Join the jobless club: Groups grow as the economy shrinks

One by one, they answer the question: What's your favorite holiday dish? When all eight are through, an imaginary feast fills an austere white room that buzzes with the hum of a neon light.

"We should swap recipes," says Gary Sanchez, 43. "We may not have jobs, but at least we'll be well-fed."

The group breaks into laughter. It's a welcome emotion.

This is not a summit of would-be chefs but a session of Job Club, a weekly gathering of area unemployed whose mission is to both soothe nerves frayed by layoffs as well as help steer those assembled back to a steady paycheck.

Such informal gatherings have always existed, typically sponsored by church groups and local career centers. But the economic collapse has placed renewed importance on this homespun salve, one that some attendees describe as a lifeline out of anger, fear and loneliness.

"I feel scared and insecure," says Olympia Vouitsis Montgomery, 40, a graphic designer who paid $5 to attend tonight's two-hour session. "This group keeps me focused and organized in my job search."

And it does so in a setting that is almost familial as repeat visitors become fluent in one another's stories and goals. Members eagerly pass along job tips and contacts, banking on the oft-repeated mantra here that you're only one connection away from your next job.

"There's a greater feeling of anxiety (in the group) than I've ever seen," says Hilary Romanoff, coordinator of this Bay Area Career Center club. Those hurting here range from ages 25 to 57, from recent college graduates to those holding master's degrees, from office managers to executives. "I've even had strippers," she says.

With employment prospects bleak, Job Club is mainly about emotional support. They come as they are, sporting everything from faded jeans to colorful shawls, clutching sodas and lattes as they shuffle in. The group quickly homes in on the coming holidays.

"I'll be baking more," says Deborah Mannhalter, 57, who hopes to land permanent work in an ad agency production shop. "That'll distract me. Though I know I'll also be thinking, 'Oh, my God, what happens if I don't find work?' "

Sue Smith, 56, an expert on homeopathic healing, says she'll be volunteering a lot this Christmas. "I'm sick of all the materialism," she says.

And around the table they go, joking about all the knitting their relatives will receive this year. What's apparent is that even those in attendance who are down about their prospects quickly relax in the company of similarly situated souls.

When Romanoff began moderating the 2-decade-old program a year ago, sometimes only three people showed up. Now a dozen is common. "People walk in here feeling alone, thinking that it's just them with these emotions," she says. "But they quickly see that's not true. There are others, and they're willing to help each other out."

Not a job fair

The Job Club's atmosphere of mutual back-scratching stands in contrast to a more typical meeting of unemployed: the job fair.

Those events threaten to become increasingly boisterous and cutthroat as the nation's unemployment rate rises in tune with the number of companies constricting their payrolls. National Career Fairs, one of the nation's largest organizers of job fairs, reports a 41% rise in the number of attendees over 2007.

"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.

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."