Taking a chance

Self-starters: Despite a shaky economy, some find ways to spread their wings

Jen Edes and Kate Lynch, both of Peterborough, the owners of the Shack n’ Cheese in Keene, always thought they would make a dynamic business team. The two got to know each other while working at EMS in Peterborough — Edes as the director of sourcing and product development and Lynch in marketing.

“She’s the right brain creative side, and I’m very much about the operation and number crunching,” said Edes in a phone interview Friday. “We’ve always thought we could be successful in business. It started with us just dreaming, but last year, we really started to think it through seriously.” At the beginning of last summer, when EMS was laying off and reducing employee hours, the two decided it would be a good time to put their business plan into action.

And they aren’t alone in facing the challenge of taking up a new career path n a down economy. The Ledger-Transcript talked with two others in the same position in the last couple of years, one who went back to school for a chance at a more challenging career and another who was looking for work at a time when the job market was not particularly flush with opportunity.

There are a lot of reasons someone might be seeking a job, noted Donna Brand, an employment specialist at the River Center. They may have gone through a recent divorce or separation and have become more responsible for the income of the family, moved recently, or even outgrown their old job. But the bulk of people that Brand counsels on a daily basis are people who have been laid off, especially in recent years.

It’s not a great economy to be seeking work, and most people who go to see Brand are aware of the fact. So, when she asks them what in an ideal world they would like to do for a living, the response she most often hears is, “Honestly, I’m looking for anything.”

“I think people are open to trying new things, but they don’t know how viable a candidate they will be,” Brand said. One of the services Brand offers is helping her clients become as qualified as possible by helping them acquire skills that are applicable to a wide variety of jobs, such as computer skills. Those in the 50 or older category are the ones who tend more often to lack those skills, according to Brand. Those in that age category are large subset of the people Brand speaks to most often. Growing older presents certain challenges when it comes to work, Brand pointed out. Those doing physical labor, for example, may no longer have the strength they once had, and many others find their computer skills are in need of improvement — which is another area the River Center offers help with.

First-time entrepreneurs have a whole other set of challenges, as Edes and Lynch discovered.

Starting a business

It’s a nerve-wracking time to start a business, said Edes. Both women have families that have worked in the food business before, and that’s really where they wanted to focus, she said, but they didn’t just jump in head first. The two considered the best way to ease into their dream shop, selling comfort food, such as mac n’ cheese and burritos cooked camp-style in a skillet. The two decided to ease into it by taking over a preexisting ice cream business in Keene, the Piazza, and running that for the summer. There was room in the back to expand to food, said Edes, and it seemed like a lower risk way to enter the business world.

Edes and Lynch decided to use the proceeds from a summer of running the ice cream business to start up their ultimate goal of a small restaurant, instead of taking out a large business loan. They used a smaller model of what they eventually hope to achieve, said Edes, to reduce their risk of loss.

It’s wasn’t a completely seamless transition, she noted. “It’s definitely been extremely stressful. We took a huge risk, and it’s required a huge change in lifestyle for us. My family talks about this every day. And it’ll be another year or two until we can really get this thing moving, and not just be working day-to-day to pay the bills and running things tightly, which all businesses have to do in their first years.”

But those stresses come with rewards.

“You can have an idea to make a better business, and just come in and do that,” she said. “It goes back to the ability to make immediate changes you want to make. You’re building something for yourself, rather than someone else, and that’s gratifying on a different level.”

Susan Fiske, 57, of Wilton said that she was one of those that needed to gain more technological skill when she found herself laid-off from her long-time career. She felt her age was a big hurdle when she was laid off from her position as a bookkeeper for a business group in October 2012. In her mid-50s, and having worked at the same place for more than a decade, she was a little lost, she said. Fiske didn’t sit idle, though — she wanted to get another job. She took computer classes to improve her chances of getting work, worked with a job coach, and tried to get jobs through a temp agency. She had interviews, and the occasional temporary position, but no new career opened up for her, she said.

“They would say, ‘You’re over qualified,’ or ‘You’re underqualified,’ and some of that was just code for ‘You’re too old,’” said Fiske.

Eventually, Fiske said, she decided to give up on getting a job with a employer, and decided to go into business for herself. Since she had years of bookkeeping under her belt, she decided to start an independent home-based business, focused on small businesses that don’t have enough work to employ a full-time bookkeeper, but might still need the services of one. Now she has a few steady clients, and is always scouting for more, she said. It’s not an easy economy to start a new business in, but Fiske has a positive outlook.

“I really tried to see it as one door closes, another’s going to open. You just have to make things happen for yourself, and really sit down and figure out where you really need to be,” she said.

Going back to school

Jacob Fox also decided to make a change, despite the uncertain economy. While in his late 30s, after having worked for nearly his entire adult life in a factory at Osram Sylvania in Hillsborough, Fox decided to leave his well-paying job to go back to school to pursue a his dream of obtaining a nursing degree.

“The fact is, I could go to work and make some adjustments to a machine for the first hour, and then sit and twiddle my thumbs,” he said of his previous career. “I knew that I had gotten to the highest level my high school education could get me.”

In the spring of 2011, following his New Year’s resolution to go back to school, Fox became a licensed nursing assistant, with plans to eventually become a licensed practical nurse and, ultimately, a registered nurse. It’s his dream, he said, and the only potential stumbling block for him was that until he got additional schooling under his belt and got some more qualifications, he would be taking a big cut in pay to work as a nursing assistant — from about $19 an hour to $11. But it’s a move he said he doesn’t regret.

“Obviously, my free spending has been cut a lot,” he said. He downgraded his car, and went from purchasing one every few years to keeping a 7-year-old vehicle. But he’s no longer bored with the work that he’s doing, he said. “I wouldn’t change it for anything,” he said. “I leave work pretty satisfied every day, and feel fulfilled with the work that I do. And you can’t ask for more than that.”

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