How We're Making It Work

By George Anders, PARADE

salariesMarybeth Purvis' job keeps changing in this tough economy, but her tenacity never falters. When her property-sales office hit hard times last year, she dodged unemployment by becoming a community-college teacher. At first, all she could find was part-time work teaching math and economics. So she shuttled between three campuses near her Richmond, Ky., home, earning wages of just $24,000.

Frustrating? Yes. Discouraging? No way. Purvis, 41, also received a bonus based on student evaluations and hopes to go full-time soon. If that doesn't pan out, she plans to become certified as a high school math teacher to boost her income. As Purvis sees it, the recession didn't wreck her career; it redefined it. "I really enjoy teaching," she says, "and I know I'm good at it."

Across America, workers' resilience is being tested by one of the worst economic slumps since the Great Depression. Some 15 million people were out of work late last year, with national unemployment peaking at 10.1% in October. Add part-timers who can't find full-time employment, plus people who have stopped looking for work, and the picture is bleaker still. Last year, states paid a record $79 billion in unemployment benefits to as many as 30 million claimants.

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Economists believe the worst is over. "Manufacturers are recalling some furloughed workers," says Lynn Reaser, president of the National Association for Business Economics. "And we're seeing a rise in overtime." January's jobless rate inched down to 9.7%, and forecasters expect more good news ahead. Still, a complete recovery could take years.

Meanwhile, people are patching together their own strategies for weathering the recession. Workers of all ages are scrambling to acquire extra skills. Others are taking refuge in "safe" lines of work or slashing spending to survive employment setbacks. Part-time work is getting a fresh look. The boldest option: becoming one's own boss.

Here's a look at how each strategy is playing out.

Developing New Skills

To improve their job prospects, millions of people are heading back to school for more training. In Illinois, community-college enrollment this spring has jumped 8%. In Connecticut, it's up 12%. Popular programs include health care, computer technology, and criminal justice. "This is a good time to prepare for the future," says Marcella Amorza, a vice president at New York City College of Technology.

People are changing direction at all ages. In Wichita, Kan., after years as an office manager, Leigh Burgess, 54, is training to be a pastor. She earned just $5800 last year from part-time work at a small church during her seminary studies. Now she's considering becoming a hospital chaplain, too. "Most people at 54 are slowing down," she says. "I feel I'm just getting started."

Others have switched industries, scrambling to learn new jargon and customs. Carole Matte, 43, of Wilmington, Mass., sold paper products, but a corporate reorganization made clear that there was no potential for growth. A new company offered to train her in the fast-growing world of online ad sales. "It's different every day," she says. "I'm glad I got in when I did." Last year, she earned $110,000-double her old pay.

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Finding "Safe" Jobs

In a few lucky sectors, it's possible to ask: "What recession?" Education and health care added about 320,000 jobs in the 12 months through Feb. 28, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"People will always die, and they'll always need our services," says Elizabeth Fisher, 48, a forensic-autopsy technician in Charlotte, N.C. She earned $39,400 last year, up slightly from 2008. While she realizes some might shudder at her daily routine, she says it's fascinating to figure out causes of death, "especially in skeletal remains."

Meanwhile, the federal government boosted its payroll by some 66,000 workers. Although state and local governments haven't been immune to the recession, their job cuts have been restrained. David Currin, 44, a Chicago bus driver, earned $67,000 last year and figures he has enough seniority to avoid this year's cutbacks. "I'm fortunate," he says.

Hunkering Down

William Goveia, 55, has worked in Mitsubishi's Normal, Ill., auto factory for 22 years. Hard times mean pay cuts and no bonuses, so he's tightened the family budget accordingly. "I haven't taken a vacation in five years," he says. His one indulgence: going to movies more often. Andre Beard, 45, of Stockton, Calif., earned $85,700 last year helping to run a call center. Since it closed, he has been interviewing for jobs paying as much as 30% less. Beard has already renegotiated his mortgage and cut back on satellite TV. "I've made it pretty far without a college degree," he says. "I've got to hold it together."

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Working Part Time

More than 26 million people work part time. Two-thirds do so by choice, including Charles Wisloh, 73, who puts in a few hours a week as a school crossing guard near his home in Waldwick, N.J. The $5900 a year he makes is a handy supplement to his Social Security income.

For others, only short hours are available. Kathleen Garrett, 58, of Kreamer, Pa., works about 20 hours a week at a department store, earning $7.61 an hour. She'd like more hours to help upgrade her health insurance and wardrobe but says, "I'm grateful for what I have." Right now, she scours thrift shops for bargains.

Starting a Business

Each year, about 500,000 Americans start their own businesses, says Robert Litan, head of research at the Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City, Mo. The state of the economy hardly matters. It's easier to raise money in boom times, but the desire to break free is probably most intense during an economic slump. "With your own business, it's you, you, and only you," says Annette Looper, 49, a dance instructor in Dayton, Ohio. She earned just $10,000 last year but is toying with the idea of starting her own school.

In Watford City, N.D., Marty Mulder, 50, has owned motels since the 1980s. At first, he did his own plumbing repairs while his wife cleaned rooms, but a booming local economy, based on oil discoveries, turned 2009 into his best year ever-he earned $440,000. "There's nothing like being your own boss," he says.

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