Starting over again

  • Article by: SUZANNE ZIEGLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 13, 2010 - 7:11 AM

The economy has funneled thousands of Minnesotans into new jobs or even completely different careers.

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Dave Merten bottled a steaming batch of his Snappy Dog Salsa in a rented kitchen in St. Paul. Helping on the left is his son Mike.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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A used-car dealer making and selling his own line of salsa. A corporate project manager running her own business. An assistant principal going back to school. An airline mechanic studying to become a biomedical technician.

They're just a few of the thousands of Minnesotans who are putting their old careers behind them and starting over. For some, the changes are a matter of choice, for most a necessity forced by an economy where starting over in the same line of work has become difficult and sometimes impossible.

A record 20 million-plus Americans collected unemployment benefits at some point in 2009, and many are scrambling to find a job, any job. In Minnesota, the state's dislocated workers program, which helps laid-off workers prepare for finding a new job, had 6,700 clients four years ago. Two years ago: 15,500. By the end of last year, they were approaching 30,000.

Many of them end up making a leap to a job or career they had toyed with but never had because they were afraid to take the plunge.

Anthony Alongi, director of the program, said many of the workers coming for help are finding that they'd fallen victim to "career inertia." They took a job out of high school or college and stayed in the field for years. Suddenly out of work and without ready prospects, they are confronting a new reality -- they are competing with so many other applicants or their industry is going through so much turmoil that their only opportunities may lie in learning entirely new skills or becoming self-employed.

While the changes can be wrenching, they aren't always unwelcome. According to a national survey released last week, job satisfaction is at its lowest in at least 22 years.

"People are reevaluating the world of work," said Irene Rossman, a career counselor at Career Partners International in Bloomington. "People are rethinking their careers. It's that whole work satisfaction aspect -- what am I going to be happy doing?"

From used cars to salsa

Dave Merten, 49, of Woodbury lost his business in 2007 after a new highway cut off access to his used-car dealership in New Richmond, Wis. With nothing to fall back on, he turned to something else he knew -- making salsa.

Now, he rents commercial kitchen space in St. Paul for $15 an hour and makes the salsa in small vats, packages it and stores it in the basement. His Snappy Dog brand is being sold in Whole Foods, some Lunds and Byerly's stores and smaller specialty food stores, and is being phased in at Kowalski's. Merten is also at the St. Paul Farmers Market every weekend.

"I'm learning a whole new business by myself. It's very interesting, but it's not easy," said Merten, who says learning the ropes of a new business is even more challenging because he never graduated from high school.

When asked if breaking into the already competitive salsa business was tough, he quipped with a big belly laugh, "So was selling used cars."

It has been a family affair from the beginning. His 9-year-old daughter helped create the logo with crayons and clip art. The name came about when his son saw a fish called a dog snapper. He got mixed up and called it snappy dog. "We thought it would be a great name for a restaurant someday but ended up using it for this," Merten said.

Merten said he's grateful that he found some success in his new venture -- but he's also grateful that his wife has a good job. "Knock on wood," he said.

His advice to those who want to try their hand at being an entrepreneur? "Have a lot of patience. It's not easy."

Life after Target Corp.

After Lisa Gray was laid off from her job as a Target Corp. project manager in September 2008, she did a lot of soul-searching -- and research. Then she took out a loan through WomenVenture, a St. Paul nonprofit organization, and opened a consignment store called Sassy Seconds and More in Albertville.

"It's scary, it's nerve-racking because you don't want to fail. But I'm confident we can make this work," said Gray, 37, who lives in St. Michael with two small children and a husband who juggles three jobs.

After spending a "whirlwind year" taking classes and learning about running a business, she opened the store exactly one year after she was laid off.

In some respects, losing her job helped propel her to pursue something she had been wanting to do. "It's not fun losing a job after 12 years," she said. "But it was kind of a sense of relief because I was not happy in the position I was in."

She and her husband had been kicking around the idea of opening up a consignment store for years but never pursued it because she had such a good corporate job.

Now, she said, she's happier. "I do wake up once in a while saying 'Oh my gosh, what am I doing?' It's stress, but it's stress that I'm OK with."

Teacher becomes the student

Sometime in 1984, Mary Syfax Noble looked down from the top -- 18 feet to be exact -- of the telephone pole she had climbed for her job with Cincinnati Bell. With just a leather belt keeping her safe, she asked herself: "Who would take care of my baby if I fell?"

She climbed down, walked away and returned to her roots in the field of education.

But that job came to an abrupt end in December 2008 when her position as an assistant principal with the Minneapolis School District was eliminated.

"It came as a shock to me," she said. "All of a sudden -- boom -- I was out of a job. It happened a week before Christmas. January was very tough."

After struggling with what to do next, Noble, who lives in Minneapolis and says only that she is "older than the baby boomers," decided to come full circle and return to her love of technology.

With the help of a scholarship that WomenVenture helped her secure, she is now taking classes at Minneapolis Community & Technical College to become a computer technician.

"It's something I've always wanted to do but haven't had time to do," she said. "When one door closes, you look for another one to open."

While a job loss can bring a heavy sense of hopelessness, she said, it's important to keep a level head.

"Don't throw in the towel, don't panic, and have faith," she said. "Figure out your strengths, what you're good at. Figure out what you've always wanted to be and go for it."

Reinventing himself at 56

Northwest Airlines laid off Mike Krieg from his job as a mechanic in August 2005.

"I had 26 years there. That was all taken away in just one day," he said.

Krieg found work as a machinist but was laid off a second time in May.

After research, interviews about the future job market and with the help of HIRED, which provides job training, he decided to pursue a new career as a biomedical technician.

The 56-year-old Burnsville resident is taking classes at Dakota County Community College and has a mentor at the St. Francis Regional Medical Center in Shakopee, where he hopes to begin an apprentice/volunteer position before the end of the year.

"I was kind of nervous about going back to school because I thought I'd be an oddball," he said. "But I don't feel out of place at all."

Suzanne Ziegler • 612-673-1707

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  • RESOURCES

    Minnesota's Department of Employment and Economic Development: Call 1-888-438-5627, or go to www.positivelyminnesota.com.

    HIRED: Provides job-skills training and other resources in the Twin Cities: Call 612-529-3342 or go to www.hired.org.

    WomenVenture: Helps women start a new business, find a new job or new career path: Call 651-646-3808 or go to www.womenventure.org

    RESOURCES Minnesota's Department of Employment and Economic Development: Call 1-888-438-5627 to be directed to a workforce center. Or go to www.positivelyminnesota.com, which will take you to dozens of resources, including the state's dislocated workers program. HIRED: Provides job-skills training and other resources in the Twin Cities: Call 612-529-3342 or go to www.hired.org. WomenVenture: Helps women start a new business, find a new job or new career path: Call 651-646-3808 or go to www.womenventure.org
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