CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Janet Studenski had made a bed countless times in her 53 years, but she hesitated in front of her classmates. • This time a student pretending to be a patient was under the covers. The state nursing aide exam was three weeks away, and changing the sheets on an occupied bed was one of 24 skills Studenski needed to master. • At stake were the certification and, with it, a shot at a job. • After more than a year without one, it meant too much to fail.
"Does she turn to her side?" Studenski frowned. "No. Yeah. Turn to your side."
She worked haltingly. Then students behind her giggled and her shoulders sank: "I definitely wrapped her up in there like a mummy."
"It's different," she said, drifting back to her seat. "You wouldn't think it would be so hard to make a bed, but it is."
Since she lost her job as a legal secretary in July 2009, Studenski had been living a life common among the swollen ranks of the unemployed. Every day, uncertainty dragged her down and hope drove her forward. She felt too old to change careers, but here she was, reinventing herself in a field that promised new challenges and, she hoped, better job prospects.
The recession battered much of the country, casting legions out of work as companies scrambled to cut costs. Now, 1 ½ years after it officially ended, the national jobless rate has fallen to 9.4 percent. But the economy has added just 103,000 jobs, fewer than economists expected. More troubling still: The number of people out of work a year or longer has grown dramatically, surging to 30 percent of U.S. job seekers last month.
Older job seekers are among the most frightened. Often they feel disadvantaged when pitted against younger candidates. Some give in to early retirement. Others seek jobs they would not have considered in better times.
Sometimes they find work. And occasionally, like Studenski, they find something they never expected: a calling.
On a Friday in late July 2009, Studenski was laid off. She was offered a four-week severance package, and the human resources manager even passed along a lead on a new job. Still, it stung. Two decades in the legal industry. Never fired, never even a bad review. And now this.
"You're just kind of in shock,'' she said. "It's so hard to explain."
As the year anniversary of Studenski's layoff approached, a friend from the old firm mentioned she was going back to school for medical administration. That got Studenski thinking.
The health care field has been one bright spot in a devastating downturn and is expected to deliver still more jobs in coming years. Nationally, health care was one of the few fields to grow during the recession, adding 36,000 jobs in December — more than a third of the total gains, and second only to the leisure and hospitality sector, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported.
Browsing job boards, Studenski began to notice openings for certified nursing assistants, who help patients with daily activities from brushing their teeth to bathing to taking walks. It didn't pay a lot — $9.50 an hour, or less than $20,000 a year, is typical to start — but it was work.
She signed up for a five-week class at the Nurse Aide Institute of Excellence in Charlotte. Her mother fronted the $500 fee. But she wasn't sold on the idea.
She had expected to cruise to retirement in her old job, and the thought of going back to school was unsettling. Her new career would pay less than she brought home on unemployment. And she knew little about nursing.
But on the first day, school co-owner Crystal Parker saw something special. She caught Studenski — and herself — off guard when she said, "Have you ever thought about working in hospice?"
She had met Studenski once before, and saw her as humble with a calm, even voice that puts people at ease.
"You know that old expression, 'When you see an angel walk in, you see a glow around them'? That was kind of what I saw around her," Parker said.
A few weeks into class, instructors agreed Studenski was enthusiastic, pleasant and set a good example for younger classmates. She had begun to make easy, almost motherly friendships with them.
It was becoming clearer to Studenski, too, that her new endeavor fit.
But before she could start a new job, she had to pass the state exam.
Studenski was confident about the written portion, less so about the five skills — chosen randomly, out of a possible 24 — she would have to perform.
But the test in late August wasn't as bad as she feared. The 70 multiple-choice questions were easy enough. One of the five skills tripped her up, taking a pulse, because her volunteer patient had an unusually low one. (Though she was ready for it, changing the sheets was not among the five skills.)
Before she left, the test administrator told her she passed.
She came home to a "congratulations" sign and some candy from her husband.
There was more good news: A nurse from Hospice & Palliative Care Charlotte Region had called the institute to see if instructors could recommend anyone for a job. They suggested Studenski, and soon after, she applied.
Weeks passed. She began to worry about losing her jobless benefits, which would run out in early 2011. In September, she took part-time work with a home health care company, filling in when needed, about 12 hours a week. She needed more work. And her heart was still with hospice.
By early November, she had nearly lost hope. "And then, out of the blue, they did call me."
She wore a suit to her interview for a full-time position at the Levine & Dickson Hospice House in Huntersville, N.C., a few miles from her home. It was a night shift — 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., three days a week — but she didn't mind; plus, she would enjoy the four days off.
She felt comfortable as she talked with nurse Pam Payne, the night-shift team manager, about her background, her switch to the health care field and her strong desire to help people. Another nurse gave her a tour of the facility — a good sign, she thought.
Shortly afterward, on Nov. 15, the call came: She got the job.
Studenski has thought a lot about her journey, how her instructors knew she would end up in hospice, how lucky she was that it all worked out. She learned that, despite her fears, she could handle the tests, the unknown. It was actually easy, once she realized how much she liked the work. She encourages anyone else in her position to take a chance, too.
"Don't think that you can't do it, because if I can do it, others can do it, too," she said.
Her mother initially questioned her new job. Her friends tell her they could never do what she's doing.
But Studenski feels a sense of peace she could never achieve in her old career.
"I know this sounds corny, but I feel like I was chosen to do a really special job," she said. "To think that I'm the one that's going to be with people at the end of their life — I'm going to be the one to try to comfort them — that's an important job."
And then she's off, down the hallway and into the lives of new patients. To work, for the first time in a long time.