of growth ended with some 2.5 million job cuts last year. Now, opportunity-seekers have begun looking beyond 'job-hopping' - to a broad, mid-stream rethinking of work.

When Joe Gardner was laid off less than three weeks after Sept. 11, it was the second time in two years that he'd been handed a pink slip.

The first time, he got a large severance package from the drinking-water company where he'd worked for 19 years, starting as a truck driver and moving up through the firm to a job as sales supervisor.

Aware of the difficulties faced by an older man in the job market, he thought about using part of his severance money to get some further education, or to train for a new career. He didn't do it.

Instead, he took a similar job, working for a food broker in Orlando, Fla., getting a specialty brand of drinking water onto supermarket shelves. Then came the economic aftershocks of the terrorist attacks, and Mr. Gardner found himself out of work once again - but this time with no large severance package to soften the blow. "It was kind of like a wake-up call," he says. "I thought, OK, I have to make some changes."

So when Gardner heard about Florida's Operation Paycheck - a first-in-the-nation program designed to retrain workers laid off post-9/11 for new careers - he jumped at the opportunity.

Under a state-sponsored program that identified industries in need of workers, Gardner finally went back to school last week to pursue a longtime love of computers. In 25 more weeks, with tuition costs paid by the state, he will be ready to hunt for a job in a new field, as a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer. "This filled a need in my life," he says. "This is my opportunity. I am very excited."

Across the country - following a hectic decade of growth that ended last year with more than 2.5 million job cuts from mass layoffs (up 36 percent from 2000) - Americans are looking for new work opportunities in a rapidly changing economy.

While some deal with unemployment with relative ease, finding similar jobs with different employers, thousands of other laid-off workers are seeking out retraining opportunities.

And still other workers, who have not even lost their jobs, are contemplating ways to switch careers or are seeking new skills to help them keep jobs they have.

Exact numbers are hard to come by, given the variety of programs available and the fact that they are administered at state and local levels, but even before the recent downturn, retraining and continuing education were big business in the US.

According to the National Center for Education, some 60 to 70 million Americans - nearly half of the national workforce of 145 million people - were involved in some form of adult education or continuing education in 2000. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that about $1 trillion a year is spent on retraining and continuing education in the US.

Arming for a diverse career

"It's a different mentality than [in] the late '70s," says Miche Grant, vice-president of the Center of Workforce Innovations in northwest Indiana, which works with many displaced steel workers. "Back then, folks were assuming that once they entered an occupation, whether it was blue collar, or a teacher or a doctor, that they'd be in that occupation for life.

"What we're finding now," she says, "is that you can't depend on a particular job for your whole life. People are beginning to say, 'What are my skills, what are my interests, what am I good at, and how does that apply to a variety of industries?' "

Interviews with workforce experts across the country indicate that the rise of the information age has played a role in shaping how retraining is approached in a "new economy" era.

Under the 1998 Workforce Investment Act, for example, federal funds given to states for retraining displaced workers are now being distributed through local workforce boards.

Instead of offering a cookie-cutter menu of retraining programs, these boards are responsible for identifying local growth industries and working with area employers to train workers for jobs with some kind of future.

Operation Paycheck, the Florida program, is an example of that kind of creative use of federal funds to retrain workers. According to Warren May, spokesman for the state's Agency for Workforce Innovation, some 7,000 workers have expressed an interest in the program, with 3,500 of them in the assessment process to determine what training they are best suited for, and another 600, including Mr. Gardner, already training for new jobs.

Among the careers identified by the state as growth industries are information technology, nursing, customer service, automotive repair, teaching, corrections, and dentistry.

"We've had a lot of people say, maybe it's time for a career change," says Mr. May, of Florida workers who were laid off in many sectors of the travel and tourism industry after the terrorist attacks. "The challenge was to look at the people being laid off and match up their skills and abilities and experience with the requirements for these demand jobs, these demand sectors."

Other creative retraining partnerships and programs are being launched (without direct government involvement) at educational institutions around the country. At Cincinnati State Technical and Community College in Ohio, for example, school officials teamed up with local businesses in an attempt to ensure a skilled workforce that could help keep the region economically competitive.

As a result, the college operates a Workforce Development Center, with training programs developed in coordination with local businesses.

Some 2,000 to 3,000 students a year come to the school. Some come because their employers pay for them to get new skills training. Others come on their own, or make use of government grant money to train for occupations that include environmental safety, industrial maintenance, information technology, and railroad conductors.

"The need is not new," says Gregory Mason, director of the center and dean of corporate and community services at the college.

"The concepts are not new [either]," he adds. "But the delivery is relatively new. That's where the new impetus has been. The goal for all organizations in the 21st century is to work faster, work better, and to be more flexible. We have to be much more flexible now in how we deliver educational programs."

But even as retraining programs become more innovative and targeted to specific industry needs, experts warn that retraining does not translate into economic salvation for people switching careers.

Deciding when, whether to retrain

According to Robert LaLonde, an expert on labor markets and a professor at the Harris Graduate School for Public Policy Studies at the University of Chicago, economic studies show the average successful retraining program funded by the government costs about $3,000 for 18 weeks of training, and allows a person to earn an average of $500 more per year for the rest of their career.

"These programs are not going to fundamentally change a person's position," he says. "They're not going to take a poor person and turn [him] into a middle-class person."

Some outplacement experts say it makes more sense for an unemployed person with professional skills to avoid retraining and spend the time looking for a new job in the same field.

What employers want, they say, is experience, and taking yourself out of the job market to start all over in a new field can be a risky thing. But for people whose jobs have been permanently lost - in manufacturing, for example - retraining plays a vital role.

"What we know from research is that retraining means you'll recover quicker, and you'll recover more of your lost wages than if you didn't have retraining," says Carl Van Horn, director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University. "It really is a good idea if you can afford to increase your skills when you've been displaced."

Regardless of income loss, some workers have approached layoffs as an opportunity to do something they've always wanted to do.

Linda Eknoian lost her job of 14 years in December 2000, when her employer, Fleet Bank in Boston, merged with another bank.

But thanks to a creative severance package offered by her employer, she was able to pursue training in film and video production, an industry that she had long been interested in.

"I've always wanted to be involved in this industry," says Ms. Eknoian, who first did a 15-week internship at a local cable station on a reduced salary paid by her former employer. She then took advantage of a $4,000 education grant that was part of a special program negotiated between Fleet and the Department of Labor to help laid-off workers.

With the education grant, which pays tuition costs, Eknoian is studying at the Boston Film and Video Foundation. But when the program ends later this year, she says, she'll still have to face a tight job market.

"I think the training is great," she says. "I was waiting for this change to happen. But then the recession came along. It's making things much more difficult. It's putting a damper on things."

Big demand for 'soft skills'

Regardless of what kind of retraining or continuing education is sought by unemployed or still-employed workers, workforce experts say today's changing job market also requires a set of skills more important than ever before: soft skills - knowing how to present yourself when the time comes to job hunt again.

"It's not only being able to put a résumé together," says Rosemary Alexander, executive director of JobNet in Boston, one of the local career centers funded through the Workforce Investment Act. "In the information society we live with, things are changing and shifting. People are moving around. You need to be able to market yourself."

Not a plunge, but a well choreographed transition

Leda Meredith always knew that she wouldn't be a dancer forever.

She started training at age 5 and began dancing professionally at 17, pursuing both modern and classical dance.

But the average age of retirement for dancers is 29, and Ms. Meredith knew that even though she also taught dance and choreographed, there would come a time when she would have to find something else that interested her, too.

She didn't have far to look. In fact, she found the answer in her own childhood love of plants. Growing up in San Francisco in a home that included her Greek great-grandmother, she was fascinated as a child by the fact that her great-grandmother could walk into Golden Gate Park and pick plants for eating or therapeutic purposes.

"At eight, I wanted to be a conservationist," she says. "But somewhere along the way, dance and theater won out. But there was always that seed of interest."

By the early 1990s, Meredith found herself intrigued by reports about people working with rain-forest tribes to preserve a working knowledge of local plants. It led her to an interest in ethnobotany, the study of what people do with plants - even though she was still dancing and choreographing.

Eventually, she learned about a degree-and-certification program at the New York Botanical Gardens. "It really caught my eye," she says. But Meredith chose not to make an abrupt transition to a new career. She persuaded the director of one of the dance companies she worked for - a place where she had seniority - to let her cut back on her rehearsal time so she could start studying ethnobotany.

By 1998, with grant assistance from Career Transition for Dancers - the only US organization devoted to helping dancers find new careers - she started working toward an ethnobotany certificate at the botanical gardens. Along the way, she even began her own botanical business, Theia Bath Products.

This spring, some 10 years after first thinking about a career in ethnobotany, she'll receive her certificate from the botanical gardens. Even before graduation, she's been offered a job teaching ethnobotany at the gardens.

"There were two key things for me," she says of her transition. "One is to follow the things you're really interested in, that you care about, because anything else is going to be hard.

"The other," she says, "is that it doesn't have to be all or nothing. You don't have to jump off the cliff into change. You can mosey out of your old career into a new one."

After a hard year, 'thinking in terms of legacy'

By his late 20s, Jay Liwanag pretty much had it all, career-wise. A great job as a principal consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers. Lots of international travel. A good salary. Long hours, but lots of fun, too. Exciting work that was, in his words, "a continuous learning process."

But when his mother passed away last year, Mr. Liwanag, who is single, began having second thoughts. The constant demands of his job had kept him away from his family during his mother's illness. He felt he'd missed something important, and began to ask himself, "Is what I'm doing worth it? Is this what I want to do?"

He recalled the words of an older colleague who once told him, "You don't want to find out that you've spent your whole career trying to get to the top only to find that you've been climbing the wrong ladder."

With the help of a career counselor at his firm - "a godsend," he says - Liwanag began to explore his values and interests in an effort to determine his real passions in life.

"I found that I wanted to do something that had meaning," he says. "I felt I wanted to go to a nonprofit or a university setting.... I wanted to do work that in the end, people would [say], 'Jay did this. He made a good impact on people in his life.' "

The events of Sept. 11 prompted further soul-searching, and by the time Liwanag was laid off from his job at PwC in late October, he knew it was time to make a change.

He began looking at nonprofit work and recently landed a job as human resources lead with Mitretek Systems, a Washington, D.C.-area nonprofit firm that works with technology to help the public.

The new job meant less pay, but also fewer hours, which gives Liwanag more time to pitch in as a soccer coach for local kids and to volunteer as a counselor with the American Cancer Society. "Last year was the worst year of my life," he says. "I tried to turn that into a positive. I didn't want to be doing the same old thing every day. Maybe now I'm thinking more in terms of legacy."

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