Out of Work? Join the Club

Job clubs ease people into the next step as employers hold the line on outplacement services.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

They are accountants and research scientists; attorneys and chemical engineers; bankers, marketers, and nursing-home administrators.

And each Thursday morning, 40 or more of them gather at the First Baptist Church in Foxboro, Mass., with one shared goal: to get a job.

They are members of WIND, a job-search club that stands for Wednesday Is Networking Day. (The club initially met on Wednesdays.)

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For four hours, they exchange job leads, critique one anothers' rsums, and fine-tune introductions to potential employers. And equally important, they come for the support and camaraderie during what can be a difficult time.

"When you're trying to job search alone, you can waste a lot of time and energy worrying. This helps maintain your focus," says Michael Gavrity, who has been coming regularly since he left his accounting practice in Albany, N.Y., a year ago and moved to nearby Rhode Island for family reasons.

Even with a strong economy, plenty of professionals still see their jobs disappear in corporate downsizings.

Less help from employers

And companies aren't just cutting jobs. They're also cutting the money they give laid-off workers for career services. And as more people recognize the value of networking in the job-search equation, they're turning to job clubs and career transition clubs for help.

"Companies are feeling less guilty than they did 10 years ago, when the first major downsizings took place," says Kate Wendleton, founder of the Five O'Clock Club, a job-seekers club based in New York, and author of "Job Search Secrets." So outplacement packages are getting smaller.

As a result, job clubs have become "a more accepted weapon in the career arsenal," she says.

Most clubs launched about a decade ago as the recession took hold. Hundreds of them operate in every state. Some are sponsored by churches, universities, state agencies, or community groups. Others, like WIND, are run by career professionals. Some are free; most charge a small fee. (WIND asks for an $8 donation per meeting.)

Started in 1990, WIND now operates two branches and has taught 94,000 people new skills.

The highly structured program is divided into two segments, each two hours long. During the first two hours, attendees congregate in the church recreational hall. The parquet floors and cinder-block walls are a far cry from the plush offices many of these professionals are used to.

Situated around folding tables, participants exchange interviewing success stories (and a few horror stories), proof-read cover letters, and swap information on potential employers. No jeans and sneakers allowed - business attire only.

After this session, members file into a tiny lounge off the church's kitchen arranged with several rows of folding chairs. Part of the meeting is devoted to an outside speaker who talks about a particular aspect of job hunting.

Sharing the good news...

Before the speaker, however, career counselor Laura Powers - who runs this WIND branch - asks for "good news" - in other words: Who's got a job?

On this particular day, two participants raise their hands.

One man, dressed in a plaid suit stands slowly, barely able to keep from smiling: "I won't be here next week because I'll be working," he announces.

The room fills with applause.

He's been a WIND regular for nine weeks, ever since he decided to leave his sales and marketing job of 17 years after a corporate restructuring. His new position is also in sales and marketing, but in a different industry.

Many people here tell a similar story - years devoted to a single company, reduced to a pink slip. Getting past the feeling of abandonment, they concede, is hard. What makes it easier is meeting with others who know the experience.

"The primary value of these groups is no doubt the support aspect," says China Gorman, regional senior vice president of Lee Hecht Harrison in Boston. The outplacement firm has recently instituted a similar, weekly group session for clients.

At WIND, the mood is surprisingly upbeat, in large part because of the tone the facilitator sets.

"If someone is angry, we acknowledge it," says Ms. Powers, and then the group encourages the person to deal with it.

"We don't do pity parties," adds WIND director Fred Nothnagel. "If you're looking for some place to go and unload week after week, this is not the place."

... And the bad

At times, participants do need a thick skin - particularly when 40 people take turns critiquing your practice introductions to potential employers. Yet many welcome the feedback.

"It's very powerful when people you've never met give you genuine critical feedback," says Camilla Gallo.

This spring, after a 15-year career as a primary-school teacher, she wanted to try something else. She started attending WIND in July. And thanks to a few leads, she recently started a new job as a sales and marketing director at Wyndemere Woods, an assisted-living facility in Woonsocket, R.I.

The other big benefit, members say, is networking. Out in the workplace, most job openings are kept under wraps. Classified ads, the Internet, even recruiters account for only about 25 percent of professional openings, Mr. Nothnagel says. The rest are circulated by word of mouth. Some career consultants contend that people in job clubs find better job leads and more quickly than those relying on headhunters.

"I'd probably say my clients would have better success getting a lead through a job club that will convert into an offer than they would through a headhunter," says Michael Shahnasarian, who heads Career Consultants of America in Tampa, Fla., and is president of the National Career Development Association.

WIND's Nothnagel constantly reminds members that "you are your own career manager. Nobody is going to do it for you, but there are a lot of people who can help."

HOW TO FIND A JOB CLUB

Finding a local job club isn't always that easy. Because many clubs are run voluntarily, it takes a little detective work to track them down.

The first place to look is at your state, county, or city employment offices.

For example, the California Employment Development Department sponsors the Experience Unlimited job clubs at various locations throughout the state. And the Job Service of Florida sponsors the Professional Employment Network at various local offices.

Universities and colleges also often offer job clubs for newly graduated students and alumni. Professional organizations sometimes sponsor job clubs as well.

Your local newspaper is another good source. Most papers publish a weekly calendar of events that lists dozens of job clubs.

Look for Low Fees, Diverse Membership

Job clubs come in all shapes and sizes.

They can be organized by profession, industry, and gender. Some require a certain salary or education level of members.

Clubs also serve different functions. Some are informal and act purely as support groups. Others are more structured and focus heavily on rsum writing and interviewing skills. And some push networking.

"A good job club is one that is vibrant, where there's lots of information, synergy, brainstorming, and cheerleading for one another," says Michael Shahnasarian, president of the National Career Development Association, who has run several clubs.

Here are some factors experts say you should consider when selecting a job-search club:

* Who are the members? The larger the group, the better your chance at making valuable contacts. Some experts recommend that you try to select a group where people are of the same career level. They don't necessarily have to be of the same industry.

"If you get a highly homogenous group, people may not want to share leads, but if the group is too diverse, then there's limited value," Mr. Shahnasarian says.

* Who's running it? Many groups rely on volunteers. But the best ones, most observers agree, are usually run by professional career consultants.

* How long has the group been together? A group that has been in place for five or 10 years will likely have a proven track record. Also talk to former and current participants and find out if it was a valuable experience for them.

* Is there a fee? Plenty of good groups out there are free or charge only a nominal fee. If a group charges $50 a session, find out what they're giving you that a group that charges $10 a session isn't providing.

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