After being laid off, a restaurant manager finds a new career in the passion for virtual reality

For virtually every worker in Oregon, the pandemic has caused a profound change. The Oregonian/OregonLive spoke to four people who have turned their careers upside down, either out of necessity or choice.

Michael Watts often spoke to his wife about quitting her job in the service industry to turn her passion for virtual and augmented reality into a career. He even considered taking night courses in software development while working full-time as the general manager of a Killer Burger in Gresham.

But before the pandemic, that future looked like a pipe dream. Watts worked 50 to 60 hours a week in the industry where he had spent his entire career. The drive from his home in Ridgefield, Washington only added to the long hours.

“I had been in the service industry since I was a kid, and I knew I wasn’t going to get much past a general manager,” Watts, 39, said. “I wanted to make a change, but there wouldn’t have been while I was general manager. There weren’t enough hours in the day to make that transition.

Shortly after the pandemic hit in March 2020, however, Watts was fired. It turned out to be the push he needed to finally make a change.

He went into unemployment and received the enhanced unemployment benefits offered by the federal government at the start of the pandemic. He used that money to attend a six-month coding bootcamp.

After sending out hundreds of resumes, Watts was eventually hired as a contractor for a company that helps office building managers and businesses prepare for emergencies. Watts’ virtual recreations of office buildings help businesses prepare for disasters. In November, the company offered him a full-time job as a virtual reality project manager.

A year and a half after leaving the service industry, Watts is now working from home in an office across from his wife, who works in tech. The couple recently applied for Tulsa Remote, which offers workers $10,000 to relocate to Oklahoma City and work remotely. They haven’t decided yet if they will move, but it’s an option they didn’t have before.

“The pandemic was kind of this reset moment for me to look at, ‘What are my real priorities?'” Watts said. “We were so disconnected. I wasn’t going to dinner, at the bar. I don’t get this social thing, so I had to look inside myself and see the things that made me happy.

-Jamie Goldberg; [email protected]; @jamiebgoldberg

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