Millions of Americans have filed for unemployment benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic. The extra federal benefit was allotted “for weeks of unemployment ending on or before July 31,” meaning the last full week of July, unless Congress extends it.


Christian Meza, of Pacific, Washington, relished his job as a bartender — the camaraderie, the glamour, the small pleasures of making an eye-catching drink.

Even after the COVID-19 pandemic sidelined him during a monthlong state shutdown last spring and then shriveled his income, he held on, hoping the crisis would ease and business would bounce back.

But by July, the 34-year-old realized, “My industry is not going to be the same. I can’t sit here making $25 a shift.”

So in August, Meza enrolled in a 14-week software programming bootcamp offered by Coding Dojo. By the time he graduates in November, Meza plans to start applying for jobs that typically pay upwards of $75,000.

His new field offers a different kind of adrenaline rush.

“I wake up and I just want to write code,” Meza says. Plus, “There’s always going to be a need” for software programmers.

Industries hit hard by COVID-19

As the health crisis continues to rage across the country and more temporary job losses become permanent, a small but growing number of laid-off and working Americans in hard-hit industries like restaurants, retail and travel are switching to new careers or occupations. Many are transitioning to sectors that have thrived during the pandemic, such as technology, health care, real estate, banking, and warehousing and delivery.

Retail associates are parlaying their customer service skills into jobs as medical assistants. Hotel front desk clerks are becoming loan officers. Oil field roughnecks are turning into truck drivers. 

Sixty-three percent of workers who lost jobs because of the outbreak have changed their industry and 4% have changed their field or overall career path, according to a Harris Poll survey this month for USA Today.

Major shift during pandemic

“I think this is going to be a major shift” in the workforce, says Jane Oates, president of WorkingNation, a nonprofit that raises awareness about the challenges facing U.S. workers and previously headed the Labor Department’s employment and training division under President Obama. “This is going to be bigger and broader than the” Great Recession of 2007-09.

That downturn, triggered by a housing crash, wiped out millions of manufacturing and construction jobs, especially in the Midwest and Sunbelt states. The current slump closed restaurants, malls, movie theaters and other outlets across the country and left many running at partial capacity. Although many industries are expected to recover after a vaccine becomes widely available in a year or so, sectors like business travel could be diminished for the long term as workers hold more meetings online.

As a result, only about half the 22 million U.S. jobs lost in March and April have been recouped as many businesses reopened and brought back laid-off workers. Now, the employment recovery is slowing, the specter of a second wave of the virus looms this fall and many Americans are running out of time. A $600 federal supplement to state unemployment benefits expired in late July, with Congress at an impasse over renewing the aid.    

Some businesses have closed for good or downsized. In September, 3.8 million people surveyed by the Labor Department said they had permanently lost their jobs, up from 3.4 million the prior month and 1.3 million in February, suggesting more workers could seek new careers.

At the same time, the crisis has especially affected low-wage workers in service industries who typically don’t have the skills to change fields without more education and training, says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Just 40% of laid-off workers have the skills for growing industries such as technology, says Brian Kropp, a group vice president who oversee Gartner’s human resources practice.

Such mismatches could slow the recovery.

“This suggests it will take longer for the economy to return to full employment after the pandemic,” says Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Analytics.

It’s too soon to identify the share of affected employees shifting to new fields based on Department of Labor data, says economist Brad Hershbein of the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. Many idled workers are in limbo, still hoping to be rehired, says Andrew Challenger, senior vice president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an outplacement firm.

COVID-19 hampers retraining 

And the usual paths for reshuffling the workforce have been disrupted by the pandemic. About 12 million people have had some kind of contact this year with local career centers, which help the jobless navigate unemployment and job searches, says Ron Painter, CEO of the National Association of Workforce Boards. That’s up from about 8.5 million last year but well below levels during the Great Recession, he says.

Community colleges, ground zero for workers retraining for new occupations, have seen enrollment fall 7.5% this year, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. Typically, enrollment surges during a downturn.

Both the career centers and community colleges likely have been affected by American’s fears of visiting gathering spots – even though meetings and classes are often held online during the crisis – parents’ childcare responsibilities amid lingering school closures, and financial distress.

“If they’re worried about paying rent and putting food on the table, taking a class is not going to be at the top of their list,” says Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations for the community college group.

Yet there are signs that many laid-off workers are taking quicker, less expensive routes to new careers. Although overall enrollment is down sharply at El Paso Community College in Texas, short-term classes of as little as several weeks that let students earn certificates – in fields such as medical records, auto repair, and heating and air conditioning maintenance – are up 15% over last year, says college President William Seratta.

From February to April, Udemy, which offers online courses ranging from 30 minutes to 40 hours for $200 or less, saw U.S. enrollment surge 120% in professional skills classes such as digital marketing, web development and financial analysis.

“We have a lot of people who need to make that change now,” says Udemy Senior Vice President Cara Brennan Allamano.

Coding Dojo says 46% of the 350 students who began virtual classes in July had been affected by the pandemic through layoffs, reduced hours or other impacts.

“Most anyone can learn how to code, just like anybody can learn to speak English,” says company CEO Richard Wang. “You’ve got to be passionate for the subject.”

‘I loved that life’

For eight years, Meza, the Washington state resident, was passionate about being a bartender at an area Red Robin. He enjoyed listening to customers’ stories, helping them pick a drink based on their mood, and hobnobbing with local celebrities like former Seattle Mariner Felix Hernandez.

“We’d all hang out and have a great time,” he says. “I loved that life.”

Although Meza had considered seeking a promotion to manager before the crisis, he also had thought about learning software programming after two customers told him about a boot camp they’d taken. As a child in rural Washington, he had built forts, turned sticks into fishing poles and once helped his parents fix a broken videocassette recorder by simply cleaning a disc.

“I liked solving problems,” he says. That’s what software programmers do — write a set of instructions so a computer can perform a task, such as displaying a drop-down menu or making an online purchase.

Yet Meza says he wouldn’t have made the switch if not for the health crisis. Although he earned partial unemployment benefits and a small income after the restaurant reopened, “I had a personal loan, credit card bills. I had to make a change.”

Meza got a student loan to cover his $13,000 tuition and jobless benefits earmarked for people changing careers. He took to his new field instantly, even comparing it to the dilemmas he solved as a bartender.

“Then, it was about what kind of drink they wanted,” he says.

With programming, “Sometimes, I don’t get it, but I sit back and I read my notes, and I read line by line,” he says. When he figures it out, “It’s a great feeling.”  

It also can be all-consuming. After taking classes from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., Meza typically toils on optional exercises deep into the night.

Low-wage workers face social hurdles

Low-wage workers are often unfairly branded as lacking skills for higher-level positions, such as software programmer, says Annelies Goger, an economic geographer at the Brookings Institution. In many cases, she says, they simply can’t afford to pay for retraining, which receives limited federal funding. And many minorities, who make up a disproportionate share of the low-paid workers laid off in the pandemic, aren’t plugged into professional networks.

“They don’t know who to ask or what to ask,” she says. “They don’t know what a data scientist is.”

Many unemployed workers are making less dramatic career shifts that simply require on-the-job training. Large companies that have thrived during the health crisis are ramping up hiring and drawing from the vast spool of those laid off. CVS has received 5 million job applications this year, up fivefold from 2019, and hired 76,000, a 30% increase. They’re filling openings for store associates, distribution center workers and pharmacy technicians, with some arriving through partnerships to tap workers cut by companies such as Hilton, Delta Air Lines and the Gap, says Jeff Lackey, head of talent acquisition for CVS.

“They have outstanding customer service skills,” Lackey says. And hotel housekeepers “have to work with their hands, bend, lift. It’s similar to working in a distribution center.”

Amazon hired an eye-popping 175,000 workers earlier this year to handle a surge of online orders, including many from the ranks of the unemployed. Over the last month, the e-commerce giant said it’s adding another 133,000, mostly to sort and ship packages but also for delivery, technology and other corporate roles. The company has no strict hiring criteria.

“We’re looking for employees who are enthusiastic, hard-working and concerned with customer service.,” Ofori Agboka, Amazon’s vice president of Human Resources, Global Customer Fulfillment. “They bring their backgrounds and we train them.”

From hummus sales to forklift driver

One trainee, Sarah Freeman, 31, of Charlotte, North Carolina, sold her hummus – branded Hummus Among Us — at a local farmers market but shut down the business in March amid state closures.

 “I got very nervous very fast,” Freeman says. “I had no idea what to do.”

Freeman got a temporary warehouse job at Amazon, working the 7 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. shift, after hearing about it from a friend but figured it was a stopgap. “I thought this is just a means to an end until I figure out a better solution.”

Then she realized she kind of liked it. Freeman worked at a center that received packages from vendors, sorted them and sent them to distribution centers to be shipped to customers. Freeman scanned the packages, place them on a pallet and moved the pallet to a holding area.

She broke the monotony by talking to co-workers while shuttling packages and they sometimes held friendly competitions to see who could move them fastest. “You make it the job you want,” she says.

Freeman also became a “process guide” who shuffled workers to different lines depending on who was on break or out sick and a trainer of new employees, a role that recalls the pleasures of talking to customers at the farmer’s market.

And she learned to operate a 10,000-pound forklift. “I was terrified,” she says, “But I was able to go at my own speed.”

Freeman quickly got used to reporting to multiple managers in a regimented system after being her own boss and making her own hours. And while she no longer enjoys  the rewards of a good hummus sales day, “I also get that feeling when my area at Amazon has a good and smooth day…I make things run better.”

After three months as a temporary employee, Freeman became a permanent staffer and moved to a day shift that includes similar duties but requires her to transfer packages from a truck to a conveyor belt.

Besides the health benefits, she decided to stay at Amazon, she says, because “I see a line I can take” to become a department manager. “You can move up in the world.”

‘I just couldn’t wait any longer’

Other employers offer more intensive training.  The Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire provides classes and apprenticeships for medical assistants, pharmacy technicians and surgical technicians that result in permanent jobs, paying students while they’re learning.

Sean Cothren, 39, last month began a two-year program to become a pharmacy technician after he was laid off from his job at a ceramics store in the spring. An artist who loved helping customers, Cothren says he waited three months before looking for another position but with the $600 unemployment bonus set to expire, “I just couldn’t wait any longer. I had to start my future.”

Years ago, Cothren took a cardiopulmonary resuscitation class and realized he could combine his knack for customer service with his interest in health care.

“It’s really great to learn how drugs work” and the regulations that govern them, says Cothren who works in a hospital pharmacy two days a week.

He likens learning about what different drugs do to a previous job in a record store, where he mastered different music genres and the names of bands. Like drugs, “Records were kept in a database,” he says. “It felt like something I had done before.”

The starting salary of $35,000 to $50,000 is in line with his retail pay but the future earnings potential is far greater.

Plus, he says, “Health care is not going away anytime soon.”

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