Dec 8, 2020 - Economy

American workers' stunning pivot

An illustration of a waiter's hand.

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Even after the pandemic is behind us, millions of jobs — most of them in the travel and service industries — will be gone forever, and workers are figuring out their next moves.

The big picture: Pivoting from one career to a whole new one is a difficult feat, but many have pulled it off. That could be a good sign for America's resilience amid the pandemic's economic destruction.

  • "The American worker has proven to be extremely adaptable," says Jane Oates, president of WorkingNation, a nonprofit that raises awareness about the challenges facing U.S. workers, and a former Labor Department official.

There are examples of pivoting from the worker level all the way up to the Fortune 500 level, she says.

  • Former bartenders and restaurant workers have joined training programs and found new jobs at tech companies, the New York Times reports.
  • Restaurants are selling groceries as a new way to make money in the era of social distancing.
  • GM pivoted from cars to ventilators when America needed to fill a shortage.

Case in point: I spoke with Deleyse Rowe, who worked on a cruise ship's service staff until her entire industry was walloped by the pandemic in March.

  • For a couple of weeks, Rowe was hopeful that things would quickly get back to normal. "Then I started to see everything shut down, and I thought, 'OK, this is not coming back for a while,'" she says.
  • Rowe enrolled in a free Amazon Web Services training course at Per Scholas, a nonprofit that provides technology education to low-income adults. The course was funded by AWS, and after completing it, Rowe got a job working at one of the tech giant's data centers, where she's making more than she did on the cruise ship.
  • Rowe loves her new job, but the quick switch wasn't easy. "I can't lie. It's been tough," she says. Rowe says she periodically reaches back out to her former Per Scholas teachers for tips.

But, but, but: Even though there are prominent success stories, preparing millions of displaced workers for the post-pandemic economy won't be possible without massive federal investment, experts say.

  • “We need a New Deal for skills,” Amit Sevak, president of Revature, a company that hires workers, trains them to use digital tools and helps place them in jobs, told the New York Times.

The bottom line: "We're in a Cambrian explosion period of experimentation with new ways of working," says Roy Bahat, a future of work expert and head of Bloomberg Beta, a venture fund backed by Bloomberg LP. "It's showing people will try to adapt if they must."

  • "The issue is that it's unclear if it's actually working. Is it keeping businesses alive? Is it keeping workers employed? Or is it more like a stopgap than meaningful resilience that will produce lasting benefits?" says Bahat.
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