Many in New Mexico landing on their feet after quitting jobs

·6 min read

Jan. 16—The Great Resignation is back with a wallop. But that's not all bad.

A record 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs in November and most likely just as many have left since then, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported.

Elena Hinderlich of Santa Fe was among them.

"Everybody was on edge to the point they were mean. It just got to be too much," Hinderlich, 52, said of a job in medical oxygen sales that she quit Jan. 6. "I was dealing with stress, more stress. I had very ungrateful patients."

Though COVID-19's effects continue to roil the economy, there has been a surprising bit of good news for workers who quit in droves in 2021 — an exodus dubbed "The Great Resignation" by Texas A&M University professor Anthony Klotz. Some, like Hinderlich, have found better pay, more freedom and more opportunity than they might have imagined when the pandemic began.

"I feel from the day I walked out of health care, I was on vacation, looking forward very much to the future," said Hinderlich, who moved to Santa Fe in March after 22 years in Las Cruces. On Sunday, she begins training for her "dream job" as a flight attendant for Southwest Airlines.

Hinderlich is nowhere near as young as many flight attendants, but she said one-third of the prospects going through Southwest's physical testing at Dallas Love Field Airport were older than 40.

"I feel I am in my prime," she said. "Everything I have learned is useful and helpful. I belong in this tribe."

A record number of "quits," amounting to 3 percent of the country's workforce in November, comes concurrently with stifling worker shortages, especially at the lower end of the wage scale, where an increasing number of workers are winning concessions or finding what they consider better jobs in other sectors.

"People from all industries are using what is happening now to reevaluate where they are now," said Michael O'Donnell, acting director of the Bureau of Business & Economic Research at the University of New Mexico. "This is happening throughout the economy."

The same is true in Santa Fe. Filip Perez went from delivery driving to 3D printing. Cyndi Conn swapped executive director for independent consultant. Russ Schindler shifted from advertising copywriting for a shirt company to writing for an advertising company focusing on the oncology field.

All are part of a wave in the workforce willing to withstand the uncertainty brought on by the pandemic to chart a new course.

Schindler's previous and current employers are in New York City, where he and his girlfriend lived until February, when they traded in a tiny apartment on New York's Upper East Side for a two-bedroom house in Santa Fe.

"I love being in Santa Fe," Schindler said. "On the East Coast, you are in a little bubble. You're happy to be angry all the time. The first thing I noticed here was everyone was waving to me and everyone was happier."

Schindler, 27, had been working from home since the start of the pandemic, but in June the company he worked for called everyone back to the office.

"In September, I decided I would look for a job that would allow me to be fully remote," he said. "I realized there is a lot more power for employees these days."

He visited Santa Fe for the first time in August 2020 to visit his girlfriend's parents, who had moved here three years ago. She stayed with her parents, but he went back to New York, returning to New Mexico in November 2020.

"Hey, this is the right time to move ... here," Schindler said as he recalled the eureka moment.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics within the U.S. Department of Labor calculated new record numbers of people quitting jobs in April, August, September and November, the most recent month available. The bureau reported the highest number of quits in New Mexico at 25,000 in August.

New Mexico had 2.7 percent of its workforce quitting jobs in October, a shade lower than the 2.8 percent national average, BLS statistics show. O'Donnell said it's taking longer for the state to bring workers back into the economy, in part because of the number of people who work in the hospitality industry.

Nearly half the increases in national quits — 370,000 to reach 4.5 million in November — were in "accommodations and food" services with health care and social sciences seeing 52,000 additional quits. Transportation, warehousing and utilities added 33,000 more people leaving their jobs.

"The Great Recession [in 2008] was a top-down thing," O'Donnell said. "This is from the bottom up from the lower end of the economy. Those individuals in the past did not have the market strength to demand higher wages and better working conditions."

Perez, 30, scored a windfall with his internship at the Fab Lab Hub at the Higher Education Center in Santa Fe that pays him $40,000 a year. He left an $11.50-an-hour job as a meal delivery driver for a senior center in Los Alamos, where he still lives.

"I did not want to be there anymore," Perez said of his previous job. "I have been here [at Fab Lab Hub] since November. I feel a little more middle class than lower class. With my first paycheck, I bought tires for my car. I feel like my mental state has really improved because I don't have income anxiety."

The Fab Lab Hub is an advanced manufacturing lab focusing on workforce training in 3D printing founded and operated by Sarah Boisvert. A friend was a Fab Lab intern and encouraged Perez to take part in a boot camp there, and Perez persuaded Boisvert to take him on as an apprentice.

"Sarah has opened my mind to the potential of other companies to work for," Perez said. "This is a springboard for better opportunities."

Conn, who is in her mid-40s, put in 11 years as executive director of Creative Santa Fe before leaving in October 2020 independent of the organization going into a one-year dormancy the next month.

She moved to Park City, Utah, to assist former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh in creating a utopian destination project to make the world a better place. But Hsieh died the next month, and the project ended.

"I spent the winter skiing and camping and came back to Santa Fe in March," Conn said.

On her own as a consultant, she has been and remains the project manager for the Santa Fe Data Platform, which collates data sets on most things Santa Fe. She is now producer of a documentary on post-traumatic stress disorder, trauma and the state of mental health with an all-woman, all-New Mexico crew, and she curated an exhibition on climate change at the Weinberg/Newton Gallery in Chicago.

"Independent consulting is something I always wanted to do but never had the courage to do," Conn said. "These circumstances pushed me into a whole new path."

She, too, has reached a happy spot.

"At Creative Santa Fe, I learned what I wanted to do," Conn said. "Now I can target things that matter the most to me and do it on a national and global scale. I love projects with a begin date and end date and then I move on. I'm independent to pick and choose what I want."

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