Jim Kamenelis is happy to have a job as the local census-office manager in San Jose, Calif. So too are the 50 employees he hired to answer phones, check addresses and perform data entry. Through a Bay Area unemployment office, his staff includes a former nuclear engineer, a lawyer, a military expert and a Fortune 500 executive. "It's almost bizarre," says Kamenelis, 57. "People are just that desperate." Kamenelis includes himself in that statement: he is a former information technology director who once earned triple his current salary.
As mass layoffs sweep the country, workers are scrambling for any kind of steady employment they can find. In the process, many are being pushed out of careers they have worked for years to build. "I've seen a number of people who have been forced to exit a much beloved profession and go into something that may or may not be considered preferable," says Nancy Perlin, a career coach and president of Partners Consulting Group in Redwood City, Calif. In a recent report, the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas found that 42 percent of its clients transitioned into jobs within entirely new industries during the last quarter of 2008. "People are making career shifts because they think their prospects in a field where they've been employed are not good," says Paul Harrington, an economist at the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University.
These days, that statement can apply to almost any field. The U.S. economy shed 3.6 million jobs between December 2007 and January 2009—half of them in the past three months. The unemployment rate last month hovered at 7.6 percent, up from 4.9 percent a year ago.The hardest-hit sectors are manufacturing, construction, finance and publishing. "Investment banking will never be the same, and neither will traditional and commercial banking," says Brendan Courtney, senior vice president and group executive of staffing firm The Mergis Group. The media industry is also getting hammered. A recent survey of journalists found that only 6 percent of those laid off from newspapers between 1999 and 2007 were able to reenter the field—the rest moved into public relations, teaching, driving buses, clerking at liquor stores and a variety of other jobs.
Feeling locked out of a chosen career path is frustrating for younger and older workers alike. Courtney Johnston, 26, of Houston, left her job as a human-resources analyst at insurance-giant AIG shortly after its takeover by the government in September. She predicted the company would be laying off staff and assumed a new job would not be difficult to find. "I really loved it," she says of her work managing electronic records for the company. "I could take a project that was really disorganized and turn it into something everyone on the team could use." Still looking for full-time employment in her field, since October she's been working as a temp to keep her skills fresh and staying in touch with her former boss, who is helping with her job search. Keeping up with former colleagues is a key part of returning to a pre-recession career. "The worst thing that can happen is that workers feel embarrassed about losing their jobs, and they allow their professional networks to lapse," says Perlin.
Pairing resourcefulness and creativity is essential too. Sara Clemence was laid off as an editor at Condé Nast Portfolio's Web site, then accepted a new job at Domino magazine which folded hours after she'd accepted an offer. Facing a bleak job market for journalists, Clemence got together with two other writers and started recessionwire.com, a news site that covers the downturn. "It's us and $500," she says of the group's investment. Recessionwire has caught the attention of CNN and The New York Times, and it's allowed Clemence not only to continue writing but also to develop new skills as a Web entrepreneur.
The downturn has had a silver lining for Kamenelis, too. He's discovered a love for public service and hopes to meld his technology experience with government work in his next job. "I'm not as determined to go back to information-technology management as I was," he says. Let's hope thousands of other forced-career-changers end up feeling the same way.