Mere months ago, the U.S. had one of its lowest unemployment rates in 50 years (3.5% in February). In that tight labor market, recruiters often felt they were searching the ends of the earth to find talent.

Now, as many businesses are slowing down or closing entirely, unemployment initially jumped to 14.7% in April, and settled at 13.3% in May. With joblessness at its highest rate since the Great Depression, employers may face the opposite problem and be overwhelmed with applications.

Download transcript

More available job seekers doesn’t necessarily mean recruiters have it easy. In fact, as economies begin to reopen and we start the work of rebuilding, we may see new, more pressing challenges in talent acquisition. But hiring is still a matter of finding the right candidate for your open roles.

And sometimes, the right candidate isn’t who you’d expect. 

In our documentary series The Unconventional Hire, we spotlight three stories of job seekers who made radical career shifts and are now making an impact for employers who saw their potential. Today we’ll dive deeper into one of them: Kevin Fitzpatrick is a healthcare hero — a nurse on the front lines in Michigan fighting COVID-19. But Kevin started out in a different line of work: in a factory that made auto parts. We caught up with Kevin to discuss his career transition, and explore how employers who look beyond the surface to make unconventional hires may come out even stronger during these unconventional times.  

A bold career transition

Kevin is no stranger to navigating changes during hard economic times. In 2006, the unemployment rate in Flint, Michigan —  his hometown — was nearly double the national rate. That year, he learned the auto parts factory where he’d been working for 10 years was reducing its staff. He felt torn: this was the only career he’d ever known, and he “didn’t have anything else to fall back on.” The pay and benefits also allowed him to support his young family. 

But Kevin didn’t enjoy the job’s repetitive nature and worried about his ability to maintain its unrelenting pace until retirement, even if the plant could survive. But what to do next? As he reflected on that question, Kevin thought back to his childhood. His mother, a nurse, was always caring for people, and even brought him along when neighbors needed assistance. “People were so appreciative of my mom, but she also gained a lot out of helping others,” he recalls.

He, too, wanted a job where he could help people and experience his impact on others firsthand: “I wanted to stay in Flint and help the people of this community.”

After weighing and discussing the options with his family, Kevin made an intimidating choice — to accept the severance package offered by his company, and take the plunge into his own nursing career.

Transferable skills: sometimes, they’re where you’d least expect them

Kevin went back to school, and was seeking his first job as a nurse in just a few short years. As he prepared to speak with recruiters, he felt a sense of nagging insecurity: “I thought I was at a big disadvantage. Why would they want to hire some old guy who couldn’t hack it in his first career, so now he’s trying something else?”  

As it turned out, emergency room nurses were in high demand in his area and he quickly found a job. But Kevin still couldn’t see the connection between his previous career and his current job. It wasn’t until he started to get the hang of things that it dawned on him — his time at General Motors actually made him better at his nursing job.

In the emergency room, Kevin discovered he had a few valuable assets left over from his previous job experience. The first was his adeptness at performing repetitive tasks. 

“My job as a factory worker really helped prepare me,” he says. Though nursing offered more daily variety than the manufacturing line, certain things like checking vital signs had to be done the exact same way for every patient. “When somebody comes in with a certain medical condition, you do that same process every time,” Kevin notes. Those years on the manufacturing line had honed an important skill that’s just as useful in healthcare. 

The second was a crucial soft skill: his ability to relate to and connect with all sorts of people. “Working in the automotive industry, you meet a lot of different types of people,” Kevin says. At the auto plant, he found that how and what he communicated was specific to the listener; his supervisor didn’t need the same type of information as the person loading the truck. Hospitals weren’t much different — attending doctors needed to hear information in a different way than patients, and his communication skills helped set him apart. 

Instead of being a disadvantage, Kevin’s unconventional background was just what the doctor ordered and actually helped in his career transition. In his words, “my managers could see that I was more well-rounded than someone coming right out of school.”

“If you give people a chance, they’ll show you what they can do.”

Considering a career transition during hard times can be daunting. Much like in 2006 when Kevin debated his career options, the current economic times are hard — and COVID-19 brings its own set of difficulties. Because mobility is limited for many people and consumer spending has decreased so sharply, it’s hard to tell which — if any — employment sectors will be safe choices. Yet the high unemployment rate means that many people are likely to be considering career transitions. This presents a unique opportunity for employers to acquire employees with different backgrounds, and whose skills may transfer over in surprising ways — much as Kevin’s did. 

As for Kevin, he has no regrets. Looking back ten years since he made the change, he acknowledges that “leaving a secure job and doing a total 180 was scary — I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into.” Despite that initial fear, he is grateful he made the transition: “Being an ER nurse is a blessing.”  

Nursing’s daily variety and immediately visible impact on others is satisfying. And for someone like Kevin who values making personal connections, the job is particularly fulfilling. “The outpouring of support from the community is just overwhelming,” he says. “It’s hard to even put in words.” 

We asked Kevin if he had any advice for recruiters who are searching to find the right candidates for their available roles. His response? Keep an open mind. He explains that some of today’s great candidates may not check every box. “There are lots of people who fit all of the criteria in a job description and had tons of responsibility at their last job, but might not have a degree. Or might not have the right degree,” he says. “If you listen to those people and give them a chance, they’ll show you they can do it.” 

In a tight labor market, broadening your candidate search makes sense — filling those roles takes as much flexibility as possible. But even in today’s market, with its large pool of eager and motivated job seekers, flexibility in hiring is still a smart practice. By considering candidates who, like Kevin, have different and even unexpected backgrounds or work experience, you may gain access to some of the best candidates out there. This could result in some of the greatest hires of your — and their — career.

Watch “The Unconventional Hire” and other videos.