Page last updated at 23:08 GMT, Tuesday, 30 June 2009 00:08 UK

Job fears spark 'Plan B' career hunts

By Claire Prentice
New York

Neil Callaghan
Former Wall Street broker Callaghan is taking book-keeping classes.

It never hurts to have something up your sleeve: that's the theory behind a growing trend in the world of work.

In the face of a contracting economy, more and more professionals are devising Plan B careers.

Fearing that they may be made redundant, or despairing at the widespread demise of their industry, they continue to turn up at the office each day.

But at the same time, they are secretly enrolling in night classes, signing up for online courses, engaging in research, writing up business plans and approaching potential backers to prepare themselves for an alternative career.

Unlike downsizing, where workers seek a better work-life balance, Plan B-ers often enjoy the job they are leaving, but fear that today's economic climate and industry changes mean it no longer offers them a viable long-term career.

"This is what we expect to see in times of recession," says John Gnuschke, director of the Sparks Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Memphis.

"People retool and find opportunities in other areas of the economy.

"Insecurity always causes people to rethink their view of their future. People can't count on a single employer or even a single industry anymore.

"If you're lucky enough to still have a job it's still wise to begin to retrain and to broaden your skill base."

Finding a sweet spot

Caitlin Kelly, 52, a Canadian-born newspaper journalist and author of "Blown Away: American Women and Guns", is a typical example.

David Gray doing his main job as magazines art director, carrying actor Hugh Dancy fully clothed into the middle of Soho House's rooftop pool for a photoshoot. Photo: Danielle St Laurent
Art director David Gray runs a t-shirt and print business on the side.

Ms Kelly continues to work as a freelance journalist for newspapers including the Wall Street Journal, but has branched out into retail and plans to start a wedding photography business.

As she points out, people will always want to get married and to shop.

"I have been a professional journalist since the age of 18 and have so loved it that I have never seriously considered tackling anything else," she says.

"But I've reached the stage where I need to work in a more stable industry with long term prospects.

"The challenge of Plan B is finding a sweet spot, something that combines a good income, is enjoyable and is something I already know how to do or can learn quickly and affordably."

Lucrative creativity

David Gray's Plan B came about not an alternative career but as another outlet for his creativity.

We've had people from all walks of life coming to retrain, from the ordinary man on the street to Park Avenue professionals in Gucci loafers and Ralph Lauren suits
Deborah Harris, adult education program director at The City University of New York

By day, the Scot works in New York as a creative director in magazines but in his spare time he runs Oddhero, a graphic t-shirts and print business.

Mr Gray recalls the long hours he spent in the studio checking the ink on prints or wrapping t-shirts when his friends were in the pub.

"It pays to have a Plan B, as there's no such thing as a job for life now," he says.

"I'm lucky, I wake up and look forward to going to work, but I also love my Plan B, and things change.

"It wasn't dreamed up as an insurance policy, but this is a changing world and a volatile industry and if it all went wrong, I could easily see myself living by a beach, running my own business, if there was ever enough money in it.

"An ideal world is both, where one complements the other."

Starting from scratch

A spate of recent high-profile closures in newspaper and magazine publishing, manufacturing, real estate and printing have left workers feeling vulnerable.

According to experts, workers in other fields such as finance, IT and the charity sector are also jumping ship.

Irina Melloy has worked at a London art gallery for 15 years, but plans to use her summer holidays to take a course teaching English to foreign students.

"It is a great fallback, which should guarantee me work anywhere in the world," she says.

Neil Callaghan, 53, was a broker on Wall Street, earning $100,000 £60,000 a year, before he became an operations specialist in a bid to broaden his skill base.

He is now taking a book-keeping class in the hope of further improving his long term employability.

"I've started networking and I'm studying in all my spare time so that I can get some new skills on my resume fast," he says.

"It's not easy to start from scratch again, but what's the alternative?"

Changed focus

Vocational colleges and universities across the US are a surge in applicants as people of all ages flock to take night classes, online courses and in some cases full degrees with the hope of improving their employment prospects.

"It's been years since we've had to put on so many classes," says Deborah Harris, adult education program director at The City University of New York.

"We've had people from all walks of life coming to retrain, from the ordinary man on the street to Park Avenue professionals in Gucci loafers and Ralph Lauren suits."

Record numbers of people in the US are currently applying for public sector posts, such as police and fire service jobs and administrative positions in federal and state government.

Colleges and universities offering courses in nursing are also reporting an increase in queries.

Broad skill set

According to experts, this is not the first time workers have been forced to go back to the drawing board.

Just as the economy moves in a cycle of boom and bust, so industries grow and contract over time.

"What we're seeing is proof that people can be flexible, the market can work," says Mr Gnuschke.

"The employees who are adaptable and have a broad skill set are going to do best."

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