How some workers changed their careers during the pandemic

Kai Ryssdal and Richard Cunningham Jun 30, 2021
Heard on:
As the COVID-19 pandemic begins to wane in the U.S., workers are reevaluating their job options. Joe Raedle via Getty Images

How some workers changed their careers during the pandemic

Kai Ryssdal and Richard Cunningham Jun 30, 2021
Heard on:
As the COVID-19 pandemic begins to wane in the U.S., workers are reevaluating their job options. Joe Raedle via Getty Images

After more than a year in isolation, many workers are now reexamining their work options. During the lockdown, employees became more aware of what they do, what they value and how they spend their time. Now, Americans are leaving their jobs for others with better benefits, like higher wages and remote work options, or to do something they’ve always found interesting or exciting. 

We asked for your stories about whether the pandemic affected your experience at work and if you considered changing industries. “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal hosted a panel with three workers about their experiences. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Shauna Kruse: My name is Shauna Kruse. I’m a former indoor cycling studio owner in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and I’m currently a newly graduated medical esthetician and lash artist in Mesa, Arizona.

Juanita Gable: My name is Juanita Gable. I live in Cincinnati, Ohio. I am formerly a personal trainer and ballroom dance instructor turned student in the hopes of pursuing a different career as an occupational therapist.

Alan Buxbaum: My name is Alan Buxbaum. I come from Hillsdale, New Jersey, and I currently live in Baltimore. I am an orchestra conductor. And I have also taken up medical coding in order to financially sustain myself.

Orchestra conducting is a huge passion and I absolutely love it. And I cannot imagine my life without it. But I also was facing the harsh reality that financially it would take me some time, if I didn’t want to take chances, especially paying back student loans and whatnot.

Kai Ryssdal: And what made medical coding attractive to you?

Buxbaum: The fact, No. 1, it’s you’re able to do it remotely, which is huge. Because in order to get gigs, like in various cities around the country, around the world, it just makes it way easier to have a remote job. And I was able to finish the course in a good seven months or so. And I found a job about a month after that.

Ryssdal: Shauna, you had a business, right? You had a thing going before the pandemic and then obviously, the pandemic took that out from under you.

Kruse: My business is actually still going, and they’re doing great. We just knew when the pandemic started that it was going to put it down to the point that there were two couples owning it, [but] there was not going to be enough money coming out of this for two families.

Ryssdal: And you went from owning a cycling studio to doing esthetics and skin care. What drove that?

Kruse: Well, you would think going from heavy breathing to being in someone’s face for a pandemic would be a bad idea. But I had banked on the fact that if I started school — it’s a six-month program — in November, that by June, we would be OK. And that was a lot of hopes and crossed fingers that have come to fruition by the grace of the above. I’m very lucky, I will say that. But the medical esthetician was a passion of something I loved, and that I didn’t think was going away. There isn’t Peloton for skin care yet, thank God. And I was really, it was something that I loved still. I couldn’t go from something I love so passionately to something else.

Ryssdal: Juanita Gable, you were a ballroom dance instructor and a personal trainer, both of which seem not to be pandemic-friendly. How did know — maybe the decision was forced on you — that is was time for a change?

Gable: Yes, it was not voluntary. And as I was telling everybody else, I feel like, after the Great Recession, I suffer from PFSD, post-financial stress disorder, where I had a period of unemployment, and I just do not ever want to feel that vulnerable ever again. So I immediately enrolled in school, thinking I might do nursing and decided to move towards occupational therapy. So yes, the initial terror is gone, you know. I think at this point, I’ve come to realize that adaptability, I’m grateful, is one of my strengths. I’m going to feel this out and see how things go. And I’m looking at job opportunities because this is definitely a different job market than it was back in the Great Recession. And I’m hoping that I can take advantage of it and, you know, be better off for it.

Ryssdal: Change is hard, right? And so even if it’s forced on you, or if you’re doing it yourself, it’s hard. And I guess my question is about the fear of the unknown. Did you have any of that?

Kruse: We weren’t only making that job change. We were moving into a home in a city we’d been to once a decade ago. We bought that home online. We did that move during the pandemic. We had no idea from state to state what the requirements were as we even drove. We were just taking it day by day. I treat my previous life [before the] pandemic as a previous life, exactly that. I just had to close it off, and it was a different person, a different place. And it’s painful sometimes, and I’m sure Alan and Juanita can understand as well that these were things we love. These were lives we loved.

Ryssdal: Alan, the thing Shauna said about the previous life being a previous life, I thought I heard you sort of verbally nod there.

Buxbaum: Yeah, it’s interesting because, at least in my situation, I’m not leaving conducting. I’m still applying, I’m still doing certain things. But I definitely view my life as having to deal with finding ways to process the fear and to not let it take control. But you know, as they say, follow the fear. And in this case, I think it’s been going really well.

Ryssdal: You know, it’s funny — and Juanita, I’m gonna start with you — you all three sound, to some degree, empowered by the decisions that have either been forced on you or that you made. Do I have that right?

Gable: In my case, I definitely feel empowered. I like that term. You know, I immediately went to school. I did not have a great school experience the first time around. I wasn’t really ready for college the first time, and I aced all of my classes. So whatever weakness I felt I had in potentially applying to grad school is no longer there. And I realized that I do have the discipline and the, you know, intellectual capacity to learn complex things, things I thought I wouldn’t be able to conquer — and woo-hoo, I’m there.

Ryssdal: For you, Shauna, you leaned all the way into this one, all the way. Clearly you took this, and it made you stronger.

Kruse: Oh, it was. Me going to school with three small children at 42? You know, anatomy and chemistry, and it’s like, ‘I don’t think my brain can do this.’ And it did. And I just think that construct of what we thought life was, this is what we have to do. Just like Alan [said], this is it. These are your choices. [That] was just ripped out from underneath us. Like, no, it’s not a matter of fact, everything can change. Everything did change. And so if everything in our society can change overnight, I can too.

Gable: Yeah, you go. Shauna.

Ryssdal: Yeah. Alan, and last round of questions, and then I’ll let you guys get back to those new jobs you have. In a year, Alan, what are you doing?

Buxbaum: I hope in a year, I hope to have a fully remote job that has enough income, you know, doesn’t have to be crazy, but enough income to be comfortable, at least getting my loans and so on, to have things whether the conducting career is spinning ahead like crazy or not, at least to have things rolling more than they are right now again, since things kind of came to a standstill, if you will, with everything. And, honestly, I hope there’s other things that I can’t even think of right now.

Ryssdal: Yeah. Juanita, a year from now, what are you doing? Where are you?

Gable: Well, so I’m kind of in this in-between stage, the program that I had hoped to go into — occupational therapy assistant — because it’s undergraduate, I can’t get any financial aid at all. And so I’m very hesitant to go into any kind of debt. And I’m looking at other employment opportunities. I’ve gone through a few interviews with some positive results. And so I actually think I may be returning to work, thankfully, with the benefits and the normal schedule that I did not have before. And for that, I am very grateful.

Ryssdal: Shauna, last word to you. In a year, where are you? What are you doing?

Kruse: I just want to be happy, I think. I just want to be financially stable and happy. And I think that’s how this has changed. Whatever gets me there, great. If it’s a full clientele of skin-care clients and lashing clients, then that’s it. But I think I’m really open to what the future holds.

Ryssdal: Well, thanks to all three of you for your time and good luck. Good luck. You know what, we’ll call you in a year and we’ll do this all over again. How about that? There we go. Thanks, everybody. I appreciate it. Take care.

Have you changed careers, picked up an additional skill or went back to school in the pandemic? We want to tell that story. Let us know using the form below.

Correction (June 30, 2021): A previous version of this story misspelled Shauna Kruse's name. The text has been corrected.

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