FINDING PAYOFFS IN LAYOFFS The recession forces some people to face the need for a fresh start


"The recession has been really, really good for me," Shelley Welsh says, and there's only a trace of irony in her voice.

"Love that recession," agrees Tim Windsor, and there's as much truth in his tone as there is sarcasm.

There is an upside to the recession, Shelley Welsh and Tim Windsor and others will tell you. There is light at the end of the tunnel, a silver lining to the dark cloud, life after layoff.

It's a silver lining more and more people are seeking. According to the Department of Labor, more people lost their jobs last month than during any other since the 1981-82 recession. Unemployment rose to 6.5 percent in February. About 1.6 million Americans have been laid off since last June.

Getting laid off is almost always a traumatic experience. "Losing your job puts you through the wringer," says Ralph Raphael, a Baltimore psychologist who devotes part of his practice to career counseling. "It's very seldom that someone will say, 'Whew, I'm glad I was fired.' "

But there are those for whom being laid off turned out to be a positive turning point in their lives. There are even people who will tell you it's the best thing that ever happened to them.

When Ms. Welsh, 29, was laid off from her job five months ago as a project manager for an area developer, she experienced the emotions that most people feel when that pink slip comes their way:

"You feel like you've done something wrong. You're degrad- See LAY OFFS, 4D, Col. 1LAY OFFS, from 1D ed. You're upset. You're depressed."

But for Ms. Welsh, 29, the depression and negativity lasted all of 24 hours.

She was laid off on a Friday. "By Saturday night," she remembers, "I knew what I was going to do. Monday morning, first thing, I went to the unemployment office. Then I came home, opened my telephone/address book and started making calls. By the end of the day, I had set up 13 appointments, and I had five people say, 'Yes, I have some work you can do.' "

Mr. Windsor, 31, who until Jan. 11 did public relations work for VanSant Dugdale, a Baltimore advertising agency, remembers feeling more relief than anything else when he was laid off.

"I kept cracking jokes," he says. "In some ways, it was finally great to be on this side of it. I had been around when others were laid off, and you say, 'Gee, I'm sorry,' then you walk off and never see them again. It's like they're dying."

Unemployment forced Tim Windsor to take stock of what he wanted to do with his life; writing, he decided, was it. Today, while seeking full-time employment, he is supporting himself as a free-lance advertising writer and enjoying the opportunity to devote much more of his time to writing than ever before.

And Shelley Welsh now runs a business out of her Baltimore home -- Liaison-Land Development Services -- and is looking forward to first year's earnings that are as much as 50 percent higher than the $40,000 she made before she was laid off.

She takes satisfaction from the fact that she has been able to parlay skills developed in someone else's employ into self-sufficiency. Before working for a developer, she held jobs at planning and zoning offices in Anne Arundel and Howard counties. Now she uses her contacts and expertise to facilitate other developers in obtaining permits and otherwise negotiating the bureaucracy.

Paul Hawkins, 29, a former assistant vice president at Signet Bank, tells a similar story. As manager of the commercial credit analysis department, part of his job was to gather information about businesses seeking financing. "I began to learn the ins and outs of computer data-base systems," he says, "and I began to realize that information is a valuable commodity to people and they're willing to pay for it."

Mr. Hawkins had toyed with the idea of basing his own business on his information-gathering skills -- and when he was laid off in October he knew the time had come for action. Nuttshell Information Consultants Inc., run out of the third floor of his downtown Baltimore home, had its formal start last month. Sometimes being laid off "gives people the impetus to stop and take a look at their work and how it interfaces with their life," says Helene K. Solomon, president of Corporate Enrichment Options, a Columbia-based career consulting firm. "Often they assess and re-evaluate and make different choices."

Gina, who works for a large area corporation -- and asked that her real name not be used -- is assessing and re-evaluating even though she still has a job. Her company has gone through one round of layoffs and more are anticipated.

"The idea of being paid to walk out the door appeals to me," says Gina, who has worked for the company for more than 10 years and calculates that she would receive about six months' severance pay if she were let go. The mother of two preschoolers, she loves the idea of spending more time with her children, even though she wouldn't quit on her own volition to stay at home.

"If the company made the decision for me, I'd take it as an omen that I should take more time with the kids," she says, adding that she sees her attitudes mirrored in many co-workers. "I'd look for something with more flexibility. The idea of working at home has always appealed to me. Working part time has always appealed to me."

Although she doesn't have children, Janie Kaplan, 32, is enjoying her free time at her Roland Park home since she was laid off in January from VanSant Dugdale. She had been saving money to buy a house, she says, so she had a financial cushion to fall back on. An account executive, she had worked at the ad agency for 3 1/2 years and had been "feeling stagnated." But she was not actively seeking other employment when the ax fell.

"The clues were all there that I was one of the people selected for the hit list," she says, so she was not surprised when her position was terminated. "I was glad to put a period at the end of the sentence and move on."

What Ms. Kaplan has moved on to has been a welcome change of pace. "I just had a facial," she said with delight one day last week.

She has also been leisurely planting seeds in her garden, visiting friends in other cities whenever she feels like it and putting together her resume. But she is looking outside advertising for her future. "Advertising is selfish, with self-serving needs," she has decided. "I want to give something back." She is thinking about becoming professionally involved with children in some way.

And her enforced leisure seems to have affected her disposition. When Ms. Kaplan recently returned to the office for a visit, her former co-workers saw a difference worth commenting on. "Look at Janie," she heard someone say. "She's smiling."

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