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Seattleites are doing career 180s to escape pandemic unemployment

Before the pandemic, Leslie Saber was a professional photographer. Now she snaps pictures on her phone while working for Washington State Ferries. (Photo by Leslie Saber)

With millions of Americans unemployed, some are choosing to do a career 180 to jump back into the workforce.

For the past 15 years, Seattle’s Leslie Saber has worked as a professional photographer.

“Events and weddings, big corporate events and parties,” Saber said. “One hundred percent of that business has dried up.”

So she went a completely different direction. Saber is now a terminal attendant for Washington State Ferries, a job that started out seasonal but has been extended indefinitely.

“I started training March 16, which was the day of the shutdown,” Saber said. “Ever since then, the world turned upside down. But actually, instead of a 180, it was a 360 for me because I found where I belong, I found great people to work with, and a job that’s different and exciting and interesting every day.”

“Exciting” isn’t hyperbole — two weeks ago, lightning struck a ferry in Edmonds while Saber was working her shift.

“The clouds started turning dark, I went outside to take a picture because: photographer!,” Saber laughed. “And then the person on the boat said, ‘Oh, there was just some lightening that was horizontal, it looked really cool.’ So I stepped toward it to see if I could get a picture of the lightening, and a moment later the world exploded. The lightening bolt hit the tunnel and knocked me off my feet and slammed my knees to the ground.”

Saber offers some advice for others who might be struggling to go through an unexpected career transition.

“One of the things that I embraced is the fact that what I do is not who I am,” she said. “Our culture really does define us as what you do is who you are. So that has really helped me reinvent.”

Saber still takes pictures, but now it’s all for her. Her camera phone is full of gorgeous sunsets and ferries snapped while on the job.

Brittany Bardeleben has been the head pastry chef at Dahlia Bakery and Tom Douglas Restaurants since 2011. This was her dream job.

“On Fridays I would go home excited because it was my weekend. And then Mondays I would get excited because it was Monday and I’m starting my week,” Bardeleben said. “It was pretty great.”

But in March, Seattle chef and restaurateur Tom Douglas made the decision to close all of his restaurants.

“We were all laid off; it was a temporary thing, it would be about eight weeks. But he also made it pretty clear that he didn’t know and they had no idea what this was going to turn into,” she said. “When [Governor] Jay Inslee gave those stay-at-home orders, Tom had to ask himself if we were essential. Are pastries essential? Not really. Our bakery was tiny, it was impossible to be socially distanced. I knew it was the right thing to do as much as my heart was broken.”

After spending some time at home collecting unemployment, Bardeleben got antsy and started looking for a new job. She is now the production manager at Metropolitan Market. She manages a kitchen full of people, spends plenty of time in front of a computer, and she doesn’t bake.

“I am still in mourning,” Bardeleben said. “It will take me a while, it may never go away. There is always going to be an ache to create desserts. But having said that, I don’t know if I would ever want to go back to the restaurant industry. It’s a very unstable industry. I mean, this pandemic was unprecedented, but leading up to it, it definitely felt broken and it felt like really anything could come along and upend the industry. So I do feel like I shifted to something much more stable.”

“I don’t see myself being interested in going back to the restaurant industry the way it was, and I think it’s going to take several years to rebuild it,” she added.

For the first time in her life, she works Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. She loves her coworkers and the culture of the market, but losing her identity as a pastry chef is the hardest part.

“One hundred percent! I would say the biggest part of this is: Who am I without this? Being a pastry chef was part of my identity,” Bardeleben said. “I had been doing it since I was 19 years old, and I’m now 40. It was such a huge part of my life and, yes, the ego is huge. I don’t have a pretty picture of a plated dessert to put on Instagram anymore. There was a certain notoriety that you gain when you’re a pastry chef working for a successful restaurateur like Tom Douglas.”

Bardeleben says the key to enjoying a new career is focusing on the bright spots.

“If a good opportunity comes along and it feels right, take it. While you’re learning the job, which is what I’ve been doing, and getting comfortable there, find out what’s going to make you happy,” she said. “For me, it was going back on [Tom Douglas’] radio show, and baking at home, and keeping a foot in the industry a little bit. Ask yourself: What will make you happy? If there’s nothing about it that will make you happy, then maybe it’s not the right thing for you.”

Listen to Rachel Belle’s James Beard Award nominated podcast, “Your Last Meal,” featuring celebrities like Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, Rainn Wilson, and Greta Gerwig. Follow @yourlastmealpodcast on Instagram!

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