At the start of the pandemic, Amy Wu owned a Chinese restaurant. When the stay-at-home order was put in place, she says business picked up.

“It was so busy with takeout because Chinese takeout food is usually the way to go. That and the pizza,” Wu said.

But, she struggled to find enough employees to staff the business. Eventually, Wu decided to sell his restaurant in July 2020 because it was too difficult to find new recruits. Next, Wu turned to real estate. She got her license in 2019, but never thought it would become something she would do full time.

“I couldn’t imagine the level of interest in homes that people have…the low interest rates, it was all really crazy. It kind of became a blessing in disguise,” Wu said.

While the housing market has been hot throughout the pandemic, so has the industry itself. Membership has grown 15% at Illinois Realtors, a statewide trade association, over the past five years. And the last two years have seen the greatest growth.

Three major groups of Chicago-area real estate agents told Crain reporter Dennis Rodkin that their membership grew significantly in 2021.

“I think one of the reasons people are doing this is because real estate has stayed in place and been vital throughout the pandemic,” Rodkin told WTTW News.

Rodkin said those who join the industry go new to the workplace late in their careers, but most already have some affinity with the field.

“They weren’t going into a business they didn’t know anything about. Some of them were investors or had some other involvement,” Rodkin said.

Real estate also offers an opportunity for people working in other sectors hard hit by the pandemic, such as hospitality.

“It wasn’t that easy, we were open and other places weren’t. I think real estate, the industry in particular, speaks to the entrepreneurial spirit, speaks to the driven, speaks to the ambitious,” said Jeff Baker, CEO of Illinois Realtors.

This is one of the reasons Wu joined the industry — the flexibility and ownership of his work.

“If I’m intentional, if I’m using the right methods, the right models in my business. The idea is that I should see this return, this return on investment. The harder I work, or should I say, the harder we work, the more return we get,” Wu said.

While the hot housing market provides an opportunity for new real estate professionals, it also poses a challenge, Baker said. New real estate agents face seasoned professionals.

But, Jason Casebolt, a realtor at @properties who joined the field in October 2020, said the fast pace of the industry helps him learn much faster.

“This is the only market in which I have operated. I haven’t done any real estate brokerage in recent years. It was really hard but I wouldn’t have changed it for the world because it taught me so much so quickly that in a different market it might have taken me months or even years , to learn some of the things I learned in my first three, six, nine months as a real estate broker,” Casebolt said.

Note: This story will be updated with a video.