Join the jobless club: Groups grow as the economy shrinks

Ivy Moya, 40, worked at a software company that went out of business last summer. She tells the group that some family members have been critical about her inability to land a new job, and she has made the painful decision to sidestep them for the time being. "I need positive people in my life right now," she says. Everyone nods.

"My parents are not happy with any of my job-listing choices so far," says Neal Sardana, 25, who most recently worked in a passport office. "But I realize I have the power to focus on positive feelings."

Paul O'Neil, 45, was a marketer in the publishing world when he was laid off in July. He, too, has found it challenging to be around family this holiday season. "They don't ask me about my situation," he says. "It's almost like they think if they do, they'll lose their jobs."

Sanchez was until recently director of marketing at a national coffee chain; he's convinced the road to a great new job leads through others. "I want to hear what sorts of things you guys have done for people," he says. "You know you need to give in order to get."

A bit of silence, followed by O'Neil: "Um, does mowing my mother's lawn count?"

When the cackles subside, Moya smacks Sanchez's point home. She tells the story of a job lead she recently had coffee with who mentioned her own husband, a contractor, was looking for work. Moya had seen a flier asking for construction help, and mailed it off.

"She called me out of the blue to thank me," says Moya, still amazed. "I said, 'We're all in this together.' "

The group moves into the next phase of Job Club, which gives uninterrupted if limited air time.

Maryann Hrichak, 51, an immigration law expert and researcher, is first out of that gate, telling the story of a "dream job" that seemed promising — she had interviewed with six of the company's officers — until a dispiriting phone call with a distracted HR employee.

"I'm sure it's dead in the water now," Hrichak says softly.

"Maybe that woman wasn't in the loop," Mannhalter offers.

Moderator Romanoff intervenes with some affirmation — "You made six interviews happen, that's great" — and keeps things flowing.

The eldest of the group, Mannhalter asks her Job Club friends if they've ever encountered ageism.

O'Neil says he is indeed more conscious than ever of his prematurely gray locks, but "you can only be who you are."

Moya relates the story of a friend with 30 years in the fashion business. "She's 53 and out of work, and no one will talk to her," she says. "It's brutal."

Romanoff again rescues the mood, pointing out to Mannhalter that a Craigslist ad she spotted recently "did call for a 'seasoned' person. That's a promising word."

The clock winds down. A few members swap cellphone numbers and e-mail addresses. They seem less like random folks who have appeared off the street than a group of work colleagues breaking up after a quick beer at a bar.

O'Neil pauses at the door, smiling as the others file out. "The beauty of this group is that we all come from different places, in our lives and our work lives," he says. "Coming here just makes my community bigger. We all know people. And if those people can't help us, maybe they can help these new friends.

"What goes around comes around."

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