As the economy gets shakier, it's easy to go into panic mode: My job, my home, my future -- nothing is turning out the way I'd planned! Yet you could also look at the upheaval as a wake-up call: It's time to take stock, gain a skill, take a big chance. Consider:
- Six years ago, Laura N. was a divorced mother of three whose job selling satellite TV service barely paid the bills. Now she's an English teacher, and her salary of $38,000 plus overtime and benefits have allowed her to buy a home.
- Brad Bigelow worked up to 100 hours a week while getting a coffee roasting business off the ground in Anchorage, Alaska. He didn't take a salary for four years, waiting tables at night to pay his bills. Now the company has numerous wholesale accounts and 13 retail stores.
- Angela H. and her husband were falling behind on their bills because of seasonal layoffs and the demands of raising two kids, one of whom is disabled. These days she earns a good paycheck as a design engineer for a heavy-equipment company.
All of them succeeded thanks to hard work and long hours. They could just as easily have crashed and burned. But they felt the only way to achieve big changes in their lives was to make big changes in their lives.
They used economic uncertainty as a catalyst for personal growth. So can you, especially if you're facing a potential layoff. Sure, it's terrifying, even if you don't like your job, but it may also be liberating.
"We can reframe it: 'I was getting pretty tired of that job, and maybe this is a chance to reinvent myself,'" says Jinny Tesik, a Seattle-area counselor who specializes in life transitions. Job loss can "open up doors you didn't even know were there."
Here's where to begin.
Think 'recession-proof'Not everyone has the luxury of full-scale reinvention, at least right away. If you've been laid off, for example, the push might be to get a job before the next month's rent is due. After all, 50% of Americans have just one month's worth or less of living expenses saved. They need what author Ron Krannich calls "a lifeboat job."
"It may not be the greatest job in the world, but it might work out," says Krannich, whose book "Change Your Job, Change Your Life: Careering and Re-Careering in the New Boom/Bust Economy" is in its ninth edition.
A lifeboat job pays the bills in the short term while you think about long-term changes, such as career retraining or saving to start a business. To stay afloat for the long term, consider "recession-proof" fields such as heating and air conditioning, plumbing or health care.
"You can't 'offshore' those jobs," Krannich says.
Making tough choicesGoing back to school isn't easy, especially if you have children. Laura N. kept her satellite TV sales job for the first year while taking night classes. She quit once she had enough credits to become a substitute teacher, then spent her days subbing and tutoring and her nights at college. After two and a half grueling years, at times taking twice the minimum number of credits, she graduated in May 2005. She landed a job in Florida a year later.
Laura, now 39, wishes she hadn't had to spend so much time away from her three children. "But I feel I had no choice," the teacher says. In fact, she's glad she got out when she did: Her former boss has laid off most of his employees due to the economic downturn.
"Now I have a savings account, and my credit's good, and I'm being paid what I'm worth, and I have nice benefits," Laura says. "I don't feel like I'm living month to month."
Take 'a great leap of faith'Month-to-month living would have been an improvement for Angela H. and her husband, a construction worker who looked for odd jobs during seasonal layoffs. A licensed massage therapist, Angela worked part time for a chiropractor. Medical costs for their disabled child kept them in the hole financially.
"I could see we were never going to do better," Angela says.
She went to a local college in search of a career that would pay well but also engage her brain. Engineering looked like a good fit. Angela chose plastics engineering because it was a less crowded field and because a "women in plastics" scholarship was available (she later won it).
"I was both afraid and thinking, 'What have I got to lose?'" she says now.
That was in 1998. Angela spent two and a half years at a community college before transferring to a four-year institution. The scholarship did not cover all expenses, and she was unaware of Pell Grants and other financial aid. The couple scraped by for five years, paying tuition in bits and pieces as money became available. In 2003, Angela graduated with a bachelor of science degree.
What she calls "a great leap of faith" paid off despite those who told her it was a terrible idea. Their income has more than doubled since she started working. Without her salary, they'd be in debt with no clear way out.
Besides, the job has "been wonderful," she says. "I love what I do."