WASHINGTON – When Nancy Crider learned in October 2002 that her job as a purchasing coordinator would be eliminated by the first of February, she was sure she would find a new job before the paychecks stopped coming.
She was wrong.
After 11 months of looking, Crider had managed to secure one job for 10 weeks in the spring, but was otherwise getting just one or two calls a month in response to resumes she sent out.
“It was really depressing, because I was sending out 20 (resumes) a month,” she said.
So, one morning this September, the Hereford resident drove to Columbia to begin a three-day orientation at the Professional Outplacement Assistance Center, a one-of-a-kind state unemployment program geared to getting white-collar workers back on their feet.
The seminar is part job strategy and part group therapy for people who, in the words of program director Steve Gallison, just “need reassurance” that they can get back to work in an economy where it can take a white-collar worker six months or longer to find a new job.
Against that backdrop, Gallison’s program is structured to drum up enthusiasm in weary job seekers, encourage people to network with everyone they can think of and teach professionals how to market themselves in resumes and interviews.
“When you give people the forum, they start to blossom,” said Gallison.
The center has three full-time job coaches and a part-time job counselor devoted to helping white-collar workers get back in a career. After taking the three-day “jump start” seminar, professionals can use center resources that include individual career counseling, regular e-mails with job leads, free faxing and photocopying, a networking event every two weeks and career-specific small groups that share job leads.
“I wish I had known about all this stuff sooner,” said Crider, who, like others in her seminar, spent months at the regular unemployment office, pursuing leads geared more to skilled laborers, before being referred to the center.
The 35 people in the room with Crider on that September morning had little in common, besides the fact that they were all — once — professionals and had all faced the problem of getting by on unemployment checks that came to less than $300 a week after taxes.
The seminar had an accountant who lost his job in August and a systems engineer who had been out of work since April 2002.
There was a 56-year-old payroll tax manager who quit in February, after his airline was repeatedly bought out, and a 27-year-old with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering who was working as a temporary receptionist at the Howard County Health Department while she looked for an engineering job.
There was a defense contractor who moved from Texas to Waldorf, where he bought a house before losing his job in May. And there was a woman who moved here for her husband’s job as a computer programmer, only to learn that he would lose his job days before they were to settle on a new house in Gaithersburg.
“I was panicking,” said Preeti Chojar, 35, at the prospect of paying a $1,600 mortgage and another $450 for health insurance on the $1,200 in monthly unemployment — before taxes — that her husband, Atul, would collect. Preeti had not worried about finding a job when she moved here, but joined the job hunt in earnest with her husband.
“It was an intense time,” said Atul, who had already gone through POAC by the time his wife was beginning the September program.
One challenge of the three coaches, each of whom takes a day with the group, is to get a roomful of people who are worried about their personal circumstances to open up to one another. It helps them find potential job connections, and warms them up for future interviews.
“We have planned all this stuff very thoroughly,” Gallison said.
The group begins to take shape a little more with each seminar segment. By lunch the second day, folks are heading off to the same sandwich shops and talking along the way, or coming back to the conference room to talk and eat around a table.
Tony Morales, 50, the Silver Spring accountant who lost his job in August, said the seminar gave him “an opportunity to assess” his situation and understand the job market better.
The group setting helped Crider “emotionally . . . because you see people who are in the same boat out there.”
By the third afternoon, trainer Nancy Fink had group members “tell me about yourself” in a two-minute script. They took turns reading their scripts to the group, which offered praise and advice in return.
“You come in here as 35 individuals, you leave here as a group,” Fink said as they finished critiquing scripts.
All 35 members of the group took the initiative to exchange names and e-mail addresses before leaving. In the months since the seminar, however, many have fallen out of touch. Some have found jobs. A few have found temporary jobs. And many are still looking.
Atul Chojar found a job through a friend and started working Oct. 13. Preeti, who had gone more than a year without one interview, interviewed with two companies in the same week and started working Oct. 27.
When they got their first paychecks, they “shopped all weekend,” Preeti said, but are working now on building up some savings.
“Nothing is definite,” Atul said of his future job security. “In computers, you’re never sure.”
Charles Poore, 56, the airline payroll manager, “just started knocking on doors, like Wal-Mart,” after leads from the unemployment office did not pan out. The Gaithersburg resident says “POAC didn’t do a thing for me” — his legwork led to an associate’s job at the Wal-Mart in Frederick, starting at a dollar over minimum wage.
“Something is better than nothing right now,” said Poore, whose goal is to become a department manager within a year.
Al Floyd, 40, is studying to become an Oracle database developer after losing his job as a technical writer in August. But Floyd, who has four children, is also applying to any job for which he has some experience, from facility operations to database development, just in case ” the career change isn’t going to pan out.”
He remains optimistic, but by mid-December, he was starting to ask, “When do I go work at 7-Eleven, or Target and Kmart?”
“It would . . . be a heck of a lot more than unemployment, and some of those places provide benefits. As of right now, I have to pay my own medical benefits,” he said.
Morales took a temporary accounting position not long after taking the seminar, saying it “took the pressure off the day-to-day search.” While he hopes his current job will turn into a permanent position, he is also more realistic about the job market.
“I realize that things happen in weeks and months now,” he said.
And Crider began work in November at a credit-card processing job. She applied in July, but did not land the interview until just a week after she finished the seminar — training she now credits with helping her land the job.
“I don’t think the economy is getting better,” Crider said. “You watch the news and see all these people are getting laid off.”
She has had potential employers tell her during interviews that they have received 100 resumes for the job.
“It’s just our turn to get a job,” Crider said.