Join the jobless club: Groups grow as the economy shrinks

"We had 2,000 people show up for a fair in New York last month — the line went around the block," says spokesman Mike Lobenberg, adding that 2009 will bring a 20% jump in the number of career fairs the company puts on, from 302 to 367. "We want to limit attendance so people can be guaranteed that they meet a recruiter face to face."

It is precisely the intimidating and impersonal nature of most job searches — phone calls with faceless human resources directors and e-mails to anonymous hiring staffers — that can create feelings of inadequacy and alienation. A recent study by sociologists Sarah Burgard and Jennie Brand reveals that those who lose their jobs even once often permanently disconnect from personal social networks, which then reduces their chances of finding work.

"The psychological contract that used to exist between employers and employees has broken down, and when you feel that happen, you are less likely to give back to your community," says Burgard, who is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, while her colleague teaches at the University of California-Los Angeles. "You become totally preoccupied with No. 1. You have nothing left for anyone else."

That's a fast track to paralysis, says Bob Beaudine, an executive recruiter and author of the forthcoming book The Power of Who, which stresses the importance of not just reaching out to others while on a job hunt, but making sure to seek out people who truly are concerned.

"Non-relational approaches to finding a job do not work," says Beaudine. "You have to forget putting the résumé on, forget handing out business cards at job fairs, and start your networking with true friends." He insists that some of his best job contacts came courtesy of his golf pro.

In an attempt to help personalize the job hunt, Bay Area executive coaching firm Next Step Partners kicked off its Career Action Groups, six-week programs in five U.S. cities aimed at giving business professionals access to résumé seminars, salary negotiation tips and, most important, each other.

That was in 2001. By 2005, with the economy on track, demand for the program dwindled. Little surprise, it will return in February, this time running over the course of one long day at a cost of "roughly one day's executive pay," says firm partner Rebecca Zucker.

In Boston, Debra Garrett is seeing a surge of interest in her Job Seekers' Networking Group, which is operated by The Work Place career center. "People are surprised to see that they do need the social support."

In the Chicago suburb of Naperville, Joy Maguire-Dooley is rolling into perhaps the most challenging of the 17 years she has run Lisle Township's community-center-sponsored Job Club. "We've got 65 people right now, which to me just means more chances of meeting someone who might be able to help you out," says Maguire-Dooley, who also is a therapist and started the club as a support group.

"If I know someone is coming in feeling really low, I'll ask them to hold their thoughts for the session," she says. "Inevitably, they tend to feel better and go away with hope."

'Focus on positive feelings'

Tonight's session in San Francisco starts the way most do, with polite introductions that include short confessionals.

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