This spring Rachel Miller was doing phone sales for a Twin Cities company that sews logos on hats and T-shirts. In April, the company laid off about three-quarters of its staff, including Miller.

Today, she's selling houses and has zero regrets. Barely a month after passing her real estate licensing exam in early September, she had seven deals in the works.

"There are more people out there looking to buy and sell than there are agents," said Miller, who has a degree in biomedical sciences. "And I needed a new career."

The global pandemic is producing a bumper crop of new agents, including many who have lost jobs in other sectors because of COVID-19.

Since the beginning of the year, more than 3,700 people have applied to take the state's real estate licensing test, a 5% increase over last year, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Commerce. The bulk of those applications came in since the beginning of the pandemic, which has caused the state's unemployment rate to soar.

Miller and other mid-pandemic agents say they have been drawn to real estate, one of the few sectors of the economy that's thriving these days, because they are weary of the corporate grind and want more control of their life at a time of economic uncertainty.

"I was really ready to have more control over my success," said Christina Zajic, who has joined the ranks of real estate newcomers.

After several years in a senior position at a local public relations company that was recently acquired by a national firm, Zajic had grown weary of a series of downsizings and consolidations that left her in a constant state of unease. By the time the pandemic rolled around, she was more than ready to trade the security of a regular paycheck for more autonomy.

"I didn't want to lay awake at night any longer and worry if a layoff was around the corner," she said.

Though she had no plan for leaving the agency, she started studying for her real estate license months before the pandemic. Earlier this year, it was clear that her position was likely to be eliminated, and with the recession setting in, her job prospects were grim.

"I was trying to replace a six-figure income at a time when companies weren't hiring," she said. "Companies are seeing hundreds of applicants."

She's already helped several buyers and sellers, including some who were forced to move out of state because of COVID-related job changes. One friend built a tiny house in northeast Minneapolis, but had to sell it this summer when he was transferred to Las Vegas.

Zajic said the government shutdown forced her to find new ways to market properties at a time when open houses and other traditional market techniques were off the table. The listing got multiple offers and sold for more than the list price.

"It was truly like trying to launch a rocket," she said of trying to start her business in the midst of a pandemic.

Brokers said many of those newcomers bring fresh skills to an industry that has been slow to adopt technology that's now standard. Agents now rely on a host of new sales and marketing tools, including virtual reality house tours and artificial intelligence software that help buyers narrow their options by monitoring their search preferences.

Kris Lindahl, a Twin Cities broker who recently opened several new offices in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Colorado, is tapping into this growing pool of new agents with a scholarship program aimed at wooing people from other industries.

The program started in July 2019, drawing 450 applicants that year. Seventy finished the program. Applications swelled to 2,000 so far this year, with 350 completing the program.

"The real estate market has not slowed down, so we've been actively looking to grow," he said.

While many brokerages have traditionally focused on hiring only seasoned agents with years of experience, Lindahl's growth is being fueled in large part by new agents. At the beginning of the year the brokerage had 125 agents, but now has more than twice as many.

Officials from the state and local Realtors' associations said recessions are always turbulent times for membership. Typically, recessions cause declines in home sales, forcing many agents to pursue other careers and brokerages to consolidate.

The Minnesota Association of Realtors, a professional association for agents, saw a slight decline in new memberships during the spring government shutdown. But during August, the group has added more new members than in any single month since early 2019, according to Heather Boschke, MAR's vice president of market and communications.

Since March the association added more than 1,100 total new members, with nearly 60% of them joining from July through September.

Though home sales this year are expected to outpace 2019, new agents are getting into the business at an especially competitive time. House listings are near record lows, so agents are hungry for sellers. Agents who work with buyers are also in the hot seat. Houses often sell in hours and bidding wars are common. And, as seasoned agents know all too well, real estate isn't immune to its own boom-and-bust cycles.

Jo Burr is up for those challenges and the uncertainty. After years in the corporate world, she was laid off in March from her job in development and training and immediately started studying for her real estate. The mother of five said she has no interest in going back to a traditional 9-to-5 job that keeps her tethered to an office.

"Real estate is not a butt-in-chair job," she said. "And jumping in now when things are crazy busy is a good way to get started."

Burr said that three weeks after getting her license she put together two deals and was working on several more. The pace is thrilling, she said, but she's well aware that the good times won't last forever.

"I know it will come and go, and ebb and flow," she said. "But I like the challenge of that."

Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376