Losing a Job — and Maybe a Career 

When should a change in employment status provoke a search for a new profession?

Until a few months ago, Michelle Quinn enjoyed a promising and personally fulfilling career in journalism. The Oakland resident had been covering technology for the Los Angeles Times' San Francisco bureau for almost two years, following a ten-year stint at the San Jose Mercury News and two prior years at the San Francisco Chronicle. Then, in October, she learned that she wouldn't be spared from a series of sweeping staff cutbacks at the Times. By December, she was officially out of work. Despite the warning signs, it came as quite a shock — one whose ripples have undermined her sense of self. While Quinn is not alone in grappling with issues of identity following the loss of a job, the problem has only been exacerbated by the country's crippled job market.

Throughout a career of writing about technology and its impact upon people, industry analysts never let Quinn forget that her job security was far from assured. After all, newspapers are dying, she heard again and again, and have no certain future in the age of the Internet. But she saw the distant possibility of downsizing or wrenching transformation as no reason to stop doing what she loved. "I got so used to hearing the doomsayers," she said. "I just developed a way of being positive among them." A part of her never believed it would actually happen, and she wasn't prepared for October's announcement. "It had the feeling that the plane was crashing and they started throwing people off."

Quinn and many others like her, journalists and otherwise, now face an unwelcome dilemma: struggle to find another position in an imperiled field, or accept the prospect of a forced mid-life career change. Since journalism is an integral part of Quinn's identity, finding work elsewhere would require a major adjustment. But she doesn't see much of an option: "I'm trying to rethink who I am, and that means imagining myself in different scenarios." Luckily, she has landed among a sympathetic community of unemployed journalists, finding old-fashioned networking immensely helpful — as much for her own well-being as for the uncovering of job prospects.

The nationwide job loss trend that has gained momentum since last February has imperiled many local industries, including some recently deemed secure or upwardly mobile. Bankruptcies, store closings, and downsizing have put a broad scope of East Bay residents out of work. As of November, the most recent month for which data was available, unemployment in Alameda and Contra Costa counties had risen in one year from 4.9 percent to 7.2 percent. That figure is doubtless higher now. Nonetheless, some industries and job sectors are holding their own — maintaining a steady workforce or even adding jobs. The picture is grim but far from hopeless, and for those who've faced the chopping block or merely fear it, a little perspective and preparation can go a long way.

One lesson that many newspapers have learned over the last decade is that adaptation is essential to survival. For print media in general, this has meant keeping pace with technology. But it applies to businesses and individuals across the spectrum who have followed our country's economy into a sink-or-swim situation. Ed McMillan, coordinator for EASTBAY Works, a network of nineteen job centers throughout the East Bay, believes that transferable skills are key. "You can look at your skills and what they may redirect you into," he said. "All skills are transferable; it's just looking at how they would fit together in another job." This simple yet often-overlooked way of appraising experience can help concerned workers identify a new niche and stymied job seekers find a new ladder to climb. For instance, when the Silicon Valley tech bubble burst a decade ago, EASTBAY Works job centers helped steer laid-off technology experts toward university and other teaching positions.

Adaptability assumes a shade of meaning closer to desperation for Ed Florentino, manager of the Mission Career Link Center in San Francisco. "If there's an offer, grab it," he said. "If there's an opportunity, jump on it. It's better to be underemployed than unemployed." For those still employed, Florentino's outlook varies from industry to industry. He anticipates continued layoffs in the financial sector, which lost 4.3 percent (2,500) of its jobs in the East Bay between November 2007 and 2008. That's second only to construction, which fared more poorly with a loss of 9 percent (6,600) of its jobs. Florentino doesn't expect either to pick up until late next year.

By breaking down the barriers between our personal and work lives, telecommuting and tools like the BlackBerry and iPhone have surely aggravated post-layoff trauma, prompting many more people to ask a similar question to Quinn's: without my job, who am I? It's an important question for the employed and unemployed alike, one that books like Thomas Moore's recent self-help guide A Life at Work try to examine and uncover. For her part, Quinn shares a tip she received from a job counselor that echoes McMillan's advice about transferable skills: find a component of your job that you like, and then look for it elsewhere. The package may not be the same, but some parts will be, and in the end it might even work out for the better.

Of course, it won't if you simply jump from one crashing plane to another. At a time like this it's particularly important to account for the relative health of various industries. Educational and health services, the most promising employment sectors, stayed flat in the East Bay over the last year. Health care remains a desirable field, especially for registered nurses and caregivers. Likewise, private schools and universities are slowly adding jobs, while public schools, which belong to the local government sector, are suffering outright.

The manufacturing and automotive repair industries continue to offer possibilities for applicants with the right training and skill sets. And within a competitive entry-level environment, security positions appear to be widely available.

All of which begs the question: when even our best-performing and most reliable local job sectors are merely treading water, what kind of shape is our economy in? McMillan suggests we stay positive and expect improvement in the second half of 2009. "Some industries have taken some big hits," he said. "But those jobs will come back. It's a matter of timing." If he's right — and it is indeed all about timing — this sounds like a fine occasion to look for work as a career counselor.


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