Brian Merchant works at a summer camp to boost his resume. It’s a common temporary job for high schoolers or college students. But Merchant is 26 with a background in medical compliance.

Working from home every day as the pandemic and racial justice protests unfolded last year gave him time to think about his career.

“I realized, ‘Oh, I don't want to do this with my life,’” he said.

Merchant left his job at Mayo Clinic two months ago with no new job lined up. All he knew was he wanted to teach. Now, Merchant is entering a program to get his license, and he’s hopeful he can be in the classroom by 2023.

Brian Merchant decided to switch careers from medical compliance to teaching during the pandemic. July 13, 2021. (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)
Brian Merchant decided to switch careers from medical compliance to teaching during the pandemic. July 13, 2021. (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)

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“There's a threat for this next round of youths to have an even greater challenge than we have right now, and I want to be there for them,” Merchant said. “That's a much more valuable way to spend my time.”

Merchant is part of a wave of workers quitting their jobs in recent months. April saw nearly 4 million Americans quit their jobs, and another 3.6 million in May, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

There are a variety of reasons workers are quitting or switching careers. But whether or not they’re in a new job, workers are coming into the economic recovery with new perspectives about work. And as the job market heats up and workers reconsider their values and health, some employers are finding they have to offer more to attract workers.

We’re hiring

As the pandemic wanes, the economy is bouncing back. Rochester’s unemployment number is declining and the labor force is increasing.

Wages are also going up. The median offer for openings in southeast Minnesota was almost 10% higher in the fourth quarter of 2020 than in 2019, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. Additionally, average wages in Rochester’s private sector this May were $0.75 an hour higher than May 2020.

A sign reads "now hiring" Wednesday, July 14, 2021, in the window at Tilda's Pizza in Rochester, which is opening on July 20. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)
A sign reads "now hiring" Wednesday, July 14, 2021, in the window at Tilda's Pizza in Rochester, which is opening on July 20. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

The increase in pay seems to be empowering all workers. Employees are in high demand, and they have more ability to change jobs. Prudential’s May “Pulse of the American Worker” survey showed that post-pandemic, almost a quarter of workers plan to look for a new job, citing compensation as their main motivation.

As worker retention becomes a concern for employers, some area businesses are offering hiring bonuses and wage increases in typically high-turnover, low-wage positions, according to DEED communications director Jen Gates. Locally, Culver’s, 3M, Red Wing Shoe and Land O’Lakes have steadily increased wages or offered sign-on bonuses. Hy-Vee also rolled out new employee benefits earlier this year.

According to Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce president Ryan Parsons there were hiring challenges already when he took his role in January. Those challenges have only grown since, he said.

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While the struggle for workers isn’t occurring in every industry, where it is occurring, it affects all levels of businesses, Parsons said.

“It's hospitality, it's retail and larger employers like manufacturing, and healthcare – those are some of the hardest hit by the workforce shortages,” he said. “It's across the board, whether it's a small, mid-range or large employer. They're all facing those challenges.”

Linda Black, owner of Pi Wood-Fired Pizza and Tilda’s Pizzeria, among others, said her businesses have felt the strain of the workforce shortage, although not as acutely as others.

Efrain Cruz, a pizza chef at the new Tilda's Pizza, works Wednesday, July 14, 2021, at the restaurant in Rochester while practicing for their opening on July 20. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)
Efrain Cruz, a pizza chef at the new Tilda's Pizza, works Wednesday, July 14, 2021, at the restaurant in Rochester while practicing for their opening on July 20. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

“Like everybody, it's a little more difficult getting people. So we're on Indeed, getting onto the market,” Black said. “But we’ve been very fortunate to have good team members at Pi who love working for us and have given us some amazing referrals.”

The need for workers hits small businesses especially hard, Black said, because they don’t always have the flexibility to raise wages or increase benefits.

“The pandemic’s not helping anybody, large or small,” she said. “Everybody's feeling it, but ultimately, small businesses are going to be hit the hardest.”

Remote revelations

Perhaps the most noticeable workforce trend produced by the pandemic is the shift to remote work, even continuing into post-pandemic life. Some workers find it more efficient, gain back time previously spent commuting or simply enjoy the increased flexibility of working from home.

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The “Pulse of the American Worker” survey reported that one in three employees in America wouldn’t want to work for an employer that required them to be completely onsite.

For some, transferring their job to a remote work environment isn’t enough.

Ellen Sassenberg made a career teaching Latin at Rochester Public Schools for 22 years. But at the end of this year, she left her place at the front of the classroom.

For Sassenberg, the added stressors created by the pandemic compounded difficulties with the administration and an already-tense job as the teacher of an elective subject. Now, she plans to become a nurse, beginning Rochester Community and Technical College's program in January 2022.

Leaving teaching is bittersweet, Sassenberg said, but she had reached the pay ceiling for the career and the job wasn’t going to get any easier.

“I got tired of working that hard for that little, and I'm going to be able to pivot to a different career where I'm going to be able to provide more for my family,” she said.

According to the “Pulse of the American Worker” survey, half of workers reported the pandemic made them re-evaluate their career goals and gave them more control deciding their career’s direction. Approximately half of all American workers are also rethinking what type of job they want, and 53% said they would retrain for a career in a different field if they had the opportunity.

While some are switching careers for financial gain, others are on the hunt for a more satisfying profession, regardless of pay. Indeed, as Merchant starts the path to becoming an educator, his values have, to some extent, outweighed other concerns. He and his wife are still paying off student loans and would like to buy a house, so Merchant doesn’t have as much of a financial cushion as he’d like.

“It’s very much despite the finances, but this is what I want to do,” he said.

Burning out, looking for more

Many workers have gone through a difficult and stresssful year. Health care workers have watched their community suffer. Teachers like Sassenberg were forced to pivot to virtual lessons with few resources. Essential workers in many industries found themselves still going in to work despite fears about the coronavirus. Those working remotely often experienced extra stress or had “COVID fatigue” drag down their mental health.

Even workers who knew they were making a difference or were satisfied with their job felt a strain: Mayo Clinic’s 2020 annual employee survey found that though job satisfaction went up during the pandemic, joy in the workplace had plunged.

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With this increasing toll on mental health, workers have found new ways to cope with the stress of their jobs. Some, pushed to a breaking point, have even called it quits for the sake of their well-being.

Lisa Hardesty, a clinical health psychologist at Mayo Clinic specializing in burnout and resilience, likens workers’ experiences during the pandemic to going through a natural disaster, when surviving comes first, and the chance to assess the damage or emotional exhaustion only comes later. As fallout from the pandemic continues, Hardesty expects mental health issues to increase.

“I think we're seeing more burnout numbers now,” Hardesty said. “During the pandemic when people had to survive and keep people alive, I think we were all to some extent, especially the medical workforce and the essential workers, in that survival mode.”

However, Hardesty also believes that some workers are coming out of the pandemic with new perspectives.

“I do think there's a large population out there that are looking at their values, who they want around them and what they want for their life instead of just getting stuck on the hamster wheel,” she said.

These new perspectives may also be joined by a new confidence, Hardesty said.

“Having your worst fear happen to you makes you realize you can get through it. It’s kind of like, ‘OK, I survived that. I can survive losing my job.’”

Despite the circumstances of her own career change, Sassenberg is also thankful for the reflection the pandemic afforded.

“Given this strange period of time that quarantine was," she said, "if you don't come out of a time like that having seriously thought about where we are, what we're doing and why we're doing what we are doing, what a tremendous waste of an opportunity.”