The Pandemic Wrecked Millions of Careers. These 6 People Built New Ones.

When the pandemic struck in 2020, entire industries were decimated overnight, leaving workers to survive on unemployment benefits. But for some, the Covid-19 crisis presented an opportunity to change course; indeed, the post-lockdown job market faces a shortage of workers even as it recovers.

These are the stories of six people who transformed their careers during the past two years. For some, it was a financial imperative. For others, lockdowns became a chance to rethink their path. For each, it was a big risk on a new future.


“My favorite part of the job is when I get a compliment from a customer.”

Tre’Vonte Currie

Tre’Vonte Currie frying fresh wontons during his dinner shift at Fahrenheit, where he’s learning the skills he’ll need to someday open his own food business.Credit…Amber Ford for The New York Times

Food has long been Mr. Currie’s passion.Credit…Amber Ford for The New York Times
Mr. Currie prepping kale for salads.Credit…Amber Ford for The New York Times

When he was growing up, nothing brought Tre’Vonte Currie as much joy as food: his mom’s macaroni and cheese, the brownies and ice cream that fed his sweet tooth. Like a “mad scientist,” he created recipes for fried baloney, spaghetti and chicken Alfredo in his family’s kitchen.

As a teenager, Mr. Currie dreamed of opening his own restaurant. It would be spacious and filled with warmth. Maybe there would be chandeliers. The food would include a range of cultural cuisines, from pizza to curry.

At the start of the pandemic, Mr. Currie, 22, felt stuck. He had dropped out of high school in 2019 because he had had trouble focusing, even though he hadn’t found the curriculum difficult. He made money by doing odd jobs, like roofing and landscaping, around his Cleveland neighborhood, mostly from friends who wanted to help him out. But much of that work disappeared when Covid-19 swept the city.

Then in August 2021, Mr. Currie’s mother learned about a free program near their home called Towards Employment, which offered career coaching and job search services. Mr. Currie was skeptical at first, but after speaking with the program’s coordinators, he signed up for two weeks of training in professional behaviors like how to dress for job interviews. Immediately afterward, he got a job at a restaurant in downtown Cleveland.

In January, Mr. Currie took a new job at a high-end contemporary American restaurant, Fahrenheit, where he works 40 hours a week cooking and cleaning. He feels energized, knowing he is building the skills he needs to someday open his own business, maybe starting with a food truck.

“My favorite part of the job is when I get a compliment from a customer about how good the meal was,” he said. “That lights up my day.”

“I had generations before me teaching me to be a better mom.”

Dwanét Perry

Dwanét Perry with her son. Nearly two years after being laid off, she has launched her own candlemaking business.Credit…Courtney Yates for The New York Times
Ms. Perry has saved enough to move into her own apartment.Credit…Courtney Yates for The New York Times
Ms. Perry sells her candles online.Credit…Courtney Yates for The New York Times
Ms. Perry delivering for DoorDash, one of several jobs she juggles to support her family.Credit…Courtney Yates for The New York Times

Dwanét Perry, 25, was six months pregnant when she was laid off from her job at a money transfer company in Queens in March 2020. The notice brought a jolt of pain and tough questions: How would she support herself and her baby? What could she do to move her life forward?

Her son was born in June, and she moved the two of them into her mother’s home in Oradell, N.J. It was a painful period, but the bright spot was her family. She spent the summer surrounded by her mom, her grandmother and her younger sisters.

“Everything there was cozy and comforting,” Ms. Perry said. “I had generations before me teaching me to be a better mom and telling me things I didn’t know.”

Ms. Perry started thinking about how she might use the moment of upheaval to move toward her dream of doing something creative.

She started watching YouTube and Instagram videos on candle making. Figuring that “everyone loves candles,” she decided to try making and selling her own. She melted soy wax in a double boiler and added oils to create different scents: pink sugar, cucumber melon, fallen leaves, sweater weather. She called her business Flame N Mama, in honor of her newborn son.

Now Ms. Perry balances several jobs. She delivers for DoorDash three to four hours a day and was recently hired as a registration specialist at a car dealership. In the evenings, she makes and sells her candles to people who find her on social media.

She was able to save up and move back to Queens with her son: “He has a very great sense of humor,” Ms. Perry said, laughing. “He loves to stick with his mommy.”

“You have no choice but to be really good at it.”

Liz Martinez

Liz Martinez finds commonalities between her new career as a dental assistant and her old job as a beauty adviser.Credit…Christie Hemm Klok for The New York Times
Ms. Martinez dropping her two daughters off at day care in San Francisco.Credit…Christie Hemm Klok for The New York Times

When Liz Martinez, 32, started training to be a dental assistant last year, she assumed it would be drastically different from her previous work as a beauty adviser at Sephora in San Francisco. But she found surprising commonalities: She practices the technical skills until they feel seamless, and she connects with clients and tries to ease their day.

As a dental assistant, “you have no choice but to be really good at it,” she said. “It’s nice not being nervous.”

Ms. Martinez hadn’t been closely following the news when Covid-19 started to spread in March 2020, so she was confused about why Sephora told her to put away makeup samples. Then she got an email that the store was temporarily closing. Soon after, she gave birth to her second daughter and wasn’t able to work because she had to look after her children during the day. She had no income to support her family.

“I realized at that moment you can be surrounded by people and still be super alone,” she said.

She learned that she could train to be a dental assistant through a local chapter of the Jewish Vocational Service, a nonprofit. She signed up for the three-month course: one month of Zoom classes, two months of hands-on training. By the fall of 2021, a clinic had hired her.

The dentist she works with, Dr. Earl Capuli, continues to applaud Ms. Martinez’s improvement on the job, especially in mixing dental compounds. “The day I finally got it perfectly, he was bragging about it all day,” she said. “It’s really nice to hear positive feedback.”

“That accident was the best thing that ever could have happened to me.”

David Levy

David Levy inside his second food truck, Tacos Cinco De Mayo.Credit…Lexey Swall for The New York Times
Mr. Levy and his wife, Gloria, working in Arlington, Va.Credit…Lexey Swall for The New York Times
Mr. Levy opened his first food truck with the insurance payout from a serious car accident.Credit…Lexey Swall for The New York Times

When the pandemic hit, David Levy, 61, was still reeling from a different life-altering disaster. In 2017, Hurricane Irma seriously damaged his family’s home in Florida, and Mr. Levy lost his job in construction shortly after, forcing him to pack up his belongings with his wife and three children and move in with his mother in Virginia.

Mr. Levy struggled to find work in Virginia, so he started driving for Uber to make ends meet. When the pandemic struck, Uber trips fell off, and his income slowed to a trickle.

Then he got a letter from the Senior Community Service Employment Program, which provides job training to older workers. In August 2020, he enrolled in a food entrepreneur workshop and had the idea to refashion a large storage trailer into a food truck. But he did not have enough capital to start his own business.

And then something terrible and miraculous happened: A car accident left him with injuries serious enough to land him in a hospital. He won $65,000 in an insurance payout in August 2021 and used it to start a food truck business, Pizza Pita, which offers dishes that combine the flavors of Mediterranean and Colombian food.

“It is crazy to think about it now, but that accident was the best thing that ever could have happened to me,” he said. “It made it possible for my dream of opening my own business to come true.”

Mr. Levy, who was born in Colombia and has a Lebanese father, wanted to channel his heritage through cross-cultural flavor combinations. He recently converted to Judaism and was inspired by the Middle Eastern food he tasted during trips to Israel.

Six months ago, he was financially stable enough to move his family out of his mother’s home and into one of their own in McLean, Va. Mr. Levy said his first food truck had been so successful that he opened another, Tacos Cinco De Mayo, last month.

“Most days I work from 4:30 a.m. to midnight,” he said. “But no matter how hard it is, when you do something you love, it is worth it.”

“I really needed to get out of that job.”

Jane Watiri Taylor

Jane Watiri Taylor loading up her car with vegetables to sell to a grocery delivery service.Credit…Miranda Barnes for The New York Times
Ms. Watiri Taylor’s tools for harvesting vegetables.Credit…Miranda Barnes for The New York Times
Ms. Watiri Taylor bundling greens.Credit…Miranda Barnes for The New York Times

Jane Watiri Taylor was working as a nurse at the Travis County Jail in Austin, Texas, when the pandemic hit. She called it the most frightening time she could remember in 10 years of nursing. Not only was she worried about catching the virus during her shifts, but some inmates took out their anger and frustration on her.

“One time this person literally tried to spit on me,” she remembered. “They said, ‘I have Covid, and I’m going to give it to you.’ They spit on my scrubs; luckily it never got on my face.”

For Ms. Watiri Taylor, 54, like so many other health care workers, “the burnout was real.”

“I like taking care of people. But at that point, I was like, ‘I think I’m going to change jobs and start taking care of plants,’” she said. “You know, plants are never going to call me names, or insult or abuse me. I really needed to get out of that job.”

In July 2021, she left to pursue a dream she’d had since her childhood in Kenya: to become a farmer.

She had been growing fruits and vegetables in her backyard since 2015. To learn how to run her own farming business, she signed up for a class through Farmshare Austin, a nonprofit. She subleased a small piece of land in Lexington, Texas, to grow fruits and vegetables on a larger scale. She now sells her produce at local farmers’ markets.

“I want to nurture people; that’s why I got into nursing,” she said. “With farming, you are still nurturing people, but in a different way. It is really satisfying when you grow stuff and are able to know that eventually it is going to help make sure someone has got food on the table and it is going to nourish their bodies. And to me, that’s enough.”

Farming is much less predictable than nursing, and the financial instability worries her. Still, she says she is much happier than when she was working as a nurse.

“Money is important,” she said. “But I want to be able to wake up every morning excited about what I’m doing. And that’s how I feel about farming.”

“It was time for me to take a step back.”

Adam Simon

Adam Simon preparing sourdough loaves. He has no plans to return to his old career in finance.Credit…Tonje Thilesen for The New York Times

Mr. Simon baking at the Entrepreneur Space in Queens.Credit…Photographs by Tonje Thilesen for The New York Times

Like many people, Adam Simon baked his own sourdough in the early months of the pandemic. He loved his pandemic hobby so much that he decided to turn it into a new career.

In 2017, after working in finance for about 20 years, the 47-year-old left his job as a partner and director of research at the investment firm Echo Street Capital Management to spend more time with his family.

“Every day of the week I was out the door before my kids woke up, and by the time I got home, they were asleep,” he said. “It was time for me to take a step back.”

In June 2020, Mr. Simon, his wife and two daughters started baking sourdough bread and pastries and sharing the goods with their neighbors in Long Island.

Though he had originally planned to return to finance, he decided instead to train himself to be a better baker. He read and watched everything he could about baking and worked in two local bakeries to hone his skills.

In February 2022 he launched his own baking business, Sourdough Gambit, a homage to his love of chess.

He makes his bread at the Entrepreneur Space, a food and business incubator in the Long Island City neighborhood of Queens, where he produces and sells about 300 baked goods each week. He hopes to open his own bakery and doesn’t plan to work in finance again.

“It was a lot to walk away from,” he said. “But in hindsight, it was very much the right thing.”

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