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FOCUS: OUT OF WORK
Support groups offer jobless hope
As unemployment rises, informal networking groups offer support and motivation.
Last Modified: 16 Feb 2009 09:15 GMT

Across the US, job fairs are attracting large numbers of people [GALLO/GETTY]

With unemployment rates reaching highs not seen in decades, job seekers are finding unusual ways to network.

They have been meeting in bars and religious centres or even waiting in line at help centres, all in the hope of landing a job.

Such informal gatherings have always existed, typically sponsored by church or synagogue groups and local career centres. However, the economic collapse has placed renewed importance on this homespun remedy.

Anxious about their future, the newly unemployed are moving away from their computers and opting for face-to-face contact to carve a path back to the workforce.

Waiting for a group session to start at a midtown church in Manhattan, Steve Jones says he worked for the past eight years at Morgan Stanley in fixed income sales before being laid off. 

Jones, who is not a Christian, believes these informal meetings offer leads, tips, motivation and, most importantly, hope in tough times.

"This is the first time I face unemployment. It's hard to get angry because there are a lot of people in the same position," he says.

Jones spends most of his days trying to reconnect with old associates.

"I get up in the morning, I take my daughter to school, I get on the Bloomberg [website], I keep trying to arrange meetings. If this is the worst thing that has ever happened to me, then I am lucky."

'Emotional rollercoaster'

Others say that getting out and talking to their peers rather than just sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring or sending another résumé into cyberspace is improving their morale.

People wait in line to apply for jobs at the fire brigade [GALLO/GETTY]
Zara Colbert, a 27-year-old graphic designer who has found new assignments hard to come by in the current downturn, says "the only good thing coming out of this economic crisis is there will be less constrictions, more creativity and a lot of reality will come back to the surface".

"Having said that, I still have no work and am struggling to pay my rent," she adds.

Richard Ober, a parishioner and one of the organisers of a weekly meeting for job hunters at the Trinity Church in New Jersey, says people from all backgrounds attend these meetings.

"I think that everyone who is attending these meetings is just concerned about how the current state of the economy will affect their individual ability to find a job."

"It's been a real emotional roller coaster," he says.

Feeling angry

With some of the largest firms on Wall Street having collapsed earlier this year, today's unemployed professionals are caught in a double bind.

There were more jobs lost in 2008 than any year since 1945, and more layoffs are being announced on a near daily basis.

These are expected to rise well into 2010. Since the start of the US recession in December 2007, some 3.6 million Americans have lost their jobs.

The US labour department has said that 598,000 people were made redundant in January 2009 alone - the highest monthly total since 1974.

A laid-off investment banker who did not wish to reveal his identity, tells Al Jazeera:

"Where I feel really angry is the system failed us. I partly blame the regulators but mainly the industry itself."

Alternative approaches

Hoping to change the system, Ariel Horn has redefined the meaning of group therapy. 

In 2007, he left his job as a manager of strategic marketing at NBC Universal Sports to start a marketing agency which focuses on creating video and viral content for the digital market.

As promising leads dried up and opportunities dwindled, Horn decided to adopt an open-door policy for unemployed creatives from the advertising world.

"As we started seeing the unemployment rate creep up, we've found ourselves in this unique scenario where we thought it would be a good opportunity to open our doors, have people who are in between jobs come here and be creative," he said.

"It gives them a place to go where there are people who understand their situation and can offer them leads and opportunities they might not have had otherwise."

Bringing new business

Horn has acquired a group of people generating ideas that all hope will bring in new business, scoring both new clients for the firm and freelance work for the others.

He tells Al Jazeera that he receives emails from at least 15 people every day - from account managers to CEOs - who are eager to join his community.

"We had a gentleman who was the president of the Arena Football Network. He was at a major sport organisation and now he is working with us."

Josh Eichenstein, who works with Horn, says he is thankful to "have somewhere to go every day that gives a feeling of productivity I wouldn't have otherwise".

As US politicians agreed this week on the largest economic recovery plan since Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal during the Great Depression in the 1930s, Eichenstein, says he feels confident about the future.

"America is very resilient and we all believe in the system, in our country, and we'll come back. It will help us build character."

Source:
Al Jazeera
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