Communities Band Together for Work

Communities create innovative programs to help their workers.

ByTORY JOHNSON<br>Workplace Contributor via via logo
September 30, 2009, 4:48 PM

Oct. 1, 2009 &#151; -- Most weeks, I hear from hundreds of people who are struggling to get hired against the odds of a challenging economy. While I do whatever I can to help them, I must admit it was a nice change of pace to spend several days talking to people who've rebounded because of innovative programs in their communities designed to get them back on track. I bet you'll be inspired too.

Massachusetts-based A.J. Martini is a commercial building contractor hit hard by the economy, prompting layoffs earlier this year. The empty desks were depressing -- a daily visual reminder of the challenging economy.

So the company spread the word that it was making 18 desks in a bullpen area available to out of work architects and engineers. These professionals are called "guests" and they each pay $50 a month toward electricity and a cleaning service, which enables them to feel like they're contributing even in a small way.

Some amazing successes have come of this: Architects Dan Broggi, 49, and David Burton, 53, were laid off from a large Boston firm that cut the majority of its staff. They decided to start a business, but doing it in their respective homes was difficult and isolating. They grabbed the chance to take two desks -- and have since landed several architecture projects. They're able to spend the day with like-minded professionals who are going through the same things. They share advice and resources on everything from the financial and legal issues of forming a business to accessing conference rooms and equipment like large blueprint copy machines. All with no overhead.

They say historically the relationship between contractors and architects is filled with tension. Not here. A.J. Martini has referred work to them and vice versa. This is the perfect partnership between two professions that have suffered in the recession.

Another success: AJ Martini was contacted to build a science lab at a high school. The client wanted a designer/builder team, so AJ Martini looked among the "guests" and selected Jansen Chang, an architect with the ideal experience. Now he's working on this and other projects that both parties said wouldn't have happened had they not been under the same roof.

Opening your vacant office space to like-minded professionals is not only a great supportive community gesture, but it eliminates the negativity of empty desks. It keeps the place busy and bouncing with ideas. Create a simple letter of understanding that spells out the arrangement, including restrictions on hours, use of equipment, space (i.e., you can use the kitchen, but not the conference room), and visitors. Be clear on a time frame (Is this offer valid for three months? A year?) and cancellation policy. Consider asking for a nominal fee for cleaning, electricity, copying, phones -- or require your guests to use their cell phones.

The Manhattan stake of the Mormon church is comprised of 14 churches with about 5,000 members. Obviously, with that many people, many are bound to be out of work. The church says it has a duty to take care for someone who is unemployed -- to make them well by getting them back to work. So it did two things:

In May the church began to devote five minutes at the start of every Sunday service to a "Needs & Leads Huddle." For example, someone would say, "Jake lost his job as an accountant" (that's a NEED) and Peter would say, "Hey, I work at such-and-such graphics and they are looking for a new designer" (that's a LEAD). All that information is compiled in a frequently-updated database.

Then the church asked every active member to participate in a confidential survey in which they indicated what they do, where they work and contact information. Nine hundred people responded saying they'd be glad to help if they could. That information is only accessible by the leaders of the church, who use it to call on members only when appropriate to ask for informational interviews or introductions. There's a lot of clout when a senior member of your church calls and asks for your help.

Since May, the Manhattan stake has placed 21 people in good jobs -- from nannies to mergers and acquisitions professionals -- and the program is gaining momentum because people see that it works. At any given time, they have about 100 people looking for work -- and even more job leads.

Some great successes: Valerie Baker was reviewing the lists of "needs" and noticed the credentials of Jamie Wride, who was interested in photo retouching. Baker sent Wride's resume to her HR department -- and within three weeks, Wride accepted a full-time position as a photo retoucher at Baker's company, which is an online fashion retailer.

Kim Allred works for the New York Foundling, a non-profit devoted to families and child welfare. She reviewed the list of "needs" and saw that Maddi Thomson had just finished graduate school and was looking to land her first job as a family therapist. Allred sent Thomson's resume to her employer on a Wednesday -- and by the following Monday, Thomson had an offer. At the end of August, she launched her career as a family therapist. She said she had no idea where or how she would have found work if it weren't for her church's initiative.

Any place of worship can do the same thing. When the congregation of any faith comes together, amazing things can happen. Talk to the leadership about starting today.

Alltel, a communications company headquartered in Little Rock, Ark., was bought by Verizon, and that meant layoffs. Mike Stafford was vice president of customer experience -- and after 12 years with the company, he was laid off during the first round of cuts in January. He told me he was one of the "lucky ones" because he didn't have to wait and suffer; he knew his fate and he graciously accepted it as a business reality.

Stafford would get together with buddies and trade advice on all the stuff they'd never thought of before: How do we file for unemployment? Should we convert our 401k to an IRA? Can you believe how much this COBRA costs?

But then he got worried: Some of his friends were leaving Little Rock for job opportunities elsewhere. Some went to Chicago, others to New Jersey. Stafford has a wife and three kids and they've made Little Rock their home. He didn't want families to flee.

So within a month, he and a pal started a volunteer effort called After Alltel to help people find jobs and start businesses. There's no bitterness toward their former employer. For these people, it's about what's next, not what was.

Now every week, several groups meet at the Whole Hog Cafe, McAlister's Deli or the local library. There are more people involved who have jobs than those who are out of work because they believe strongly in a community coming together.

One beneficiary of that help is Mike McGowan, who spent nearly five years as a national sales executive for Alltel. His last day was in May -- and in less than three months he landed a position as the VP of North American sales for a European software company. He credits the group with reviewing his resume, prepping him for interviews, and then assisting with negotiating the offer.

He hasn't forgotten who helped him: he continues to join the group every week to pay it forward.

If you've found a job, or if you're helping others find work through an innovative community or volunteer initiative, I'd love to know about it. Talk to me on Twitter ( or by visiting my Web site at I can't wait to celebrate your success!

Tory Johnson is the CEO of Women For Hire, the workplace contributor on ABC's "Good Morning America", and the anchor of Job Club on ABC News Now.

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