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For some, job loss leads to fulfillment

They start businesses, thrive in new careers

Jim Deramo, who once worked for a Winthrop oil company, started his own business, Jim D & Sons. Jim Deramo, who once worked for a Winthrop oil company, started his own business, Jim D & Sons. (Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff)
By Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Staff / July 12, 2010

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Jim Deramo says his former company’s bankruptcy was a blessing. Tom Hurwitch is glad he is no longer a cog in the wheel at a huge management consulting firm. And former portfolio manager James Wiess feels liberated from the shackles of the stock market.

Like about 104,000 others in Massachusetts who have lost jobs in the past three years, none of the three changed occupation by choice. But unlike their counterparts, they have found work they like even better — whether it is because they are pursuing a new passion, have a saner schedule, or enjoy running their own business.

“Sometimes getting fired is the best thing that can ever happen to you,’’ said Wendie Howland, a former insurance case manager and consultant who is now a certified nurse life care planner.

Many job seekers no doubt disagree. And post-firing happiness is not enjoyed by all workers equally. Executives, or others especially successful in previous jobs, are more likely to thrive — even if they end up making less money.

A third of executives who lost jobs during the recession are more satisfied with their new position, accord ing to an online survey conducted by the recruiting firm Korn/Ferry International. But according to a separate Korn/Ferry survey, a majority of newly reemployed workers are making less money.

Some people are working for smaller companies, and some have switched careers or gone into business for themselves. But if their companies had not forced them out, several of them probably never would have made the leap, they said.

James Wiess, for instance, might have stayed on the path he was on if he had not been laid off from Putnam Investments in November 2008. With guidance from the Boston career firm New Directions, he started volunteering at job training and tutoring programs, which helped lead him to a career as a high school math teacher.

If not for the layoff, though, “I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have had the guts to do it,’’ he said.

The fresh slate is liberating after 25 years of hanging on every stock market dip, said Wiess, 50, who will start student-teaching at English High School in Jamaica Plain as part of the Boston Teacher Residency program.

He will be making a fraction of his old salary as a portfolio manager when he starts working full time next year, but he has saved enough money that he doesn’t anticipate having to change his lifestyle.

And he is grateful that instead of obsessing about the stock market, he can spend time helping young people understand how math “describes the world around us.’’

“It feels like it will be much more worthwhile,’’ he said.

Many unemployed people who are lucky enough to land a job do not feel the same way, though. Of the approximately 170 monthly job placements Jewish Vocational Services has been making recently, few workers have landed better positions than they had before, said president Jerry Rubin — so few, in fact, “we could tell you who they are,’’ he said with a grim laugh.

“We have a number of people who are getting pretty desperate,’’ Rubin said. “The willingness to take anything is increasing.’’

Being open to switching careers helps, Rubin added — which is exactly what Tom Hurwitch did after he lost his job as a strategy consultant for the oil, gas, and utilities industries at the management consulting giant Booz & Co. in October 2008.

A month later, Hurwitch landed a job as a project manager at Arcadia Solutions, a small Burlington company that provides information technology solutions to the health care industry. His salary is about 10 percent lower than it was and the benefits aren’t as good, he said, but he feels lucky.

The health care industry is fairly recession-proof, for one thing, he said, and he doesn’t have to leave his wife and two young daughters to travel four or five days a week, as he did at Booz.

“You’re very much a cog at a management consulting firm, whereas with Arcadia you’re much more a player in the organization,’’ said Hurwitch, 35.

Cassie Scarano, president of Commongood Careers, a Boston executive search firm that focuses on the nonprofit sector, theorizes that people who were top performers at their old jobs are more likely to find satisfying work because they are proactive and tend to turn the layoff into an opportunity to find something better.

“Immediately it’s very problematic,’’ Scarano said of being laid off, “but in the longer term it actually turns out to be a fairly positive thing for people.’’

That’s the way it went for Jim Deramo.

His dream of starting his own oil service business was pushed into reality almost overnight when the Winthrop oil company where he had worked for 13 years went under at the end of 2007.

A month later, he was putting the vinyl letters on his first Jim D & Sons van in Revere and calling on his family for help.

Deramo is working harder than ever for the same salary — answering middle-of-the-night calls and putting in 100-hour weeks in the winter to keep up with the demand — but he wouldn’t go back to his old job even if he could.

“I’m happier,’’ said Deramo, who enjoys building relationships with his customers. “People trust me.’’

Howland also went into business for herself when she was let go from her job as a consultant for workers compensation insurance claims in the fall of 2007.

After being out of work for a year, Howland, 59, who already had a master’s degree in nursing, became a certified nurse life care planner.

Now she is making about $25,000 more a year to come up with “road maps for care’’ for people with lifelong medical conditions.

Howland said the work is more rewarding than her old job, though it is a path she never would have taken if she hadn’t been forced out.

“I ought to find my old boss,’’ she said, “and thank her for doing me the favor.’’

Katie Johnston Chase can be reached at johnstonchase@globe.com.

Correction: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated a figure from a Korn/Ferry International survey. According to the study, a third of executives who lost their jobs during the recession are more satisfied with their jobs.