The Breakdown

Explaining Southern California's economy

A Labor Day story about one Southern Californian's career change

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The housing boom was good to Southern California — while it lasted. But when the bubble popped, our unemployment rate skyrocketed. In a state with a jobless rate near 11 percent, a number of our cities are above that. And as most everyone knows, the downturn hit the building trades hard.

What do you do when you’ve been exposed to real estate’s ups and downs for much of a career? What you hear all the time when talking to economists who follow the job market in Southern California is: If only we could take all those unemployed construction workers and turn them into healthcare workers.

But of course you can’t turn carpenters into nurses overnight. I decided to try to find someone who'd transitioned out of the building trades toward "the helping professions," however, using our Public Insight Network. While I didn’t find a guy who had been hammering houses together before the financial crisis, I did find someone who was connected to the real estate market when the bottom fell out. And who decided to explore explore a new career in healing.

Eric Arimoto is in his late forties and is running — for the moment — a small business in Los Angeles, designing high-end furniture. It's called Cartouche. For two decades, starting not long after he left the Army in the mid-1980s, Eric and his business partner enjoyed success. They saw years when the company brought in upwards of two million dollars.

“Money was flowing and it seemed very optimistic, but of course as we found out and everyone found out, a lot of that was based in illusion," he said. That level of prosperity didn’t last long. In fact, Eric and his partner watched their sales decline drastically when the financial crisis stuck. “We saw a kind of industry-wide slowdown with about 40 percent, 50 percent reduction in sales. It was really difficult.”

The business wasn't huge then, and it still isn't. But it was painful to lay off two of their four workers. This was the point at which Eric starting to dig deep to figure out what to do with his future. Remember when I said that he left the Army and then started his business? Well, that isn’t the whole story.

“I think I’ve always been a therapist, because I’ve always stood outside of systems and my own family knowing that I was gay when I was five years old. As soon as I turned 18 I pretty much ran away from home and joined the Army. There was always this kind of dual reality for me. Now that I’m a therapist I know where I can productively channel that where people are actually asking me for help rather than me offering it or imposing it.”

Eric, who served as a clerk in the Army, says that his superiors wanted him to conceal his homosexuality and become a career soldier. But that wasn’t for him. He did leave with a “general discharge under honorable conditions” — military speak for a discharge that comes with a footnote. Openly gay men and women weren’t welcome in the Army when Eric was serving, in the days before “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

So now, after getting a masters in clinical psychology from Antioch University with a lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender focus, he’s preparing to be licensed as a therapist. He doesn’t plan to completely shut down his furniture business. It could be good for some side income, he figures — although probably not two million a year. He said that he and his partner intend to work "smarter, not harder" in the future as he amasses the hours he'll need to get fully licensed.

He does believe that his experience sets a good example. Just maybe not in the way that the labor economists think it should. For example, he argues against the "herd mentality" that would see unemployed building-trades workers making an unconsidered, wholesale shift to healthcare. "I don’t think that that is going to lead to successful outcomes," he said. "People need to follow their passion.”

That said, Eric is okay with leading people out of the darkness of unemployment brought on by the housing downturn. He just doesn’t want anyone getting the idea that totally changing your career is an easy maneuver.

“I would like to think that I’m a role model but people only see the end results — that I went back to school after 26 years, finished my bachelors, and then went right through a graduate program. Wow! That’s great! Yay for him. But in all the intervening years there have been so many other efforts and failures and false starts and dead ends. So I’d say follow your passion, find out what you like, do what you’re good at, and then declare whether or not this was a good job or a good vocation for you.”

Eric seems well positioned in his new endeavor. Despite his modesty, he proves that it’s never too late for a fresh start — or the revival of an old dream. The effort it took him to follow an old dream will help protect him against future economic turmoil.

Follow Matthew DeBord and the DeBord Report on Twitter. And ask Matt questions at Quora.

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