The risks and rewards of the covid career makeover

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Last March, as her final semester at Georgetown Law School was winding down, Madelle Kangha was feeling optimistic about the future. The 30-year-old would continue working as a senior paralegal to cover costs while she studied for the bar exam. Then, once credentialed, she’d find a higher-paying legal job — one that would provide for her 15-month-old daughter and chip away at her massive student debt.

Then the pandemic arrived, and like so many people she knew, Kangha was furloughed. “It happened to attorneys and family members who worked in IT,” she says. “It was a wake-up call: A lot of jobs aren’t as secure as you think they are. I’ve been nursing this dream of entrepreneurship for a long time. Covid gave me the perfect combination of necessity and push to take the next step.”

Kangha, who lives in Manassas, Va., wanted to start a beauty product company for women of color. She called Score, a nonprofit resource partner of the U.S. Small Business Administration, and began reading about business plans and watching the organization’s marketing webinars. She also applied for a mentor, a Score volunteer who could lead Kangha through her launch. Suddenly, she was back in the role she thought she’d left behind: the student.

Since early April, Kangha has signed on to regular Google Meets or phone calls with Ann Lim, a Loudoun County-based consultant with an extensive background in international business. Lim, 50, has given her protege a virtual crash course in entrepreneurship, complete with assigned readings and worksheets before every session. And yet the process is nothing like traditional business school or even a community college entrepreneurship course. It has been exclusively practical, exploring how Kangha can clarify her company’s value proposition and source beauty suppliers.

It has also been fast. “Ann asked me, ‘Do you have a business plan?’ but I wanted to get started,” Kangha says. In just a few weeks, with the plan still unwritten, Kangha had spent $3,000 in savings plus a $500 gift from her family on inventory and marketing. “Your timeline is very aggressive,” Lim told her during one of the online sessions that I attended with the women. She sounded a little concerned, but part of her job, she understood, was to prioritize her student’s sense of urgency. “We should do a to-do list so we can achieve that timeline,” Lim added.

Some of Kangha’s friends and family were more skeptical. “They ask, you’re going to take the bar and not work as a lawyer?” But relying on Lim allowed her to dismiss those concerns. “Ann said, ‘This is such a great market; you’re right on trend.’ It was such an encouraging and inspiring moment for me,” Kangha says. “To know I’m not crazy.”

Historically, recessions have forced laid-off workers to reinvent themselves, often sending them back to school. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, two- and four-year colleges saw a significant uptick in enrollments within six to 12 months after the 2001 recession, and again after the 2008 crash. This time, the educational landscape looks different. Now colleges in all sectors have watched undergraduate enrollments drop, according to the Clearinghouse. At the same time, enrollment at shorter-term graduate programs offering certificates and master’s degrees have increased, especially at for-profit institutions. These include coding boot camps, massive open online courses (MOOCs), small-business mentorship programs and online learning communities.

In recent months, pandemic-fueled anxiety has pushed laid-off workers into an educational sprint.

Score says that in 2019, 91 percent of clients who came to the organization for help starting or expanding their business were still operating a year later. Whether that record will persist during a pandemic and recession is unclear, but Bridget Weston, Score’s CEO, says would-be entrepreneurs have little to lose: “Despite our complete transparency about it being completely free, some people just don’t believe that at first.”

Between April and July, demand for Score classes and mentors more than doubled. Typically, 20 to 30 students would show up to local workshops; now the average remote workshop has 80 students. Pre-pandemic the organization’s national webinars averaged 800 people a session; now it’s 1,300. Coursera, one of the world’s largest MOOCs, saw a 400 percent increase in registered learners between the spring and summer of 2019 and the same period this year. Engagement on LinkedIn Learning, an online educational platform affiliated with the career networking site, tripled between July 2019 and July 2020. Traffic for Course Report, a coding boot camp directory and review site, has skyrocketed since March.

In recent months, pandemic-fueled anxiety has pushed laid-off workers into an educational sprint. Like fast food and fast fashion before it, there is now fast education, modes of virtual learning and upskilling that allow — and even encourage — students to absorb as much information as they can as quickly as possible, often with the promise of a new career. But are these educational platforms overpromising? Even MOOCs hosted by top universities have low completion rates. Some allow students to buy badges or certificates, which may look good on a résumé but have little to do with actual learning. And students who eventually decide they’d like to earn a more traditional degree find that traditional schools often won’t take online credits.

“I’ve seen [covid-19] really ignite in people the desire to figure out what they’re passionate about and what they’re good at,” says Deana Jean, a New York-based business and leadership coach.

Beth Stein, who co-led a congressional investigation into for-profit colleges after the Great Recession and now works at the Institute for College Access & Success, says the MOOC and boot camp industry was too often a “black hole.” “There’s no quality assurance, no one checking that faculty knows what they’re doing or that students are having a good experience,” she says. “And because they’re not taking Title IV loans, they don’t have protections inherent in the federal aid system.”

And yet learners like Kangha aren’t concerned about a lack of oversight or quality control. Kangha isn’t paying Score or her mentor; in fact, many of these courses are free or have expanded their free trials and scholarship offerings since the nation went into lockdown. But even when there’s money on the line these pandemic learners are primarily concerned with taking action. Yes, they say, maybe there are no quick fixes. But what other option is there? “Having a daughter and getting furloughed: This is really real,” Kangha says. “I need to make sure I create a stable situation for her.”

Beyond the challenge, covid-19 has also presented an opportunity like no other. “My clients are now thinking everything is vulnerable: this job, the work I do, my income,” says Deana Jean, a New York-based business and leadership coach who helps entrepreneurs start and expand their businesses. Perhaps ironically, this realization has sparked inspiration. “I’ve seen [covid-19] really ignite in people the desire to figure out what they’re passionate about and what they’re good at,” she says. “The barriers that people have presumed to entrepreneurship” — or any kind of reinvention — “have been broken down.”

When Madelle Kangha lost her job, she turned to e-commerce because it seemed pandemic-proof. Many other laid-off workers, especially those in the service industry, have made a similar calculation. They’re now pursuing engineering because it can be done remotely, ensures a stable income (unlike working for tips) and seems designed for the 21st-century economy. Boot camp enrollments increased from roughly 15,500 in 2018 to 23,000 in 2019, according to Course Report. The company says enrollments appear on track to go up by roughly 40 percent this year.

Before the pandemic, Sara Salazar, a server at an upscale Miami restaurant, had considered learning to code, but she couldn’t justify quitting her job to do so. Most boot camps are short, an average of 15 weeks, but they are intensive and strongly discourage students from also trying to hold a job. When covid-19 shut down her restaurant, Salazar, 30, didn’t wait. “My job was taken away in an instant,” she says, which forced her into an identity crisis: “Who am I if I’m not working?” In July, she enrolled at Wyncode, a local for-profit boot camp, to learn what’s known as “full stack” Web development.

Boot camps have their share of skeptics. “It is definitely doing something quickly, and people have been extremely critical, especially those who have been through four- to six-year-long computer science programs,” says Liz Eggleston, the co-founder of Course Report. “But tech is like any other industry: There are different levels of jobs and different needs in the job market.”

Eggleston says that boot camp coders are likely to find jobs as junior engineers: helping clients learn to use a technical platform or “taking tickets,” addressing customer concerns with software. They won’t be performing the coding equivalent of brain surgery or landing lucrative jobs at Google or Facebook. Course Report surveys have shown that about 83 percent of boot camp graduates are hired for a job using their boot camp skills at a starting salary of almost $67,000 — an average salary increase of $22,000. At least until now, the majority of boot camp students have had a college degree, which could help explain the high hiring rate and significant salary bump. This current boot camp cohort may represent a somewhat different demographic, given the high numbers of laid-off service workers and, according to Course Report, a greater availability of scholarships.

Juha Mikkola, Wyncode’s co-founder, says the program tries to keep students’ expectations realistic: “The main message to our grads is that outside of the big tech companies, there are hundreds of thousands of growing tech companies out there,” including those people don’t automatically associate with tech. For instance, two dozen Wyncode graduates have been employed with Restaurant Brands International, which owns Burger King, and Watsco, a large air-conditioning distributor. Mikkola adds that in recent years, the large tech companies have been more open to considering programmers without college degrees. But often, such individuals have worked their way up. “The most important thing is to get your foot in the door somewhere where you can learn and build your skills,” he says.

Of course, with an unemployment rate of nearly 8 percent in September, it’s unclear what the current hiring landscape will be for anyone. (Wyncode maintains that a two-month hiring slowdown at the start of the pandemic has mostly reversed itself.)

“My job was taken away in an instant,” says Sara Salazar, a former server in a restaurant who turned to Web development.

The average boot camp costs close to $14,000, and Salazar wasn’t certain how she would cover tuition. She says the school encouraged her to get preapproved for a loan. “Looking back now, with my financial situation, it definitely would have been hard to make loan payments,” she says. She also considered an income-share agreement, which allows students to repay the tuition, sometimes with interest, only after they’ve landed a job at a certain salary. “I always advise students: Read the fine print there,” says Eggleston, because the terms and conditions can be highly nuanced. In the end, Salazar lucked out. She received a scholarship for low-income and unemployed students that was covered by Wyncode and CareerSource South Florida, a workforce development organization.

After graduating from the course, Salazar was hired to be a Wyncode instructor. But even if she hadn’t landed a job so fast, she’d taken no financial risk. Other students have struggled. Kris Bartow, a server in Philadelphia, enrolled in a boot camp called Tech Elevator before the pandemic. A partial scholarship would cover the second half of the course, and Bartow planned to keep working to cover the first half. Then the pandemic hit, and he lost his job. He would have made it through — with the promise of a better-paying job after graduation — but the material was more difficult than he’d anticipated. “We were halfway through the program, and I was still unable to do Day One stuff by myself,” he says. (In an emailed statement, Anthony Hughes, co-founder and CEO of Tech Elevator, said its students are heavily vetted before being accepted into the program and given personal support throughout the boot camp to keep them on track. Based on September reporting, he said, the school has a 95 percent graduation rate.)

Bartow agonized over what to do. “I’ve never been one to leave something because it was too hard,” he says. And he’d already invested so much time and money. “I feel like I put all my eggs into one basket with Tech Elevator,” he says of the money he’d invested and his dream of a new career. “It not working out has left me kind of in limbo.” And yet he had a fallback: This summer, his restaurant reopened for carryout and outdoor dining. He returned, finding new stability in the old.

Many students say they never would have made these career leaps — or even tried to — had the pandemic not forced them to. “I would have just been working my job without questioning it,” says Melissa Ho, who enrolled at Prime Digital Academy in Minneapolis after losing her job as an office administrator. She received scholarships from Prime and Minneapolis-St. Paul TechHire, a workforce development organization. “After covid, after everything, I can’t keep floating on by.”

Sydney Stern Miller, a North Carolina-based sales associate for a co-working company, wanted to enter marketing, but the 32-year-old couldn’t justify starting over in a junior position, at entry-level pay. When she was laid off in early April, she realized her moment had arrived. Like Salazar, she felt her identity was on the line. “I love my daughter, but I was scared I’d be forced to be a stay-at-home mom,” she says. “It was a vulnerable place to be.”

She signed up for three Coursera MOOCs: viral marketing hosted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, brand management hosted by the University of London and London Business School, and an introduction to HTML5 hosted by the University of Michigan. The courses were short, between three and five weeks, and were mainly composed of recorded webinars. They were free but came with a paid certificate option; students who completed weekly assignments that were graded by other learners could buy a digital badge to display on their LinkedIn profile. Initially, Miller was reluctant to pay. “I really didn’t know the quality of the education I would be receiving,” she says. “I had heard some negative things about other providers, so I was a little wary.”

These criticisms included courses of poor quality with high price tags and teachers who were obviously treating their online courses as an afterthought. After about two weeks, Miller concluded her classes had value. She paid $49 for the viral marketing course and $99 for brand management. She decided not to pay for the HTML5 course; it was much more difficult than the others and was taking her longer to complete. Miller acknowledged that the certificates were largely symbolic, and described the viral marketing course in particular as “pretty fluffy.” But the pedigree was worth 49 bucks.

Her undergraduate degree was from the University of Pittsburgh, “but I had a strong wish, hope, dream to go to Wharton,” she says. She was so excited to have received a Wharton badge that she wrote a LinkedIn post about it. The enthusiastic response gave her a newfound confidence, and she started networking actively on the site, connecting with companies and executives she was previously apprehensive to approach. That helped her secure an internship with a health-tech nonprofit, which in turn led to a full-time job as a marketing lead for Tech Talent South.

She loves her new job, but the learning curve has been steep — significantly harder than the Coursera courses. Recently, her husband found her still working at 11 p.m. He was concerned, but Miller shrugged it off. “I’m a newbie because I reinvented myself,” she says. “I can’t jump into the work and know it inherently.” The real learning, she says, comes from doing. But she believes the courses set her on the right path: “They helped me realize that the majority of jobs can be learned.”

In late June, Madelle Kangha launched a line of natural and organic oils though her business, Elledam Beauty. With Ann Lim’s help, she had narrowed her inventory. She also took her mentor’s advice to showcase herself and her personal story on social media: as an immigrant, a woman of color, a mom. Initially, she’d been focusing her marketing efforts on Instagram, but Lim had helped her see that YouTube would add that personal touch. The goal, Lim had explained, was to make each purchase meaningful for the consumer. “You want them to understand where this all started,” Lim says.

By the middle of August, however, Elledam Beauty had few sales. Thirty-thousand people had visited the site, but they weren’t buying. Often, they would abandon their carts at checkout. Kangha marshaled her resources. She went back to Lim for advice, took a webinar hosted by the e-commerce fulfillment website ShipBob and hired a marketing and social media manager, even though it meant dipping into a second set of savings. Based on their feedback, she realized she’d been moving too fast. The site was slow, the interface needed a punch-up and she had more audience development to do. “When you’re so passionate, you’re looking from your eyes,” Kangha says. “But what does the buyer actually want? This has been a month of learning and implementing, and I can see the changes.”

By this point, she’d spent just over $7,000 on marketing, sourcing and inventory, twice as much as she’d initially set aside. It was now clear that she needed a steady paycheck, so she started looking for work. When a couple of leads didn’t pan out, she decided to start a second business in IT consulting. Once she secured a few clients, she’d have to work on Elledam at night after her daughter went to bed. It wasn’t ideal, but neither was losing her job because of a global pandemic. “I believe the business will pick up,” she says. “It’s just a matter of time.”

Jennifer Miller is an author and a regular contributor to the magazine. Her next book is about first-generation college students.

Designed by Twila Waddy. Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks.



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