Amid high unemployment, some Utah workers look for new careers

Park City • Normally, Jacob Narayan works as a waiter at an upscale steakhouse in Park City. But given all that’s happened in 2020, he’s set his sights on a new career.

On a clear day outside Park City, he pulled over on the side of a narrow, tree-lined road that winds its way through a mountainous valley. He grabbed his drone with a camera mounted on the front.

The propellers whirred into action and he sent it flying off over the trees.

Narayan was using the drone to film a small house about 5 miles away. It sits on a quiet cul-de-sac next to a lake. Mt. Timpanogos — the second highest peak in the Wasatch Range — is visible in the distance.

Narayan filmed all of it, with the hope that the footage can help sell the house. He’s not a real estate agent, but was hired by one to make a video they can show to prospective buyers. He hopes to make a career out of flying drones, and so far he’s been able to find work in the still-thriving real estate market.

Narayan and many other Utahns have had to pivot their plans when they were laid off or when business slowed down at their old place of work.

“Right now, we’re fishing,” he said. “We’re finding a really cool shot that can make my real estate video very competitive. Because I’m not just selling the house, I’m selling the environment that the house is in.”

[Read more: These Utahns lost work to COVID-19 and are struggling to rebound]

Real estate is one of the few booming industries in Utah during the pandemic. New home construction has hit record levels, with the median price of a single-family home up 10% since April alone. In Park City, real estate agents have reported selling million-dollar properties to out-of-state buyers, some without ever seeing them in person.

Narayan is hoping he can parlay that into a new career in aerial photography. Even though he’s back to working at the restaurant now after being laid off for a few months, he doesn’t know how long it will last.

“I think if the economy really takes a hit, people are not going to go and have a $75 steak,” he said. “I saw that and I knew that I needed to do something.”

At 46, Narayan became one of the 325,000 people in Utah who lost their jobs after the coronavirus began spreading through the U.S.

While applying for unemployment benefits, he heard about some of the retraining programs available in the state. Several have recently been created in response to the pandemic, such as the Learn & Work in Utah program, which launched in July to give workers displaced by COVID-19 free or low-cost training at local colleges in high-demand fields.

The Utah Department of Workforce Service also offers training under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. The federal program was signed into law in 2014 and is open to applicants year-round.

Both programs look to the labor market to see what opportunities are available and then help people get the resources and training they need to land a job in those areas.

Through WIOA, Narayan was able to get some money to help buy his drone and start an apprenticeship. It’s a path state officials are suggesting others in his position take.

“We understand that it’s not going to be easy,” said DWS Assistant Deputy Director Nate McDonald at a press conference in September. “We understand that there are going to be hundreds of people searching for potentially the same job you are. And that is why now is the time to start looking.”

Embarking on a new career is a tough decision, especially for older workers, said University of Utah Eccles School of Business Dean Taylor Randall, who is also an adviser on the governor’s coronavirus economic response task force.

Utah unemployment claims hit their peak in early May, with 127,532 people filing for benefits. Many have since returned to work or found new jobs, though the state unemployment rate jumped up slightly in September as more people are looking for work.

Unlike previous recessions, which almost uniformly flattened the economy, Randall said this time around certain industries — such as real estate — are actually doing better than ever. Construction, he said, has seen 8,000 more jobs this year compared to last. The transportation and utilities and finance industries have also seen growth of about 1,500 jobs each.

The DWS “hot jobs” website also lists over 33,000 open positions, he said, from entry level to management positions.

But other industries are suffering. Randall said the leisure and hospitality sector, which includes hotel, restaurant and tourism jobs, has lost around 26,000 positions statewide. Professional and business services, which includes jobs like architects, lawyers and office administrators, have lost another 6,000 jobs.

The challenge is it’s almost impossible to tell where things are heading.

“We’re walking a fine line between trying to preserve a workforce for an industry that may just be delayed in coming back and then trying to make a prediction on which industries are going away permanently,” he said. “I think you’re clearly going to see some permanent shifts. And the difficulty we have right now is we just don’t have a crystal ball.”

Randall said given the uncertainty, retraining for a new job is the best way for people to hedge their bets, so that if their jobs don’t return they’ll have other skills to fall back on. And he said the best time to start is while still receiving unemployment benefits, which people can only get for 39 weeks — a deadline that’s fast approaching for many.

Longtime tech executive Trina Limpert said transitioning is a particular challenge — but also an opportunity — for women. In Utah, they face one of the country’s biggest wage gaps, making 70% of their male counterparts — compared to 80% nationally — according to a report from YWCA Utah.

Nationally, they’ve also been leaving the workforce at about four times the rate of men because of the pandemic.

“This is a very emotional journey for a lot of these women,” Limpert said. “I’ve seen things from, ‘My husband got laid off’ or ‘I need a more stable income.’ It’s created this urgency and need to be able to shift.”

Limpert recently launched a nine-week coding and networking bootcamp in Utah, TECH-MOMS, to help women break into the industry at a time when they need it most. She said tech is a great choice for women not only because it is doing well right now, but it also is a field women tend to earn more in and one that offers flexibility.

Classes are taught in two cohorts, one in Ogden and another in Lehi. Women attend classes in person on Saturdays, and they’re limited to 15 people for social distancing. Participants learn the basics of a few coding languages and network with experts in the field. Limpert said she is working on expanding the program to other universities across the state, and is accepting applications for its second round of classes.

For 31-year-old single mom Lizadel Yarisantos, the class has given her a new sense of direction. She lost her job in March, and though she recently got a position at a manufacturing company, she’s still finishing the program and hoping tech is in her future.

Yarisantos said the whole process has been like running a marathon.

“There are spurts where you’re excited and then you’re like, ‘This sucks,’” she said. “And then when you’re almost getting close to the finish line, it’s like, ‘Oh, my gosh, there’s the finish line right there!’”

And even though she just reached a milestone, she knows the race isn’t over yet.

Limpert said it may take time for people to make the jump. But the goal is to help women build skills, so they can start to take their careers in their own hands.

“There’s definitely some challenges in these transitions. It’s not an easy, ‘Oh, I’ve got this, go!’” she said. “It’s just getting that mindset that it’s never too late. You can always develop and improve.”

It’s a philosophy Jacob Narayan shares. He said it’s hard to tell what curveballs the 21st century economy is going to throw. So it’s all about being versatile. And sometimes it means taking a risk.

“This is a brave, bold move,” he said. “But I don’t mind that because I believe and I see a place for me in this industry.”

The hard work has paid off. Narayan recently landed an in-house cinematographer position for a real estate company, which he said he can do between restaurant shifts. He said he’ll stay on at the restaurant through the winter, but by this time next year, he’s hoping he’ll be flying drones full time — pandemic or not.