April 27, 2015

Elson's rocky trek led to job nirvana

PHOTO | Contributed
PHOTO | Contributed
Steven Elson’s rollercoaster career journey from for-profit to nonprofit wasn’t easy, but he says it led to fulfillment.

Up until the Great Recession, Steven Elson relished his career in private real-estate finance.

But the loss of his job combined with personal circumstances, including a long, unfruitful search for another job at a time when he needed one most, led him to deep introspection of the contributory value of his skills in developing retail shopping centers.

Afterwards, he emerged with a fresh sense of purpose, and, benefitting from participation in the Encore!Hartford program, he landed a full-time post analyzing, arranging and financing affordable housing for a nonprofit employer in Fairfield County.

Elson and past and future graduates of Encore!Hartford and a related initiative, Third Age, are poster children, experts say, for the realignment now underway in attitudes among middle-age and older Americans about a life in which career or vocation are dialed back a few notches in favor of a "retirement'' or lifestyle that better balances paid and volunteer work with travel and other leisurely pursuits.

Now 61 and residing in New York state, Elson says he has no immediate retirement plans, partly because he can't afford it. But also because, he said, for the first time in his life, he can see the fruitful impact of his hard work on the community, not in fattening someone else's wallet.

"It was devastating,'' Elson said of his 2008 layoff from a Hartford area realty developer/manager. "I loved the work I was doing. I had kids in college. My wife was working. But it's very hard. Your work-life encompasses so much of you. Then nobody wants to hire you. That's depressing.''

After his layoff, Elson says he landed a temporary post in the multi-family-housing division of the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority. Two years later, he was unemployed again. This time, though, there were no job nibbles to be found.

But Elson contacted a counselor at CTWorks, a skills-assessment, job-counseling center, who insisted he sit down and define his life's passions. He did and was amazed when he realized that working to advance the volume of affordable housing in Connecticut was something that gave him a "psychic charge.''

Almost right way, the Encore!Hartford program hit his radar. He enrolled and was accepted. Because he was still unemployed at the time, the state picked up his $3,000 enrollment tab. In March 2013, Elson and 23 other Connecticut residents were seated into the latest training class. All but a couple of his Encore classmates still work at nonprofits, he and a former classmate say.

But when time came to choose a nonprofit where he could do his Encore fellowship, none fit the bill. So, Elson researched and found one that suited his aims and his offer to work for free for six weeks. Boston's Women's Institute for Housing and Economic Development at the time had a small office in Hartford. Halfway into his stint, the nonprofit offered him a full-time job.

Elson's Encore!Hartford alum Joan Barere, a former securities lawyer now a strategic planner for Capital Workforce Partners in Hartford, said Elson was the first in their class to land a nonprofit post.

Barere said her career shift from the for-profit to nonprofit sector has "been very rewarding and very appealing'' not only for her, but her college-age daughter who is now considering nonprofits as a career.

"I feel like by switching careers," Barere said, "I've set an example for her about her career alternatives for her whole trajectory, not just retirement. That really pleases me.''

Elson said his Encore experience provided him a fresh outlook.

"What the Encore program did for me,'' Elson said, "was it gave me the traction that I couldn't get on my own. It gave me credibility. It gave me the opportunity … to gain the experience that I needed to launch.''

At the housing institute, Elson said he worked on development of a 22-unit elderly affordable-housing complex in Essex. His private-sector finance and development skills enable Elson to serve as project manager, working on zoning and financing.

In March 2014, for personal reasons, Elson left for a slot doing similar work with New Neighborhoods in Stamford, a nonprofit affordable-housing developer.

"I'm much more professionally and personally fulfilled now because the projects I'm working on are primarily affordable housing for people who need it,'' he said. "Strip shopping centers don't really meet that.''

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