‘It’s Time for a Change’: Workers Idled by the Virus Try New Careers

MANCHESTER, England — As a national lockdown was imposed in March, a food deliverer, Hanna Scaife, watched her weekly hours plummet from 30, to five, then zero as restaurants across Teesside, in northeast England, shut their doors.

Business hasn’t gotten much better since then.

“It’s been really tough,” said Ms. Scaife, who has worked for over a year delivering food by car to customers’ doorsteps. She described the past few months as a balancing act: “How much can I rely on my credit card? How much can I rely on my overdraft? What can I do without this week? Do I really need that much fuel in my car?”

Rather than wait for business to pick up, Ms. Scaife, 24, is giving up the delivery job and moving in an entirely different direction: She has enrolled in an art school beginning in September, with plans to transfer to the University of Sunderland to study ceramics and glass.

The economic collapse caused by the coronavirus has put millions of economic futures in doubt. More than nine million people have been furloughed in Britain, or 29 percent of the country’s work force, and 2.8 million have filed unemployment claims. Some fields, such as hospitality or live entertainment, seem especially uncertain, leaving some people in a quandary: Wait for business and employment to pick up, or leave behind a job and career and try something new?

For Ms. Scaife, the choice became simple as the lockdown wore on. Without her weekly income of about 400 pounds ($500) from the food delivery job, she has relied on a new part-time job at a gas station near home and her mother’s savings to cover her monthly expenses.

Going to art school is something she’s wanted to do for years, along with eventually, perhaps, opening her own seaside ceramics shop. When her work dried up, she realized how little support she had in her food-delivery job, and it’s unclear how steady that work will be.

“I think the pandemic has brought those issues right to the forefront of my mind,” she said. “I think it’s time for a change.”

She will still need to work park-time while she attends school, but she said she would look for a better job than delivering food. Britain has a program to support self-employed workers with up to 80 percent of their average monthly profits, but as a food-delivery contractor who initially earned little, she was able to access only £240 to last three months. “It feels like a slap in the face,” she said.

Nicola Block, 35, studied theater and has held jobs in the industry for 10 years, working contract to contract designing sets and costumes from Sydney to London. When the coronavirus hit she was working as a theater designer at an independent school. She was placed on furlough and the school guaranteed her full wages until her contract came to an end in June.

But the future of live theater is under a huge cloud. Even when it is allowed to resume, it is uncertain how many people will be willing to risk attending a performance in a crowded West End venue.

Ms. Block decided to switch careers. In September, she will begin a 12-month contract as a teaching assistant at a primary school in southeast London.

The decision wasn’t easy.

“I’m really torn,” Ms. Block said. “It’s something that I’m interested in and something that I want to do, so that’s great, but on the other hand I kind of feel like I’m abandoning something.”

Teaching offers far more job security than theater, she figures. “There’s not going to be as many jobs out there, so it makes sense to capitalize on the skills that I’ve got.”

For others, like Vedi Roy, the path forward isn’t as clear cut.

Mr. Roy, 26, was preparing a drag theater piece for an arts festival in Watford, outside London, when the country entered lockdown. Since then, he said, he’s received only a small sum from the government’s program to support self-employed people. He’s living with his grandmother and great-uncle, and trying to find “anything” to help keep them afloat.

He’s already logged 10 years in the arts industry as an actor, writer and director. “I had a really good career pre-lockdown,” Mr. Roy said. Although he is holding out hope that live theater will resume soon, he’s exploring other options.

“I want that same job satisfaction in a different way,” he said.

He has experience leading workshops with L.G.B.T.Q. and low-income youth, and would like to do similar social work and counseling, perhaps eventually going back to school for a master’s degree in drama and movement therapy.

That career shift was never something he took seriously, he said, until the pandemic.

“I’ve always wanted to help people,” Mr. Roy said. “If I can do that on a one-to-one basis as a therapist, then that’s gold dust.”

Angela Saunders, 39, is excited for the future. Over the past decade she built a hospitality and catering recruitment business with her husband in Scarborough, northeast England, finding workers for jobs at restaurants and hotels including the luxurious Savoy in London.

That all ended with the pandemic. The business that once brought in £9,000 a month (about $11,500) plummeted to nothing.

“It was a nightmare,” she said.

But the sudden disruption to her work life had an unexpected benefit. “I’ve spent more time at home,” she said, with her two boys, ages 7 and 10. “We’ve changed the way we live and I feel a lot happier.”

Now relying on nearly £1,500 in government furlough payments each month for herself and her husband, time at home has given her the opportunity to reconsider how to emerge from the pandemic.

With all the uncertainty surrounding hotels and restaurants, and with their business unlikely to reopen, Ms. Saunders and her husband plan to pivot and begin buying and selling vintage clothing. It’s a venture as they used to run years ago, at vintage fairs and local markets around the country. Ms. Saunders has already set up a Facebook page.

“Although recruitment can earn us a lot of money,” she said, “taking a step back has made me realize, really, I’d rather just have enough money and more happiness.”

“Coronavirus acted as a catalyst for me,” said Susie Middleton, 39, who was working as a sales manager for a tour operator in Oxfordshire when she was put on furlough at the beginning of April.

Within two months, after 15 years in the travel industry, she realized the employment landscape was shifting.

“I feel that everything’s going to be different when we come out of this, everybody’s going to be transforming work,” Ms. Middleton said. She decided to leave her job and become a project manager in the travel, public or nonprofit sectors.

She figures that many people who began working from home during the lockdown will continue doing just that after the pandemic, putting new demands on organizations to manage remote employees and flexible work schedules. She took a two-day course recently to further her qualifications in project management, and already has a few interviews lined up, she said.

“They’re going to need project managers, and I want to be ready to get involved in that,” she said.

For many workers, the transition to more secure positions will be difficult, because they will require retraining and further education, and be competing against a flood of other unemployed people, said Michael Koch, an assistant professor for human resource management and organizational behavior at the University of Kent.

“The gig economy is going to grow as a result of Covid,” he said, as businesses will aim to employ workers on short-term contracts or use more casual labor to maintain flexibility should a lockdown happen again. Britain already has 4.7 million gig economy workers.

Qasim Mirza, 45, has worked as a private driver for 15 years, successfully competing with ride hailing apps like Uber and weathering London’s increasing road restrictions and traffic-congestion charges. Last year, he took out a loan to buy a Mercedes that cost £65,000, hoping to cater to his mostly international clientele, who hire him for trips across Britain, airport transfers and sightseeing tours.

The pandemic has hurt him on many levels. Business travel and tourism have plummeted, and workers don’t need rides around downtowns when they are working at home.

He’s essentially been home since March, trying to support his parents, partner and two children.

“It’s been a real disaster for me,” he said. “I am frantically trying to find an exit strategy.”

There are some consolations. He has been able to delay his £1,000-per-month car payments until August, and he has received grants for the self-employed totaling £6,000 since April.

He will wait until August before deciding whether to leave his chauffeur business behind. “I don’t have any sort of skills on paper,” he said, despite “lots of experience” behind the wheel. He has begun exploring other business ventures, with the possibility of working in the security industry.

“A guy like me who’s basically financed to the eyeballs in this car,” Mr. Mirza said. “What do I do now?”

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