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The Great Resignation is leading workers down new career paths

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Former Porsche mechanic Dave Harris by the underside of a car.

Dave Harris lost his job as a car mechanic early in the pandemic, then became an insurance adjuster for better pay. Courtesy Dave Harris

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Employers, recruiters and economists all talk about the so-called Great Resignation: the rush of workers leaving their jobs and jumping into new roles and new fields in the midst of the pandemic.

The best evidence for this right now is the record-high rate at which workers are quitting their jobs, as reported in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ monthly Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, often known by the acronym JOLTS. In August, the quits rate rose to a new series high of 2.9%. The pre-pandemic high for quits was 2.4% in August 2019, based on historical data compiled by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

We see further evidence in the decline of people participating in their former occupations, especially workers who were furloughed, laid off or left jobs voluntarily to care for family members during the pandemic. Rather than returning to their old customer-facing, high-contact jobs — in fields like food service, retail, personal service, health care, education, bus driving, and the list goes on — many of these workers are holding back or contemplating taking on new jobs and careers.

Anyone involved in the nightmare of hiring workers in the current labor market can talk a torrent about this wave of resignations and job switching.

“I’ve never seen a more competitive market in my career,” said Amy Zimmerman, chief people officer at Atlanta-based fintech firm Relay Payments. “From a recruiting perspective, the number of people who have changed jobs this year — from what I see on LinkedIn — is unbelievable.”

Marketplace senior reporter Mitchell Hartman interviewed passersby in Eugene, Oregon, about their career plans. (Mitchell Hartman/Marketplace)

Ray Sandza sees it too in the data his company, Homebase, compiles from supporting payroll and human resources operations at about 100,000 small businesses across the U.S.

“Think about the Great Resignation — it’s just been harder to fill the jobs that existed before,” Sandza said. This is especially true of bars, restaurants and retailers, he said. “People are switching industries — folks that can go take customer-service jobs at tech companies, for example. They don’t want to come back to these jobs at the current wage rates, with some of the public health risks.”

That’s what happened at Chris Knudson’s business. Well 80 is a popular brewpub in Olympia, Washington. It shut down, reopened for takeout and got back to serving indoors at full capacity earlier this year. “A lot of people that worked for us started working in other industries,” Knudson said. “One of our former managers is working as an apprentice finish carpenter; a former employee is working as an executive assistant.”

One kitchen worker who moved on is Kaylene Taylor. She’s 38 and she transitioned to restaurant work after a career as a paralegal. Her first job was at Well 80; she moved on to another restaurant and was working as an assistant manager when the pandemic hit. She was laid off, called back part time, laid off and rehired again.

“I couldn’t do enough hours, make enough money,” she said. “It was a lot of work for not a lot of practical payoff. Emotionally it was very rewarding; physically, the older you get, the harder it is to be mopping floors at midnight.”

So, Taylor quit. “And I decided to go back to school — master’s program in psychology. I got a job at a law firm, doing what I was doing before, while I work on my degree.”

Dave Harris, age 30, is another person who isn’t looking back. He was a mechanic at a Porsche dealership in Parsippany, New Jersey, when he was laid off at the start of the pandemic. 

“I’m very tall, I’m 6-foot-6. It’s kind of uncomfortable to work on cars,” he said. “I wasn’t loving it as much as I thought I would. And the money really wasn’t as good as I thought it would be, either. Whenever I told people I worked for a Porsche dealership, they were like, ‘Oh great, do you drive a Porsche?’ And I’m like, ‘No.’”

This summer, an insurance company hired him as an auto-damage claims adjuster. “What attracted it to me is that I know the ins and outs of how cars work, how they’re repaired, I know the industry. Benefits are really good, the pay is really good.”

He’s earning around $54,000 a year now, nearly double what he made fixing cars. 

The pandemic has turned things upside down for younger people who are just starting out, as well.

Jade Chavez and Aidan Wilcox, both 20, left Wichita, Kansas, to explore new possibilities in sustainable agriculture and homesteading. They’re currently volunteering on a farm in southern Oregon. (Mitchell Hartman/Marketplace)

Jade Chavez is 20. She graduated high school in Wichita, Kansas, and moved to New York City to start a modeling career. “Within a month, the pandemic broke out,” Chavez said. “Trader Joe’s was empty, and then the subway wasn’t safe, and ultimately that brought me back to Wichita. Over the next year, I decided if the pandemic was happening and life was uncertain, then I was going to take the time and just — think.”

She worked low-wage retail jobs and decided college was off the table financially. Then a few months ago, she hit the road. She’s now volunteering on an organic livestock farm in southern Oregon. 

“It feels like a safer way to travel and try to get life experiences, to kind of come into adulthood in a world that’s not very kind to young adults right now.”

There is undoubtedly a lot of anecdotal evidence of workers shifting jobs and exploring new careers as the pandemic continues and the economy struggles to reopen.   

But according to management professor Peter Cappelli, director of the Wharton School’s Center for Human Resources, aside from a spike in people quitting their jobs, there isn’t a lot of statistical evidence — for instance, an increase in community college enrollment — to show this is a significant trend. 

“There’s just an awful lot of churn in the workforce, and there’s an awful lot of turnover,” Cappelli said. “We hear a lot of stories about people who say they’re looking for something different. We don’t have a lot of information to see whether they’re actually doing it.”

Cappelli pointed out that a similar phenomenon occurred after 9/11. A lot of people said they wanted to radically change their work lives and find more meaningful careers. But it’s not clear that a lot of them did. 

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