Life

The pandemic is causing people at every stage of their career to evaluate past choices. For some this means a radical and difficult change, for others it’s a new adventure. By Marty Smiley.

Career pivots

Yasmin studying in her parent’s granny flat in Sydney’s western suburbs.
Credit: Supplied

Ruby*, 25, is staring out of the bedroom window in her parents’ home. The 30-hectare farm in country Victoria is a place she’s spent a lot of time in during the past 12 months. It is the scene of her “quarter-life crisis”.

“I dreamed of leaving town,” Ruby says. “I dreamed of meeting new people. I dreamed of opening up my world to different possibilities.”

Since she graduated from her degree in paramedicine in 2019, Ruby’s been waiting to start her dream job as a paramedic. In 2021, she wonders whether that will ever happen.

Despite having active applications in several states, it’s been radio silence from potential employers. She’s yet to get an interview at any ambulance organisation. When Ruby has asked for feedback from recruitment services, the responses have been generic and rarely reassuring.

It’s a limbo hundreds of other paramedic graduates find themselves in.

The career pivot isn’t a new concept, but in the middle of a pandemic, changing careers in an insecure job market hurts. For many Australians that choice has become inescapable as their work dried up. For some it has become a LinkedIn buzz phrase that softens a worker’s redundancy announcement or hides a more crushing truth: that a vocational aspiration has become unreachable. For others the pandemic has led to epiphanies that couldn’t be ignored. Either way, the career pivot carries a hidden emotional toll, along a road that remains uncertain.

“It’s frustrating,” Ruby reflects. “I have so much to give, but I’m not getting a chance. I feel like a failure.”

Unlike a law or engineering degree, Ruby is limited in where she can apply her paramedicine degree. It’s highly specific to her chosen industry. Without having other viable options for employment, she’s been forced to choose a new career.

Ruby has returned to university to do a bachelor of nursing, something she believes, this time, will guarantee her a job. Her friends in the sector who’ve made the same move tell her it has led to more consistent work and a clearer career pathway. It might be a sidestep from her goals, but it will move her closer to something she craves more than ever: security.

However, the change has already started to bring up feelings of self-doubt. Her new university was unwilling to grant her credits from the paramedicine degree, which means she’s required to complete the three years in full. It puts her at the same level as a high-school graduate, repeating subjects she’s already completed, including a certificate in first aid.

“It’s a real kick in the teeth. It’s like I’m starting all over again,” Ruby says.

 

“A career pivot suggests that people have control,” points out Alison Pennington, economist at The Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work.

“It’s an incredibly sad term. It’s a portal into disempowerment. The very idea of it robs people of agency over their work. Wrapped up in it is this notion that people can game the labour market and ‘power play’ their way to the top again,” Pennington says.

The economy tells a sobering story. Since the global financial crisis (GFC) in 2007-08, the quantity of work available has been insufficient. This has suppressed wages as employers shift towards more insecure job structures, capitalising on employees who aren’t confident enough to look for work elsewhere. When staff fear unemployment or employment in a job of lesser quality to their previous one, businesses can avoid raising wages.

It’s a reality that disproportionately affects women. A recent report by the Centre for Future Work found that 8 per cent of women lost their jobs during peak lockdown – more than 2 percentage points higher than for men.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, women were already on unequal footing. “Women were more subject to insecure work arrangements, more likely to be employed in part-time, casual, and temporary positions, and work low-wage jobs,” said Pennington.

Although many jobs have returned, “women’s employment, underemployment, and participation all remain significantly weaker than for men”.

The economic downturn will entrench lifetime earnings gaps, with “women workers ‘snapping back’ to a world of paid work that engages them on inferior terms compared with men”, the report explained.

Pennington believes this environment is robbing people of a fair go in the workforce. The pandemic wasn’t the driver of issues in an already bleak labour market but it has certainly exacerbated them.

“If you were to compile all the costs of a person – especially a woman – changing careers, which includes years out of the workforce, that’s already tens of thousands of dollars of lost income. Then you’re also taking on debt to do new study. So not only are you permanently altering your lifetime wages, you’re also paying for the cost of transition.”

It’s also a sombre reality of this article that people interviewed were reluctant to talk about previous employers, in case that harms their future prospects, in the current climate.

When Marcia*, who is in her late 40s, lost an administration job she’d held for 15 years at a Queensland university, she started packing her household items into boxes. “It was scary,” she says. “I have a mortgage. I wasn’t sure how I would afford it without an income.”

Marcia lives alone in a brick-veneer townhouse in Geebung, a suburb of northern Brisbane. She came to Australia in 1994 from Pentecost Island in Vanuatu. As she recounts her story, her eyes are fixed on a wooden crucifix that hangs on her wall. It’s the first thing she sees when she wakes, the last before she sleeps. Her faith has been a real constant over the past 12 months, with her church community her main support network.

“It’s been a bit of a grieving process,” she says.

More than 150 other employees were made redundant at her workplace at the same time. Marcia is one of more than 17,000 people who’ve lost their jobs at Australian universities since the Covid-19 pandemic began.

For Marcia, her career pivot was somewhat serendipitous. When she was facing redundancy at the university, she became more involved in a tertiary workers’ union, which led to a new job offer as a union organiser.

She’s now several weeks into a new role in a new workplace. Although she was grateful to find employment, it has come with challenges.

“I’m older than most here. My past experiences aren’t really valued as much as I’d like them to be. You’re learning from scratch. It’s like starting from ground zero.”

Marcia is now earning 25 per cent less than in her previous job, to work in a role she’s overqualified for. It’s a cold hard reality for many who’ve been forced into a career pivot.

Studies have shown that overeducation and overskilling can have the largest negative impact on job satisfaction. Although it’s something people can adapt to, overskilling can be a real blow to a person’s wellbeing, and it’s yet another hidden cost in a job transition.

“It’s a horrible feeling,” says Marcia. “It’s like, ‘I know what I’m capable of’, but no one has asked me.”

Marcia spends a lot of time worrying about her superannuation, mortgage and ongoing bills. She wonders how long this work will sustain her or whether she’ll have to “return to the village”.

“My faith keeps me going for now. I have a job. I have a roof over my head. As a union rep, I see a lot of the workers I now visit are in much worse conditions than me. I want to help.”

Not all career pivots are forced upon us.

Yasmin*, 24, came to hers voluntarily during the first lockdown in New South Wales. The solitude allowed her to think.

Unable to leave her “shoebox” in Sydney’s inner west, away from the office – a buzzy PR firm in Paddington – and without social events on the calendar or any colleagues there to distract her, she was able to reflect.

“I asked myself: ‘Is this what I want to do?’ I didn’t want to keep pitching fluff pieces to the Today show. So I quit.”

After three years working in public relations and earning a comfortable wage, Yasmin handed in her resignation letter and enrolled in a psychology degree.

She’s now living with her parents in a granny flat further west in order to save money.

“Family friends told me: ‘You’ve come so far! Why change now?’ They don’t understand the idea of dropping something you’re doing to pursue something that gives you purpose.”

Without children to care for or a mortgage to pay off, Yasmin felt confident enough to make a change before she was too far into a career she wasn’t enjoying.

However a person’s career path plays out, the career pivot as a transition is never a smooth one. Whether it happens because of a broader societal change, a personal epiphany or a workplace redundancy, it rarely occurs in a single moment. It’s a process, often long and deeply entwined with a person’s identity, regardless of whether they are just starting out or in the prime of their careers. It is not simply a matter of finding a different rung on the ladder. It could be finding a whole new ladder, or abandoning the ladder entirely.

For Yasmin, the pivot didn’t come without sacrifice, but she now feels emboldened by her decision.

“I felt kind of spoilt for even having the luxury to consider a change of career,” Yasmin says. “It was also liberating and humbling to have the choice. People were losing their jobs – even people in my building were having to move out of their apartments during the pandemic – and there I was. But I had to follow my gut. I knew I wanted to do something more fulfilling.”

* Names have been changed.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 12, 2021 as "Turning points".

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Marty Smiley is a journalist based in Sydney.