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Career reset button: New job, not like the old job

After a layoff, opting for something completely different.

One in an occasional series.

On the first day of his Florida vacation last July, John Zeiger got a call from work telling him he'd been laid off from his systems-analyst job.

"Guess I'll be a male model now," the fit, 42-year-old Telford, Montgomery County, man announced, capitulating to his wife's longtime exhortations to make money with his smile.

And just like that, a victim of the recession began to reinvent himself.

Zeiger, who has an engineering degree from Pennsylvania State University and 20 years of business experience, also possesses blue eyes and thick, wavy hair.

His wife, Barbara Elk Zeiger, 39, herself a model and actress, had long encouraged Zeiger to make a living with his looks.

So, when the ax swung, Zeiger had two thoughts:

"Things happen for a reason," and, "Where do I go for my head shots?"

Like countless others, Zeiger has been compelled by a broken economy to search out a second act, or encore career, as some are calling it.

And while economists are saying the recession is over, 10 percent unemployment remains like wreckage after a hurricane. As a result, people who dreamed of making it in one career must dream again.

Some fortunate ones like Zeiger have the reserve cash, or use their severances and 401(k) plans, to underwrite those "I-always-wanted-to-be-a . . ." fantasies. Others must use luck, pluck, and government largesse to reeducate themselves in job-training programs or community colleges to snag currently in-demand jobs.

In the end, the goal is a career makeover - a new way through, born of job loss during the worst of times since the Depression.

These days, Zeiger actually feels lucky.

"I will look back on this and be grateful that my former employer set me free," said Zeiger, who worked four years for Penn Mutual Life Insurance Co. in Horsham. A company spokesman would not comment on Zeiger's layoff.

"I don't want to work for corporate America anymore," he added. "Modeling will give me more time with my kids." The couple, married a year, have a blended family of five children, ages 7 to 14.

As much as it fosters anxiety, a layoff can provide much-needed renewal, said Daniel Russell of Atlanta, an organizational psychologist with Aon Corp., human-resource consultants.

"The positive side is, 'I have a completely blank slate,' " Russell said. " 'I can do something fulfilling.' "

Within a month of the Florida reawakening, Zeiger had signed with a modeling agency. With his wife's help, a casting agent sized Zeiger up and said he comes across as an all-American dad type, a doctor or a CEO, good for print ads and commercials.

Zeiger already has appeared in a Dick's Sporting Goods commercial and will soon be in a commercial for FullBar diet bars.

While he acknowledges his new field pays more sporadically and is radically different from his last, Zeiger said he believes he'll land on his feet, his perfect hair unmussed. To make sure, he will also spend time designing Web sites on the side.

"I like the idea of using what I was born with to put food on the table," he said.

"Besides, you only live once."

Taking a leap of faith

All spring, layoff rumors had been flying around the headquarters of AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals L.P. in Wilmington.

The night before the announcements were due, Jingmin Guo couldn't sleep. On the one hand, her job as a statistical programmer was excellent, paying enough for her to support her mother and her 9-year-old son, and to own two houses.

But, deep inside, after more than seven years, she wanted something different.

"I'm 49 now. I can start over," she said, thinking about how she built a life in America over 19 years. When she came from China, she couldn't speak the language, couldn't find her way. "Nineteen years ago, I had nothing. I was like a blind person."

On the eve of the announcements, Guo found a Bible passage that promised she'd be able to walk through fire and not be burned, or through water and not get wet. "I read it five times," she said. "All of a sudden, I felt calm. No matter what, God is with me."

The next morning, she was told to report to human resources at 11 a.m.

"All of a sudden, I feel release," she said. "Maybe it is the fire, maybe it is the water. I don't know, but I am not worried."

Guo was laid off in May, and she started to think about what's next. What first came to mind was elder care. Her father, still in China, had an excellent caregiver until his death from kidney failure in 2006. Guo thought everyone needed the kind of caregiver who offers peace of mind, but she had no idea that this could become a business.

After doing research and consulting a franchise broker, she bought a ComForcare Senior Services franchise, opening an office near her Exton home. Her business aims to arrange for aides to go into people's homes.

Guo is part of a growing trend, born of recession. The number of people interested in buying franchise businesses has tripled since 2007, according to Steven Rosen, chairman and chief executive officer of FranNet L.L.C., a Kentucky company that connects people with franchise opportunities.

"The people we are seeing are involuntary entrepreneurs," Rosen said. They are looking into service businesses that can be entered for $75,000 and can be financed with funds from a 401(k), he added. Severance packages are less generous, bank loans are hard to come by, and tapping into home equity isn't as easy as it once was, given the decline in housing values, he said.

Guo's sister in China lent her $50,000 that Guo will combine with credit from home equity. She has yet to sign her first client.

"Deep down inside, I was scared to do this," she said. "But you just have to start and do it."

'A business in a box'

Dressed in his lucky blue pin-striped suit and matching tie, Sean McEntire, 41, found himself closeted in a Center City conference room interviewing for what, on paper, looked like the perfect job.

It would be at a major telecommunications company doing almost exactly the same work he had done when he was laid off from one of its fiercest rivals Nov. 30, 2008.

"I was in there," McEntire said, "telling my story for the hundredth time, when I had an epiphany: I don't want to do this anymore."

McEntire described it as almost an out-of-body experience. Everyone's lips were moving, all the appropriate banalities were being exchanged, but he felt like he had floated out of the room.

Ultimately, McEntire traded an office in a glass tower for a crisp sunny morning eyeballing a townhouse complex on the edge of Philadelphia. How much paint and how many labor hours would it take to put a fresh coat on the exteriors?

All in a day's work for McEntire, now president of a CertaPro Painters franchise in Lower Bucks County.

"It's exciting and a little bit scary," he said.

As a teenager, McEntire painted houses in the summers. In college, he landed an internship at Verizon and stayed there, rising steadily through the ranks for 18 years until he was laid off. By the time he left, he had a master's degree and was managing 40 or 50 people.

For years, he said, "like a good soldier, I would leave in the morning while my boys were in bed." If he got back to his home in Furlong in time to tuck his boys in at night, he counted himself lucky.

That had to end.

Sitting in that job interview, McEntire realized that nothing would prevent him from being laid off again. Only this time, he'd be low on the totem pole.

Still, it was daunting starting a new business. He did research, then used his 401(k)to buy the franchise - "a business in a box," he called it. He started in August.

If he lands two or three of the jobs in his pipeline, he'll have paid back the initial start-up costs, though not his 401(k).

When he gets a job, he calls in painters as subcontractors. With construction unemployment near 20 percent, the supply is plentiful, even if the jobs are not.

"All those carpenters and laborers who can't get work?" McEntire asked. "All of them are now painters."

Job retraining

Laid off in October from the Treasure Depot gift shop in Woodbury, Gloucester County, Tina Haydu still sells greeting cards and soy candles there to help the owner.

But the mother of three knows she needs to quickly find work, especially since her husband, John, was laid off from his mechanical drafting job the same month.

"I need to reinvent myself with an education to make myself indispensable," said Haydu, 53.

As though the universe were sending signals, Haydu saw a Camden County College syllabus with the headline, "Stimulus money . . . available for job training."

She learned that medical office work - including recording the codes that correspond with diagnoses for insurance billing - is a growing field. She enrolled in a course.

Education is often the career-remaker's primary tool. Enrollment in Pennsylvania's 14 community colleges is up about 10 percent over last year, said Stephen Curtis, president of Community College of Philadelphia.

"We are good at helping the unemployed transition," he said.

Students work toward two-year degrees or certificates for jobs such as pharmacy technician and nurse's assistant. In many cases, community colleges offer laid-off workers a free semester.

Trying the food business

These days, many are considering food a job option in their post-unemployment lives, said Robert Chope, a psychologist with the Career and Personal Development Institute in San Francisco.

"Working in that industry is a fantasy for people; we've become such a food-conscious nation," Chope said.

Jacqueline Thomas combined a love of cooking with a new background in business to launch Quality Thymes six months after being laid off from her job as a staffing coordinator for an elder-care business. "That was the best job I've ever had," she said.

Thomas, 39, of Horsham, now cooks for the elderly or the too-busy. "I don't feel like it's work," she said.

Her career rebirth came via training from the Philadelphia Women's Opportunities Resource Center, which provides technical assistance and low-interest loans to fledgling entrepreneurs.

Food is the future for Ryan Pollock, 25, a laid-off architect who is renting a Fairmount store to create Rybread, a cafe that will serve sandwiches that reflect the tastes of various American cities.

With the help of his father, Pollack said, he will "make people happy with my food, something I always enjoyed." Throughout his childhood, Pollack helped his family with its catering business.

"I never had ego tied to being an architect," Pollock said. "If this fails, at least I'll have tried."

That's the spirit, Thomas agreed. "If you sit around and do nothing, nothing will happen to you. Stick to it and don't give up."

Tips for Starting Over

Looking for a fresh start or new career direction after a layoff? The first step might be to consider polling your friends to learn what they think your strengths are. Or recall what moved and captivated you when you were in high school or college. And you might think about an encore career in a field that does social good, such as teaching and elder care. Read more about it at here. And, to learn about career options and alternatives, read a transcript from Monday's live Web chat with Robert Chope, a psychologist with the Career and Personal Development Institute in San Francisco.


Previous articles in the series, plus Jane Von Bergen's "Jobbing" blog and an interactive map of jobless claims, are at