Starting over

Starting over

In 2007, the construction industry employed millions of people
nationwide. Three years later, the industry has been decimated by
the recession. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more
than one-quarter of construction jobs have disappeared since
January 2007.
In 2007, the construction industry employed millions of people nationwide.

Three years later, the industry has been decimated by the recession. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than one-quarter of construction jobs have disappeared since January 2007. Throw in the jobs lost in related fields such as real estate, architecture, mortgage lending, landscape design and appraisals, and there’s no doubt which employment sector is hurting the most.

“It has been a long and deep recession, and construction has been hit disproportionately,” said Sean Snaith, economist for the University of Central Florida. “Don’t expect that it’s going to turn it around any time soon. There are people who were working in the housing boom who will never work in it again.”

Some workers in the once-thriving housing industry are moving on. Many who once sold homes or mortgages in the region’s housing boom now work in jobs involving home foreclosures. Others have transferred their skills to other industries or started businesses.


David Rohal worked as a land surveyor for 35 years. At his last employer, “it got so bad I could only muster eight hours of work for a staff of two. They pleaded to be laid off,” he said.

Finally, in February, he lost his job. He called managers he knew with other companies and was told, “We’re barely holding onto our own.” Rohal had been through economic downturns before, but a job had always turned up after a few calls to contacts. Not this time.

Rohal, 59, is coming to grips with the fact that he may need to change occupations. Fortunately, he has many transferable skills, including the AutoCAD design program, title work and managerial experience, said Vernon Bailey, a career counselor for Workforce One.

After a visit to the Broward County, Fla., employment counseling center, Rohal left with five leads, two in land surveying, Bailey said. “You have to be willing to accept change,” he said.

Rohal would rather not move from South Florida. He owns a home in Margate, Fla., and he helps out his mother who lives in the region.

He received a month’s severance pay and is collecting unemployment benefits, which just barely cover his mortgage payments. “I’ve been able to keep my head above water … but something has to happen here real soon,” Rohal said.


Jason Altneu, 36, was an account executive with three different mortgage lenders in South Florida. The last one, First NLC, closed its doors in 2007.

Altneu didn’t bother looking for another mortgage industry job. “I’m realistic,” he said.

He owned two boats at the time, so he got his captain’s license and started a charter boat business. “When I realized what a captain makes, I got my insurance license,” he said.

Altneu became an independent insurance agent, starting Altneu Financial, which provides group health and life insurance. “I’m not even close to replacing my salary, but my bills are met. Through the mortgage boom, I didn’t increase any of my debt, so I was able to survive,” he said.

While he’s making about one-third of what he once did in the mortgage industry, “I’m working four times as hard,” Altneu said.

The insurance business, which focuses on group health for small-to-medium sized businesses, will take some years to build, Altneu recognizes.

So Altneu juggles insurance clients with the more occasional boat customers, transferring his business phone to his cell so he doesn’t miss insurance agency calls. “I make appointments convenient for the insurance customer, so my fishing often gets put to the side,” he said.

The charter boat business is mostly for pleasure: “It’s a losing proposition,” Altneu said, citing fuel and boat rental costs. He had to sell the boats he owned to pay bills during his transition.

“What do you do? You’ve just got to let go,” Altneu said.


Elizabeth Sanchez, 47, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Miami in 1987. Since 1993, she has been in a partnership with a licensed architect in a Hollywood, Fla., firm, Arquis Design Group.

Sanchez worked on residential, retail, warehouse and commercial projects. But business slowed in recent years and she was unable to finish a four-unit duplex in Hollywood.

She got in touch with former classmates at the University of Miami about potential work, but soon found that “many architectural companies have closed or reduced their (number of) employees,” Sanchez said.

So now she is considering architecture jobs in other countries, possibly working for the government. Sanchez recently sought help from Workforce One in redoing her resume for architectural jobs with the Army, Navy and Homeland Security.

“I’m willing to move anywhere there’s work,” said Sanchez, a native of Nicaragua who has been a U.S. citizen since young adulthood. She immigrated with her parents when she was 15.

Workforce One counselor Bailey recruited a colleague at Veterans Affairs who is familiar with the federal government application, which can be complicated. Bailey also suggested Sanchez get to work on an environmental credential increasingly required on construction projects.


Gail Sortevik-Levin was a recruiter in the mortgage field. She brought in mortgage processors, underwriters and other workers for First NCL in South Florida from across the country.

“When the mortgage fiasco struck, First NCL had to lay off the whole company. I felt responsible for people who had relocated,” she said.

She helped many find jobs. Some former First NLC workers who had sold home loans now work on home foreclosures.

When her own job ended, Sortevik-Levin found jobs as a contractor and eventually was hired by David Wood Personnel, a South Florida employment agency where she had previously worked. “I was lucky compared to some of my counterparts. I had very transferable skills. I just had to recruit something different,” said Sortevik-Levin, 55.


Her husband, Klaus Levin, was more closely tied with the mortgage industry. He had been a state-certified appraiser for more than 20 years. He left a Miami appraisal firm three years ago. “After so many years, I just had had enough,” said Levin, 57.

After about six months of searching, Levin found a job with a law firm doing forensic work on mortgages for attorneys who represent lenders. “I’m still doing appraisal work to a certain extent, but I had to learn a different skill set,” he said.

Today, Levin is making about two-thirds of his former income as an appraiser. “But I’m hopeful the company I’m working with will grow and I’ll be a part of it,” he said.


Michele Bellisari, of Boca Raton, Fla., got her real estate license in 2003. “I love real estate, but it’s not the same business,” she said.

Bellisari, 48, doesn’t like the stress that comes from closing deals today.

“You’ve got so many people involved with the transaction. It just takes one misstep – one bad appraisal, a seller that won’t negotiate, and things fall apart,” she said.

She still sells real estate, but, in February, hedged her bets by starting a “green” cleaning business, The Greener House Cleaner in Boca Raton. She taps her real estate network and uses social media to find customers. The cleaning business gives her regular cash flow.

About 45 percent of her income still comes from selling real estate, but the cleaning business is growing, she said.

“One hundred percent eggs in one business again? No way. I’m a believer in having multiple streams of income.”

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