Before the pandemic struck, 37-year-old Lisa Dorman had established a 10-year career in fundraising, working for landmark organizations like the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Foundation. But after the sweeping virus overturned regular working patterns for most Americans, she quit her job to start a potted houseplant-selling business, and enrolled in the Bidwell Training Center’s Horticulture Technology program.
“Pittsburgh is notoriously gray. We have a lot of days that the sun doesn’t come out or only comes out for little bits of time,” Dorman says. “As somebody who has had anxiety for my whole life, plants have really helped my mental health.”
While the coronavirus pandemic brought death, chronic illness, and financial insecurity for millions of Americans, it also encouraged many to drop a job or career field they didn’t like in favor of something they find more meaningful and less exploitative, a trend dubbed the Great Reassessment or the Great Resignation, and which shows no signs of stopping.
Dorman, one of many Pittsburghers to ride the Great Resignation wave, felt like she didn’t previously have options in her life outside of a nine-to-five office job. But she watched her husband bounce back from a layoff in the corporate finance world by recasting himself as a chef and felt inspired to try something similar.
In the two years since the pandemic first set in, adults of all ages have made similar life changes.
Pennsylvanians quit their jobs at a rate of 2.7% in May, which is less than most states, with rates as high as 4.8% in Alaska, but about the same as the national rate, according to July U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
Bidwell’s programs come completely free to students, paid for by a combination of public, nonprofit, and individual donor funding, but the accelerated eight-month program requires a big time investment, which can make it difficult to pursue other work during that time. Dorman is grateful to go to Bidwell but acknowledges that her decision to quit her job to train in an unrelated field comes with some degree of unpredictability and risk.
“It’s really difficult, and it is kind of terrifying,” Dorman says. “It’s not lost on me that I’m in a position of privilege that I’m even able to make this change and make this leap and pursue my dream, but I’m very grateful to my husband who’s an amazing saver and amazing budgeter.”
Many in the Pittsburgh area who struggle the most with employment are those trying to get back into the labor force or struggling to obtain employment outside of low-paying jobs because of factors like lack of education and training, as well as criminal records. T. Charles Howell, director of workforce development and financial coaching at Mon Valley Initiative, which works to connect employers to people seeking new jobs and careers, says he’s found that people largely do not want to work in fields like restaurants, hotels, and landscaping, and favor fields like health care.
“Nobody wants to work somewhere where they’re not valued,” Howell says. “The notion that a paycheck is enough is not true. And I think the way that the pandemic highlighted the mortality and how close it is for all of us really changed the calculus for a lot of people, no matter what their skill level is.”
Tanisha Long gave up bartending in 2017 for a customer service job at Sprint with the intention of returning to the University of Pittsburgh to study English. The 32-year-old Crafton resident hoped to escape the long hours and financial troubles associated with bar work, but found, once the tuition fees started rolling in, she was still drowning in debt.
Long eventually went back to school just as COVID-19 struck the United States, expecting a normal college experience. Instead, schooling went remote and a corporate buyout meant she now worked for T-Mobile. And then a gruesome video of cops killing George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, led to restless people taking to the streets in protest. In Pittsburgh, Long played a big role, leading Black Lives Matter protests.
Juggling school, work, and organizing made Long immensely busy, but virtual schooling made it manageable. She would sometimes attend class through her headphones while at a protest or at work, she says. By the end of 2021, she had a bachelor’s in English writing and grew “miserable” at her retail job.
“The customer base changed, the company changed, the values changed, the expectations changed. Everything was miserable,” Long says. “I think they tried to make up all the pandemic losses at once, and it just put a lot of pressure on people.”
She heard from a friend that the Abolitionist Law Center, a local social justice-oriented law firm, was hiring a community organizer, so Long applied and got the job. She loves it and believes she’d still be at T-Mobile if not for the pandemic.
“I actually feel like I’m helping people. I actually get to see my work be impactful,” Long says. “I don’t feel like my whole job involves manipulating people into buying things they don’t need.”
Most of the time, both before and after the start of the pandemic, workers who leave a job find themselves out of the labor force or unemployed the following month, according to July Pew Research Center data. Still, people who believe they have weak job security are more likely to look for a new position in the next six months than someone with a lot of job security, and wealthier workers believe they have job security more often than middle- and lower-income workers.
About one-fifth of people in the United States say they are considering looking for a new job in the next six months, according to the Pew data. Additionally, workers who are Hispanic and Black, younger, or less educated are more likely to change jobs compared to other demographics. And about half the job-swappers from 2019 to 2021 didn’t just change jobs, they shifted to another occupation or industry.
Some Pittsburgh-area residents have had the resources and opportunities to quit their jobs and move onto a new career path that suits them better, getting into fields like coding, media, and, like Dorman, industries as niche as horticulture.
Great resignation career shifts don’t always mean leaving service industry positions for white-collar jobs. For Jeff Rhodes, a 58-year-old Harmony Township resident, the transition went the other way.
Rhodes worked as an office manager for GES, a trade show company, until his office closed in February of last year. That got him thinking.
“OK, so what am I going to do with my life? I tried looking around and seeing what else was out there, and I thought, ‘Maybe this is the universe’s way of kicking my rear into gear,’” Rhodes says. “Because years and years and years ago, I toyed around with the idea of being a barber and just never followed through for one thing or another, you know, starting a family and all that kind of stuff. It just seemed so daunting.”
He asked around and found an older man who took him on as a barber apprentice. He passed his certification test in April and found a job working as a barber at The Cut Company, a business in Baden, close to his home. He loves it and found the work to be more personable and social than he expected.
“When you are fortunate enough to get return clients, you get glad to be able to see them and talk to them again. Like I have one guy, that’s one of my regulars, and we’re both Star Wars fans, so when he’s in the chair, I get to talk Star Wars with him,” Rhodes says. “It’s an interesting career on many levels.”
For some, the Great Reassessment has meant staying in the same field while recalibrating work-life relationships.
Kahmeela Adams, a 46-year-old Swisshelm Park resident, worked as the program coordinator for the Office of Public Art in Pittsburgh. Adams had a daughter and, not too long after, the pandemic hit. She had already switched to part-time work with OPA to be able to spend more time with her daughter and decided to take the plunge and work fully for herself.
“I had spent a lot of years helping other artists create their works and their visions and make their dreams a reality, and then I just, I needed to do it for myself, finally,” Adams says.
Now, Adams spends her whole work week on her own terms, largely earning an income from podcast production and freelance writing. She helps clients with every step of the podcast process and hosts some herself, such as the art podcast Sounds from the Studio, and writes for outlets like Looper, a pop culture website with 42 million monthly visitors, according to its owner, Static Media. She works mostly at home, but spends about two days a week at an office space near her home that she shares with her husband, a city of Pittsburgh lawyer.
If the pandemic never happened, she suspects she wouldn’t be working for herself.
“I probably would have stayed in my comfort zone of just relying upon the steady paycheck and going to the office and just doing what I knew,” Adams says.
Having a daughter forces Adams to think about the example she sets. She wants her daughter to know she can pursue whatever she likes whenever she’s old enough to worry about the job market.
“I also want to be a good role model for my daughter,” Adams says. “I want her to be able to see that there are other options. You don’t have to necessarily just go work for somebody if you don’t want to. You can find and make your own marketable skills and do your own thing.”