A love-hate relationship with the recession teaches life-long lessons

By Guest Columnist HEATHER ALHADEFF, president of Center Forward, a woman-owned land-use and transportation consulting business

My incessantly analytical brain is ruled by logic. So, to me it just made sense — evolve or die on the proverbial vine. It did take me a while, however, to realize I was hating the very thing I should love.

This incredibly distressing recession required me to question all assumptions. In so doing, it prompted me to launch my own business, doing the work I love while creating more time for friends and family.

For me, it started with the 2008 housing crash at the same time I started working from home on my furloughed “days off.” I along with thousands of other public sector employees were hoping for a 2 percent a cost of living increase only to be greeted by the equivalent of a 10 percent pay cut and fewer hands to help.

Heather Alhadeff

Heather Alhadeff

That year began the most serious housing related financial set back I will likely ever endure. For the first time in my life, my incredibly optimistic family couldn’t even say “chin up” or “it’ll be OK.”

With a seemingly distorted outlook, I can say this housing crisis has resulted in a better future for me.  Given that inheritance or savings are not available as a stepping-stone, the loss of equity and credit could have been debilitating. Or, it could become a life altering way to force me to position problems and ideas in a new light.

Fast forward to lucky 2013, and today I hear very different comments. “Wow, you are so brave.”  “You know, I have always wanted to do that….” “Why start an urban planning business now?”  “What do you see in the future that grants you such positive outlook?”

These are the most common reactions I have been receiving from friends and colleagues since my December announcement of my small, woman-owned business. It’s true, now I am officially more creative and open to consider new ideas that many dismissively label as risks.

I believe there are two types of reasons I made the leap.  One is due to key changes in the workplace (technology, reduced competition, and change in project types) and the other is a shift in fears related to freelance work (lack of job security and reduced benefits).

Not so long ago, computers were predominantly found in the office. Now with mobile technology, Ultrabooks and iPads you don’t have to sit at the same desk to get your work done.  Smaller, cheaper, and more enhanced computing capabilities enable people to work from anywhere at any time. In fact, in the private sector I frequently work with planners and architects of the same project team whose desks are thousands of miles away in different time zones.

With the closure and buy-outs of many small and medium level firms, the recession has actually reduced the number of firms competing. And with reduced budgets, one may presume that fewer projects mean more competition.  However, it seems that there are more projects of a smaller scale. That bodes well for smaller companies in an environment that calls for teams consisting of individuals from different companies that have less overhead costs.

Larger firms often don’t pursue projects that fall under a certain financial threshold. The biggest firms offer clients an ideal abundance of people power and service lines from around their global offices. However, they are not as nimble. Being large means you have to spend 10 hours getting permission to borrow a staff person for eight hours of work. Simply put, there are numerous firms that are not as fiscally agile due to the nature of their size.

Project types have evolved with reduced budgets too. The plans and projects that are moving forward demand professionals that can handle more complex, urban or suburban retrofit projects or programs.  Niche services are in greater demand.

In essence, effective planning requires the science of macro level solutions applied at a micro level. It also requires the art of intrinsically knowing local realities. Smaller and medium size firms frequently have more “local” or ground level planners who are more apt to know the site-specific issues and politics. Those skills can’t be learned in a classroom or from your corporate office in another state.

In a twist of irony, freelance work no longer takes the cake in conjuring fears of reduced job security and benefits. In fact, it seems that same low-grade fear is on the minds of many “regular” employees. Many companies and public sector agencies have been forced to cut people in high-level positions or those that seemed untouchable with 20-plus years of service.

The rise in healthcare costs and reduced pensions has literally reversed decades of expected benefits. Employees are now paying more social security and a higher ratio of healthcare costs, while individual healthcare options are on the rise.  Suddenly, from an income perspective, “regular” company jobs don’t seem less risky than freelance work.

My main lesson learned is not about how to struggle through a recession. Rather, it’s how to open your eyes and think differently. The recession’s punch is packed with life-long lessons that will continue to make me more resourceful than any salary increase could have accomplished.

Note to readers: Center Forward focuses on resolving complex land use and multi-modal transportation challenges. Before going off on her own, Alhadeff was senior transportation planner on contract with Perkins+Will, and assistant director of transportation planning for the City of Atlanta.

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