Survive and thrive: Fewer jobs mean interesting work for some

REGION – Looked at a certain way, Oryana Natural Foods Market is a great big laboratory. Just not the kind of laboratory store manager Jody Gagnier went to college to work in. Gagnier graduated from Central Michigan University with a degree in Environmental Policy and Aquatic Biology. After school she thought she'd be testing water samples for the government or directing an environmental nonprofit group. Instead, she's making sure Traverse City's popular food cooperative has enough cashiers scheduled for the busiest hours, conducting employee evaluations, and monitoring the Tenth Street store's inventory and quality. An efficiency scientist in a retail whole foods lab.

"I took all of two business courses as an undergrad," Gagnier said. "I thought I'd go on to get my master's degree, but then when I graduated I needed work, funding for environmental nonprofits was drying up, Oryana had the position open, and so here I am. And, I like it."

Gagnier is like many other local job-seekers who have been forced to look outside their field of expertise for work, and then find they like their new careers. Another of these non-traditional employees, Phil Hamburg, sells coffee for Higher Grounds Trading Company despite a long career in printing and publishing.

"I have a personal affection for coffee so it's opened up a door for me," said Hamburg. "It's taken an adjustment but I've gotten my head wrapped around it."

For 15 years Hamburg published a line of greeting cards, then worked for a book distributor, and also sold ad space in publishing trade magazines. At Higher Grounds he is involved in everything from order entry and packaging, to sales, marketing and even delivery.

"I'm sort of a shortstop. I cover the infield," he laughs. During his publishing industry career, he regularly traveled to book shows in California and New York. Now his business travel is much closer to home and more commonly ranges, "from Tom's in Acme to Tom's in West Bay," though he did go to Mexico once on a buying trip.

Like many industries, book publishing has been adversely affected by the challenging economy and jobs are few. Hamburg said perks of his new career include learning about the practice of fair trade, which he supports, and sampling the product line he sells. Highland Humanity is his favorite. "It's rich, robust, and earthy," he says.

Anecdotal evidence suggests the unemployed in search of a survival job should probably steer clear of the construction and automotive fields. Local bosses there say that there are so many unemployed in those industries that there are plenty of applicants in the haystack for each needle of a job.

"We don't have any investment bankers at the end of a shovel," said Mike Walton, vice-president of Molon Excavating. Car lots, too, tend to hire from within the industry. "We've got the same crew now we had at this time last year, and they're all from the automotive industry," said Ron Smith, human resources manager for Bill Marsh.

Even Meijer, Inc., known for hiring staff from a wide variety of backgrounds, has been able to fill any open positions with applicants having extensive retail experience. For example, a recent management trainee in the grocery department used to own a small IGA store.

Seasonal businesses, entrepreneurial operations, and mission-driven work may provide the best opportunity to the unemployed looking for interesting and even unconventional work. For example, throughout the summer the Traverse City Beach Bums occasionally has game day openings for positions as varied as ticket taker and hot dog vendor, area wineries are often looking for people to greet guests and pour samples, and warmer weather and the upcoming National Cherry Festival is sure to bring out the signboard opportunities.

Local musician Levi Britton remembers the latter. The "Down the Line" frontman once walked in the Heritage Parade incognito inside a Mr. Peanut costume. Hot duty but a precursor to keeping his cool in front of an audience. Now he tosses guitar picks to fans instead of salted nuts in the shell. BN