BJ Homayouni, director of festivals in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, has never before had to stage a virtual strawberry celebration. Robin Moore, a Milwaukee wine consultant, hasn’t ever had to flog Merlot via virtual wine tastings. Ashley McIlwee, contact tracer for a small city outside Chicago, has never before had to play flu sleuth, interrogating Covid-19 patients about others they may have infected.
Life in the coronavirus era is like that: some of us are doing jobs that never existed before, and others will never do the same jobs again. “New roles are being created, like contact tracing,” says Becky Frankiewicz, president of ManpowerGroup North America, a staffing firm. “We’ve never used those two words together but in the past few weeks we’ve seen 2,000 to 3,000 requests in the US for a job that never existed before.” The role of security guard is morphing into temperature checker. And big cities are putting people in new jobs such as “social distancing ambassador”.
As we celebrate rites of passage in a time of pandemic — marrying, dying, graduating, giving birth, dating and celebrating our 40th or 65th or 100th birthdays online — there are new job descriptions for those who help us do those things differently. I will soon need a new kind of personal assistant: someone to help me re-dye all the clothes I’ve ruined using bleach-based disinfectants, plus a virtual dog whisperer for my pandemic puppies.
Some jobs will prove fleeting: the profession of virtual funeral planner should be extinguished eventually, as the outbreak eases. Zoom senior prom and drive-by graduation ceremony planners may not be needed next year. But no-contact matchmakers could linger as a new way of life.
Other job categories may shrivel away. Pity the food-truck chefs who turn out deep-fried Twinkies and cinnamon sugar corn dogs at the Midwest’s wonderful county fairs — many of them may not happen. They can do home delivery or teach Zoom classes on making bacon-wrapped deep-fried olives at home. But it’s hard to see people queueing up the same way they do for the real thing.
And how many $10 beer vendors do Major League Baseball stadiums need this year, if teams play half as many games before half as many fans, or none? Pyrotechnicians may be out of work, with Fourth of July celebrations cancelled. Bars may need fewer staff to clean up, if capacity is cut. Palm readers may have a thin summer. And this is no time to be auditioning as fourth French horn in an orchestra.
But some positive changes might endure, says Ms Frankiewicz. Some job requirements are being relaxed: “Employers are thinking about what’s really necessary, where they might before have said a job requires 10 years’ experience and a college degree, now some are saying a high school diploma is adequate, and two years’ experience.” New part-time openings have nearly doubled since January 1, “enabling companies to manage their balance sheets and people to blend work with home and other interests”. And the crisis may benefit “boomerang retirees” such as retired medical staff.
But these new jobs come with new stresses. Ike Ogbo, head of public health for the city of Evanston, outside Chicago, says he is planning to provide mental health counsellors for Covid-19 contact tracers. “We know this can affect the psyche of our staff, hearing news of people passing away,” he explains. Ms McIlwee, who is one of the tracers, has tracked the movements of 75 patients so far: “Some days have been tougher than others, we just try to take one day at a time and think about the good we are doing,” she says.
Ms Homayouni’s job directing her local strawberry festival comes with new challenges, too. Strawberry bratwurst sausages normally sell out at the fair. Now she’s trying to put together a “festival kit” that can be collected before the event, so that virtual fairgoers can eat those sausages at home, with a glass of strawberry wine or shandy, while wandering virtually from berry tile to berry tile online.
Selling brat-and-booze fair kits could be a new revenue stream even after coronavirus eases, she says. Her job — and everyone’s — is morphing, and people will have to mutate along with them. We may not just work from home in future: we will have assignments we never could have imagined.