SEATTLE — A layoff during a pandemic was something Alissa Berry was determined to turn into a positive.
After more than 20 years in senior manager and director positions for mainly big technology firms, an unemployed Berry in April suddenly had loads of free time to reassess her career. For two months, she analyzed what she was passionate about before landing at a beverage company with fewer than 500 employees.
“The biggest thing I did was that I allowed myself to take the time to really sit down and reflect,” the Seattle resident said. “For me, it was really reevaluating what I loved and the values I was looking for in a company. What was it throughout my career that made me happy? And then leverage that to make the biggest impact in my next opportunity.”
She loved coaching and helping younger colleagues develop their talents. And she wanted a broader impact across all sectors of a company, which isn’t always possible in larger firms.
A month into her new job as a director of supply chain operations, she’s energized about an “exciting and refreshing opportunity” she admittedly wouldn’t have otherwise pursued.
She’s not alone. Layoffs, furloughs and reduced hours for millions during the pandemic have forced a reckoning among workers on why they do what they do. A growing number, forced outside comfort zones, have changed jobs or careers and even returned to school in pursuit of dreams long contemplated.
There’s no immediate data on how many workers have switched careers during the pandemic; the rate of career swaps declined during the past recession and prior ones. But there’s evidence that, unlike those recessions, entire sectors of jobs — especially lower-wage ones — might be lost for good to the pandemic given the shift toward people working from home.
The added trauma of the pandemic is also unprecedented and causing people to re-evaluate the meaning of their jobs.
“The pandemic just kind of exacerbates all of those things that don’t work,” said Shian Chuan, a Seattle-based leadership coach and consultant for local, national and global clients. “Whether it’s your work-life balance, or career choices or lack of career progression, they’re all from habits and decisions that piled up. The pandemic has a way of magnifying things that need to be looked at and changed.”
Scott Cresswell, 44, of Seattle, said losing his logistics management job to pandemic cutbacks in April after 20 years with the Enterprise car rental chain made him ponder a new career.
“They told me they wouldn’t have any need for my position for possibly years to come,” said Cresswell, who had overseen deployment of Enterprise vehicles across three company departments until demand evaporated with few people traveling.
He had previously contemplated switching careers from the only one he had known since graduating from Washington State University. But he had never taken steps.
“You get comfortable at a place,” Cresswell said. “I don’t know if I’d have ever been pushed like now. I do think this has probably pushed me to a place outside my comfort zone that I would not have been had I just continued on. The unknown is scary. But now, you can’t avoid the unknown anymore.”
He would like to apply his logistics experience — perhaps at a company like Amazon — but is open to a career as a project manager, business analyst or something else new.
“I’m hoping I can find something better than I had before,” he said. “Maybe this is an opportunity to actually enhance my life.”
He has had some interviews. If nothing that “pays well” and is “rewarding” materializes, he has a Plan B.
While his wife has kept working, Cresswell has home-schooled their sons, Grayson, 10, and Reed, 6. It has made him think about returning to school to become a teacher.
“It’s something that’s always appealed to me,” he said. “Especially now, working with the kids and the virtual stuff. I enjoy helping the kids learn.”
Ryan Davis, executive director of Seattle Jobs Initiative, a nonprofit with programs to prepare people for living-wage careers, said studies suggest the pandemic is accelerating a “fourth industrial revolution” where brick-and-mortar industry jobs simply vanish. Davis has seen an uptick in interest from hotel, restaurant and retail workers and front desk employees in office buildings wanting to shift careers out of fear “the virtualization of work” means their former jobs are not coming back.
“I think the unemployment numbers and the disruption we’ve seen are not something we’ve been through before,” he said.
He expects some workers will shift toward in-demand fields like health care. For instance, he’s met with owners of assisted-living facilities in need of workers with skills similar to hotel staffers, or department store employees with customer service experience.
“There are facilities like senior communities where somebody with a hospitality background would be a great fit,” he said. “Or, more clinical settings where that customer service background is really essential and you can just add some specific health care training and have somebody who’s a really great employee.”
Seattle Jobs Initiative is exploring how to provide greater access to digital training so workers with transferable skills can make an easier leap into the technology industry, Davis said.
The types of jobs pursued aren’t necessarily entry level. In fact, “they could be for people who have gotten that entry-level job already — maybe even that first promotion — but weren’t really deep in that career pathway yet.”
Leadership coach Chuan said reevaluation of work and life choices during the pandemic isn’t limited to those in mid- to latter-career stages. She’s seen younger workers wrestling with the same existential issues.
Two clients, Eric and Bria Brown of Virginia, aged 29 and 28, are returning to school to pursue more impactful careers. Bria Brown worked in marketing for an orthopedic practice before being recently furloughed. She’ll soon attend virtual classes in psychology at the University of Maryland.
“Over the years, ever since high school, people have told me I should work in health care, or counseling,” she said, adding she listens well to others. “Looking within truly made me think about how I could make a difference in my career. When you’re working at everything at a fast pace, you’re not really taking the time to think about what you’re doing.”
The couple, who are Black, say the George Floyd killing by Minneapolis police and ensuing protests inspired them to want to make a greater societal impact. Eric Brown has spent seven years as a technologist, but — emboldened by his wife’s decision to return to school — will now seek a graduate degree in programming education virtually at Harvard while continuing to work.
His goal is leveraging technology to “empower students” through immersive and nontraditional teaching methods — citing virtual classrooms as one example of tech as an education disrupter.
“I didn’t really think of it when COVID first started,” he said. “But after seeing Bria go through that self-reflection, working with Shian (Chuan) ... I asked myself: ‘What steps are you going to take to get closer to that person you see yourself to be?”’
Chuan said the pandemic created “a lot of positive change” for workers willing to confront fears. She said some worry their goals are unattainable, or that the money won’t be there, and settle for status quo at the expense of personal fulfillment.
“It often takes people stepping out of that fear zone, that survival zone, to even explore that,” she said.
A 29-year-old Seattle-based teaching assistant at a K-8 school said he’s grappled with leaving his modest paying job. He said he’s fed up with virtual instruction, disrupted curricula and the prospect of eventually returning to classrooms and the risk of COVID-19 infection. But he’d avoided taking steps to switch careers; worried about losing health benefits during a pandemic.
“The pandemic has required people to do a lot of soul-searching,” he said, not wanting to be identified because he still works at the school. “I’ve heard the expression, ‘Well, if you’re not going to do something in quarantine, you’re never going to do it’ used a lot. It’s made people look in the mirror and reevaluate.”
He’s since completed a real estate course and plans to leave his teaching job to pursue that full-time once he passes the certification test.
Seattle-based career coach Laura Close said she’s received a “nonstop barrage” of pandemic calls from working mothers contemplating turning down promotions, modifying careers or abandoning jobs to cater to family. But they’re doing so more from necessity, with children now learning from home.
Close understands their sentiment, sensing what she thinks is a recent shift by employers toward those working from home with children. Where it used to be “cute” for children to interrupt Zoom calls, she said, companies now tolerate it less as the novelty of virtual meetings has worn off.
Nonetheless, like with all her clients, she’ll warn mothers of fierce job competition amid pandemic layoffs. And she’ll challenge their assumptions with facts, wanting them to be certain about their motivations for change.
“I preach pragmatism,” Close said. “It’s an economic system. It isn’t Disneyland. We go through a careful assessment — what are the implications of the choice that you’re exploring?”
But for those already jobless, such concerns are largely moot.
Berry, the new beverage company director, said a layoff much earlier in her career was more traumatic than the one in April. That’s partly, she said, because she’d been around enough to know this pandemic layoff, while jarring, brought her an opportunity she would never have had.
“This time, I took it and made sure I framed it in a very positive way,” Berry said. “I asked myself how I could take this as a gift, look at it optimistically, and ask myself what I want to do going forward. And define my purpose.”