SALT LAKE CITY — Before COVID-19, there were more job vacancies in the U.S. than unemployed workers. Now, unemployment hovers at about 11%, and nearly 18 million Americans are looking for work, with another 1.4 million new claims filed in the past week.

For them, the Trump administration has a message: Find something new.

The “Find Something New” campaign, launched earlier this month by Ivanka Trump, was widely derided on social media and late-night TV, where critics of the Trump administration turned the phrase on the president. (“The Daily Show” with Trevor Noah used clips of President Donald Trump to suggest that the president seek a new career as a truck driver or coal miner.)

Some commentators called the campaign tone-deaf, given that sweeping job losses have occurred because of a sudden-onset pandemic, and that the campaign was introduced by a wealthy mother of three whose pre-White-House resume lists jobs with her father’s company and creation of her “eponymous lifestyle brand.”

Others said “Learn Something New” is the administration’s version of “Learn to code,” a common retort on social media when people complain about losing their job.

But what if Ivanka Trump is right?

Set politics aside — difficult as that is in a deeply polarized nation during an election year — and the message of the “Find Something New” campaign is not unlike the moral of “Who Moved My Cheese?”, a best-selling book about about two enterprising mice who embrace change when their usual supply of cheese disappears.

Here’s why some experts believe that unemployed Americans should ignore the partisan outrage and give the “Find Something New” campaign serious thought.

‘Upskill and transition’

Since the end of March, people receiving unemployment benefits have received an extra $600 each week through the CARES relief package passed by Congress. (In Utah, unemployment benefits alone range from 40% to 50% of a worker’s wages; the maximum amount a worker can receive from the state is $580 per week.)

The enhanced benefit, however, expires this week, and Congress is still arguing about a possible extension. Meanwhile, many states are about to again require people receiving benefits to prove that they are looking for work, a requirement that has been waived for the past few months if workers were still “attached” to a former job, as during a furlough.

In Utah, this will begin Aug. 15, according to Nate McDonald, assistant deputy director of the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

Taylor Almond was one of these “attached” workers, who was furloughed because of pandemic. He worked as a server at Alamexo Mexican Kitchen in Salt Lake City, which shut down in March and remains closed.

Almond, 26, went to the “Find Something New” website after its debut, hoping that it would offer him something substantive in terms of where he could find financial support or scholarship money.

He was disappointed.

“It’s not organized in a way to make it easy to find help. Mostly it says, here’s a bunch of different programs you probably won’t qualify for regardless of your situation,” Almond said.

Taylor Almond, a former employee of Alamexo restaurant on State Street in Salt Lake City, poses for a photo on Wednesday, July 29, 2020. The restaurant closed due to COVID-19, forcing Almond to find other employment. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The website urges Americans to “find a new way forward” and offers information on a range of careers that don’t require a four-year college degree.

Promising careers right now, according to the website, include contact tracing, diagnostic medical sonography, elevator installation, nursing, computer support and web development, which shows that “learn to code” may actually be solid advice, not just a snarky meme. (Elevator installation, however, pays more, an average of $84,990 a year, compared web developers’ average salary of $73,760.)

Many of these jobs do not require four-year degrees, the website says, but have less-expensive and less-time-consuming paths such as apprenticeships, certification programs, online learning and trade schools.

“For too long, this country has adopted a one-size-fits-all approach to preparing Americans for the future: go to college, get a degree, work for a single employer and retire,” Ivanka Trump said, while announcing the campaign in a virtual roundtable. “There’s overwhelming evidence that shows this is failing too many students who aren’t going down this pipeline.”

A case for trade school: Could it fix higher education?

Trump said the federal government will be transitioning to “skills-based hiring” in order to find the best talent and create a more inclusive and diverse workforce. Focusing on what people can do, rather than what diplomas they earned, will benefit both the workforce and employers, she said. 

She added, “The availability of multiple pathways will also benefit mid- to late-career workers, especially those looking to upskill and transition to growing industries.”

While the campaign inspired gleeful snark on Twitter, McDonald said he was pleasantly surprised to see that “Find Something New” is promoting many of the things that his agency is doing as it grapples with the economic fallout from the pandemic.

Established in 1997, the Department of Workforce Services was the nation’s first state agency to combine employment and public assistance programs. On its website, people can search for jobs, learn how to apply for apprenticeships grants, check eligibility for unemployment assistance and apply for other emergency assistance, such as child care and food. The agency also provides information on the industries with the most openings in the state. (Fast-food restaurants currently have the most openings, more than 10,000.)

“The unemployment insurance program is not designed to be a long-term solution,” McDonald said. People are only able to be on the program for 26 weeks, depending on their situation, and even extensions granted through the CARES Act will expire at the end of the year.

“And it may take some industries longer to bounce back,” McDonald said. “How do we encourage people whose industries may not be bouncing back as quickly? How do we help those individuals and help them realize that they may need to consider a new path or a new opportunity, either permanently or temporarily, until their industry comes back?”

For some, the answer may well be “find something new,” especially if they work in hospitality, travel, event planning and tourism, which could be the slowest industries to recover, McDonald said. Some analysts have predicted that more than 4 in 10 jobs lost during the pandemic won’t return at all.

The power of pivot

Change and reinvention is a popular subject among career and life coaches, including Ken Coleman, an author and radio host in the Dave Ramsey network, and Adam Markel, a former attorney who teaches people how to “pivot” out of unfulfilling careers.

Markel, who practiced employment-discrimination law before becoming a full-time consultant and speaker in 2014, is the author of “Pivot: The Art and Science of Reinventing Your Life and Career.” He says that age should not be a factor when people decide to change careers. “We discriminate against ourselves,” he said. “If we think ‘We’re too old,’ we’re immediately too old for something.

“Right now the opportunity for people to reimagine their careers, to reinvent some aspect of their personal and professional life, is as good a time as it’s ever been, and it doesn’t matter if you’re an octogenarian or someone much younger.”

There are two kinds of life pivots — one which people design themselves, one that happens by default, “if you get a diagnosis, or your job disappears or your business goes bust, or a pandemic shows up.”

Markel said old ways of thinking can prevent people from seeing possible new paths, which is why he addressed techniques to deal with an involuntary pivot in a TED talk. He encourages people to make small changes in their daily habits, such as beginning each day deciding to “love my life, no matter what” and having a period of stillness in the morning for prayer, meditation or reading and reflection.

He calls these small adjustments “micropivots” that, over time, increase confidence and diminish fear, which is the key to trying something new professionally.

A fresh start

McDonald, at the Utah Department of Workforce Services, said that apprenticeships, which “Find Something New” touts as a way to “earn as you learn,” have been a buzzword in workforce development for a few years.

Nontraditional career paths can lead to well-paying jobs in Utah

And while it may be difficult to find work now with an airline or restaurant, there are still jobs available: more than 25,000 are on the agency’s job board, ranging from sales to customer service to nursing.

“There is a greater need to individuals to start looking at what other opportunities are out there,” he said.

View Comments

That’s what Almond wound up doing. He was already preparing to enroll in a nursing program, so he applied at Intermountain Healthcare and got a job that starts next week, as an orderly in a COVID-19 unit.

Meanwhile, he’s been busy as one of the founders of the Salt Lake Valley Covid Mutual Aid Network, which assists people with economic hardships and other problems created by the pandemic. In that role, he’s helped others who have lost jobs, even while he was relying on unemployment benefits to pay his bills. The group helps provide emergency cash assistance, run errands for people who can’t leave their homes, and delivers supplies.

As of yet, however, he hasn’t suggested that anyone out of work check out the “Find Something New” website.

“If I, a young, healthy, college-educated person has trouble figuring out what is useful on there for me, I wouldn’t want to send somebody in a crisis there right now,” Almond said. “It might be a diamond in the rough, but right now, there’s a lot of rough there.”

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.