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May 2002

After 9/11, workers turn their lives upside down

By Stephanie Armour, USA TODAY

For more than six years, Angela Yoo worked to become a journalist. She studied communications in college, tackled internships and landed a job at InStyle magazine in New York. It was what she'd always wanted. But all it took was one day for her to realize she no longer wanted what she had. That day was Sept. 11. The terrorist attacks in New York and Washington left Yoo wanting to do something to help others. So, in a dramatic career overhaul, she quit her hard-won magazine job and joined the non-profit volunteer organization New York Cares. It was the kind of eyebrow-raising change that required explaining to family and friends, but it's just one example of how the professional lives of some working Americans were changed by Sept. 11.

The attack prompted some Americans to undergo wrenching and profound shifts in their work priorities and aspirations. Nearly eight months after the attack, the transformations are still playing out.

Some who quit their jobs want them back. Others are still trying to decide how they'll reshape their careers. Many are only starting to embark on new professional lives they wouldn't have considered before the attack.

"I wouldn't have had the courage or reason to do this otherwise," says Yoo, 23, who now works at the non-profit as a disaster recovery program manager. "I realized I wanted to help society or the city. Now, I feel like I'm making a difference."

Signs of the changing emphasis abound. Teach for America, which places recent college graduates in urban and rural public schools, received 14,000 applications for its 2002 corps.

That's the most in its 12-year history and nearly triple the number received for 2001.

Organization officials credit the increase in part to renewed interest post-Sept. 11.

A Pentagon spokesman says there has been a jump in inquiries and recruiting visits since Sept. 11. The Peace Corps also reported a spike in inquires and online applications after Sept. 11. The changes have even given rise to a new buzzword: post-traumatic job switcher.

"9/11 was a huge wake-up call and opportunity for people to say what's really important to them," says Gail McMeekin, author of The Power of Positive Choices. "I'm not seeing the impact taper off. People realize if they don't make changes now, they'll regret it. I've seen people leave jobs and be much more willing to take risks."

Career transformations

Though some made career leaps immediately after Sept. 11, many of those who've undergone professional transformations have done so only after prolonged introspection, talks with professional career consultants and discussions with family.

Some are still involved in making a change. On Sept. 11, Jennifer Van Zandt of Montclair, N.J., saw anxious schoolchildren trying to get home and drivers with tear-streaked faces calling loved ones on cell phones. The images were haunting.

Then, in the ensuing recession, her sales training and performance coaching business, Bullseye Training, temporarily slacked off. So Van Zandt went on a retreat in Cape Cod. Bobbing on a boat in the bay, she began thinking, "How can I help the world after Sept. 11?" She decided to apply to a seminary and be ordained as a minister, with plans to do pastoral counseling in addition to maintaining her business.

"It's embarrassing to say, but life all of a sudden became so much more precious," says Van Zandt, 37.

Similarly, it's been a drawn-out decision for Tim Kennan. As a purchasing manager who worked with hazardous agricultural chemicals, he began to realize his work could put him in danger because of ongoing terrorist risks.

When FBI officials arrived to talk to employees about safety precautions, he decided he'd had enough.

Now, he's starting his own direct-mail franchise, Money Mailer, and has flexibility to spend more time with his 9-year-old son, Kyle.

"Sept. 11 gave me the courage to do the right thing and spend time with my son and find a job that was safer," says Kennan of Fountain Valley, Calif. "I left a pretty secure job, with benefits and insurance. It's scary, but it's a part of growing up. I've realized you only have one life to live."

Rearranged priorities

The changes have arguably been the most wrenching for those in New York, where the terrorist attack also brought a drop in tourism and an economic loss.

Some New Yorkers found themselves thrust into making career changes out of necessity. Others were so shaken by the attacks that they sought something new.

After the attack, New Yorker Michael Niewodowski realized he couldn't stay. He was a chef at Windows on the World, atop the ill-fated World Trade Center, but he wasn't at work when the planes hit. Some of his friends and co-workers died in the attack.

His decision to go was instantaneous. Leaving his belongings in his Jersey City apartment, he drove to Bradenton, Fla., to be with his family. Now a chef at a cafe, he lives with his mother and sister.

"My priorities have been rearranged," says Niewodowski, 28. "Before, my career was my first priority. Now, it's my family. I don't think I'll ever live in a big city again."

He's returned to New York only as a tourist, taking three hours to gaze at the site where he once worked. Niewodowski says he may long wrestle with anger and bitterness because of what happened.

To be sure, many switches have been less dramatic. About 90% of Americans had no plans to change careers as a result of the attack, according to a November poll of 600 respondents by ACT•1 Group, a human resources solutions and managed services provider based in Torrance, Calif.

One reason, experts say, is that the recession chilled any job hopping that may have occurred. An upswing in the economy, they say, could prompt more career changes.

Others say career decisions often take longer than a few months to jell. Some workers are only now getting to the point of re-evaluating their jobs.

Rising workplace stress

But there's no question there's been an impact: More than one in three workers feels more stressed on the job because of Sept. 11, according to a survey in April by the College of William and Mary. Nearly one in four feels his job is more dangerous.

The study also found those who believe their jobs became a lot more dangerous reported being significantly more likely to consider changing jobs.

Other studies show people who have made changes tend to be younger or in industries already hurt by the economy. Men have been slightly more reluctant than women to consider a switch.

Many experts say they are still seeing more subtle changes in the way employees approach work. Employees are more likely to reject travel that takes them away from family, leave the office early for school events or use vacation days that otherwise would have gone unused.

Bill Niemi has seen the more subtle forms of change. The human resources director at a Cleveland ad agency, Liggett-Stashower, has received unsolicited applications from job seekers who cite Sept. 11 as a reason they want to come home.

"One gal was in Washington, D.C., and she said she just had to come back home," Niemi says.

Harry Gruber sees it, too. The CEO of Kintera, an Internet marketing provider for non-profits based in San Diego, has more employees focused on family.

'I'm traveling too much'

"Since Sept. 11, there's a tremendous emphasis on family and community that wasn't there before," he says. "I interview people, and they say, 'I'm traveling too much, and I want to be with family.' "

Says Laura Berman Fortgang, author of Living Your Best Life: "People are really searching. If you're not chasing the money, what are you chasing? It sounds corny, but happiness is the new bottom line."

In some cases, the changes have simply meant being open to different opportunities.

Many stories resemble that of Angela Calman's. On Sept. 11, she was a recent graduate from Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and was being courted by high-profile public relations firms.

In the days after the attack, she went to interview for a job as chief communications officer at The Cleveland Clinic Foundation. Still shaken, she realized she wanted to join the non-profit medical center.

"My priorities changed. I realized I wanted to do something that matters," says Calman, 30.

"9/11 was the catalyst for a major life change. I guess I found something I didn't even realize I was missing."


Press contact:
Chuck Pearson
ACT•1 Group
Director of Marketing
(310) 750-3400


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