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Career number five

BY JUSTIN SUGG | SEPTEMBER 28, 2009 7:20 AM

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My mother told me to expect at least five career changes in my lifetime.

She wasn’t criticizing me for being indecisive; she merely stated a classic adage for the American worker. In today’s economic climate, we see that adage in action.

The financial sector’s collapse caused a near-record number of people to look for jobs in new professions. The nation’s unemployment rate — which is nearly 10 percent — shows many Americans are having difficulty with that transition. Local and state governments should spend any new stimulus money on educating that 10 percent, rather than on failing companies. Funding their education would ease the transition to a new career.

I’m not yet 30, and I’ve already had three career changes. I worked for a phone company right out of college. Fed up with working there, I went to work for an insurance company, first as a data processor and then as an underwriter.

I had no idea what an underwriter did until I started work as one. I graduated from the UI in 2005 with a degree in English and had no previous formal background in finance. The economy was on the upswing then, however, and insurance jobs were the most plentiful and high-paying in my hometown at the time. The company was more than happy to train and certify me. During my tenure, I earned an insurance broker’s license and worked toward Charter Property-Casualty certification. Having no formal background, I consumed all the financial media I could. I began to understand my profession better, but I also started to see the cracks in the financial system.

I didn’t need a subscription to the Wall Street Journal to see that, though. I could see it clearly in the company. Every week, we heard about another branch closing. The company was “streamlining” and then started a process to “redefine” our positions.

I knew then I had to make a change, or else I might have been the next streamlined victim. I applied for a job as a technical writer but failed to get it because the company was “redefining” that department as well.

There was nothing left for me in Des Moines. No one was hiring. I decided then to re-enroll at the UI as a journalism student. The application process was the hardest ordeal I endured since taking my insurance-license exam.

I was ineligible for federal aid because I had already received a degree. I consulted with someone at the UI Office of Student Financial Aid, a step I would recommend anyone take when jumping through the federal government’s hoops. She told me I could receive loans — but not Pell Grants — if I applied for a B.S. on top of my B.A. To apply for a B.S., I had to apply to a department offering one and plan out every class I intended to take. I also had to enroll in at least nine semester hours in my major. The Office of Student Financial Aid frowned upon any nonmajor class I wanted to take.

The process was byzantine and convoluted.

Both the federal and local governments should show more flexibility in granting financial aid. President Obama has advocated expanding Pell Grants and student loans at the expense of private lending. That’s good if the government expands allowance to people returning to school — not just first-time enrollees. If the government supported re-education efforts, workers could weather economic ups and downs.

I’m on career No. 3 right now, writing editorials and columns for the DI. Considering print journalism’s decline, I may have to move to career No. 4. The way things are working, I may hit No. 5 by my 30th birthday.

I changed careers with relative ease, but that was when times were good. Times are not as good now. Employers are looking for workers with specific backgrounds. The government would see its dollars better spent if it helped Americans through their five career changes.


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