IT WAS EXACTLY TWO WEEKS after the attack on the World
Trade Center, and Donna McCusker, an advertising professional in Manhattan, was
entertaining thoughts of dropping out. Becoming a "hippie on a hill" is the
way she put it to a dozen people striving to regroup from the shock and move
Sept. 11 was a clarion call for her to recapture a feeling of really making
a difference in individuals' lives, she told the group. She told them about
the days, back when she was a struggling divorced parent of three young
daughters, when she began taking in abused foster children, and how rewarding
it felt to help them. Now she was torn. Should she leave her well-paying
position and turn her seven-bedroom weekend home in Oxford, N.Y., near
Binghamton into a haven for young women facing motherhood alone?
"We think we have so much time, but today may be the last day," said
McCusker, 55, in a later interview. "We may be out of time and not know it."
At a time when so much in the world has changed, career aspirations and
plans are also tilting in new directions. People who watched the outpouring of
assistance at the World Trade Center and surrounding areas now are strongly
considering jobs that allow them to "give back" to the world around them.
Others may want new careers that can help provide safety and security to a
world that sorely needs it - with some exploring jobs with police departments,
the military or intelligence-gathering agencies.
Whether or not people actually change jobs depends on many things, from
their talent and experience to their bank accounts. It also depends on
externals like the uncertain economy, how many layoffs lie ahead and more.
Because of the unyielding need for a regular paycheck, far more people will
think about switching than will actually switch, career experts say.
While it's far too soon to say what actions people will take, the career
aftermath of the World Trade Center tragedy will surely go beyond "the people
who lost jobs and the jobs that lost people," says Carol Feit Lane, founder and
president of Manhattan's Career Development Specialist's Network, an
information and support group for career experts.
One person who's about to say goodbye to a lucrative profession is Jennifer
Bussell, 32, a marketing consultant for the likes of Citicorp in Long Island
City, who said in an e-mail:
"With the market plummeting before Sept. 11th and in the wake of that
horrific tragedy, I have done some serious soul-searching and realize that all
the time, effort and energy I have put into my career is so incredibly
unfulfilling and has little to no tangible reward other than a paycheck. At the
end of the day, all I want to do is help people improve their lives...
"So I have decided to apply for the New York City Teaching Fellows
program...As a teacher I would then be making one-third of my salary as a
marketing professional. I would go from a secured office building to an
underperforming school...But it seems like a risk worth taking to give
She's already attended an introductory session and is filling out the
application. If all goes well, she could be teaching as soon as February,
though next fall is possible, too. Her thinking? "If you have limited time, you
might as well make positive use of it."
Still, career experts generally advise against moving too quickly in the
face of a trauma. They see the following emerging patterns:
A group of people like Bussell who see the tragedy as a call to action,
those who have already left or will soon leave their jobs in search of work
that offers more personal satisfaction, be it in a helping profession or in a
capacity directly connected to the war against terrorism.
A larger number of people still in so much shock, pain or sadness that
they're not sure which direction to turn.
The majority, who are likely to either re-dedicate themselves to jobs they
already enjoy - or who will stick with unsatisfying ones in the face of a
difficult job market.
At the beginning of the evening meeting on regrouping, it sounded as though
McCusker might join that first group, not so much fleeing work she didn't
enjoy - she says she works for a "great [ad] agency" - as embracing a personal
mission. But "why can't you do both?" asked career and life coach Laura Berman
Fortgang, the guest speaker at the event sponsored by the e-mail group Company
of Friends. In other words, why not use her job as a platform for doing the
work that gives her so much satisfaction? It's called staying where you are but
"turning up the volume of who you really are," said Fortgang, of Verona, N.J.,
and author of "Living Your Best Life" (Tarcher/Putnam, $23.95). That's what
she's advising clients who are reluctant to jump ship at a time like this. She
tells them to "go back with an open mind and generous heart." A time like this,
she says, is "fertile ground" for blooming where you're planted.
That advice made sense to McCusker, who says she has gone back to her job
as a content strategist in the interactive department of Ogilvy & Mather with a
new enthusiasm, offering up her skills in marketing and public relations to
help the firm "utilize resources more effectively." She's also checking into
social-services programs for young mothers in the Oxford area to see where she
can be of help.
"I thought it had to be one way or the other," she says. But "the best of
all worlds is to keep the position I have and let it support what else I want
to do ... "
Jean Sun Shaw, a career and outplacement consultant in Manhattan, would
agree. While recent events can be seen as a wake-up call, she says, "I caution
against taking any drastic action at this time...I suggest we use this
experience as a call to engage in an inquiry, to soul-search, to explore and
discover," thus allowing for "decisions that come from a more centered place."
Many will take months to get to such a place. Those who are still reeling
in the aftermath of the attacks, feeling too shocked, sad, or drained to see a
clear path, were plunged from summer directly into winter, says
career-transition consultant Carol McClelland of Palo Alto, Calif. She likens
the entire job-loss process - and what many are going through now after the
horrors - to the changing seasons. In summer, life is good. Then comes fall,
which offers warnings that things may not be the same. In the work world, a
layoff - or a soul-shaking tragedy - may come along and plunge us into a winter
that confuses us both about who we are and what's going to happen. But if all
goes well, we begin to perceive future possibilities. Then we pass a turning
point and spring arrives, she says, with summer right behind.
So people who are feeling that sadness, emptiness and exhaustion must
"honor the need to soul-search," says McClelland, author of "The Seasons of
Change: Using Nature's Wisdom to Grow Through Life's Inevitable Ups and Downs"
(Conari Press, $14.95). Honoring that need, she says, means taking at least 15
minutes of quiet time a day to do "purposeful refection." It might include a
walk in nature, sitting with a candle, listening to music - providing "a bubble
of safety to go to when you're feeling shaken and vulnerable." She also says
this is no time to make rash moves or to throw yourself into work to beat the
pain down. "Sit with the unknown and process it," she says.
Writing is what's helping Michele Patterson, 38, who in an e-mail said, "It
was a week later when I first felt sucker-punched, nauseous and varying
hot/cold waves. It hasn't gotten much better and the only place I feel safe is
in bed or at my boyfriend's ... All of this has made me completely re-evaluate
not just my job, but working in the city. I'd been thinking about it for months
prior, even years, but a good salary in this market has kept me from acting.
Plus, I do love my job and the people I work with, which is a tough combination
Yet, she says she's feeling a yearning to simplify - fantasizing about such
jobs as a decorative house painter, camp counselor or administrative
assistant. "Will I act?" asks this hiring and public-relations manager for
MusicVision, an Internet advertising network in Manhattan. "I suppose I will
wait and see and hope that these feelings lessen - the feelings of upset, not
the refreshed desire to reassess my life." It's through writing on these
subjects that she says she hopes to find clarity.
Both McCusker and Patterson have jobs. But what about the job hunters, both
those who were already looking and those who joined the ranks of the
unemployed as the ripple effects of the tragedy? "The rules are different.
People are feeling their way out there," says Alan Kramer, managing consultant
of the Manhattan office of Drake Beam Morin, a human resources firm that
provides outplacement services. People are still getting jobs, though he's
advising candidates to "approach situations with flexibility."
It feels "selfish" to be going on job interviews now, says Stephanie
Cockerl, 28, who had a job interview scheduled the morning of Sept. 11 in Great
Neck, an interview that didn't happen. A Web designer and Internet marketer,
she left a lucrative job about a year ago so she could complete her MBA at
Audrey Cohen College in Lower Manhattan, where she now teaches Internet skills.
She had been supporting herself with stock options from the job she left, but
she's now getting help from her parents, whose message is: "We're proud of you,
professor, but go out and get a full-time job." It's just going to take a
little longer, says Cockerl.
And, what about those people who are sitting on go - those who may just up
and leave their corporate jobs in search of more rewarding work? There's lots
of talk but not a lot of action in that direction so far, says Romolo Marcucci,
executive vice president of Comforce Corp., a staffing firm based in Woodbury.
He's hearing plenty of people talk about pulling up stakes in Manhattan to
move to, say, Vermont or South Carolina to start a bed-and-breakfast or a
nursery, or to write books. He thinks the ones who are serious are waiting for
buy-out packages or severance, which could help get those new businesses up and
Indeed, prudence may well be tempering many people's enthusiasm for a job
change, with an estimated 108,000 jobs expected to be lost in New York City
within a month of the trade center hits, according to the Fiscal Policy
Institute. Of 200 people who responded to a poll on Vault.com - a career and
workplace Web site - 42 percent said that in light of the tragedy they realize
that they need to pursue a career they truly enjoy. But another 33 percent said
they would like a change, though now is not a wise time to move.
While some people will stop procrastinating and start taking concrete
steps, says Shaw, the career consultant, others, those who are more
"risk-averse" or "pragmatic" will opt for what she calls "career continuation.
...All of a sudden, your own backyard doesn't look so dingy anymore."