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The BounceBack kids: RCGA programs help professionals to weather unemployment

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 15, 2010 - With a borrowed guitar slung across his shoulder, Jake Callis offered a testimonial about unemployment new-think, targeted at the out-of-work professionals in the room before his band the Bouncers launched into a heartfelt rendition of Lady Antebellum's "Need You Now."

"Tell the folks that you know who are down on their luck -- we all know who they are -- tell them to come out to these events. To get involved. Try different things. Try different strategies," Callis told the audience. "Because the old ways don't work anymore. You have to adapt and get with the times."

Callis, 29, whose expertise is in marketing, analysis and project management, was displaced from his career for 20 months, taking odd jobs to deal with times that just got harder and harder. He's been back at work for just a few weeks now -- a still shell-shocked survivor of the worst recession since the Great Depression.

"Think completely outside the box,'' he said. "There are a lot of things I did differently that I had never done before. I didn't believe in networking. I didn't think that it was a worthwhile endeavor.''

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Callis believes in networking now. And he believes in the members of his newly formed band. The Bouncers grew out of the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association's BounceBack St. Louis program that offers support and networking opportunities to the region's displaced science, technology and engineering professionals. Because Callis' guitar broke before the performance, band organizer Leland Crenshaw handed over his own instrument, hoping that a replacement guitar would be delivered in time.

It wasn't -- but the Bouncers didn't miss a beat. The band was the closing act of an event held at the St. Louis Science Center last week to announce Creative Comebacks, a new initiative to help professionals think creatively about their job skills and goals.

"Being involved with organizations like this is definitely important," Callis told the gathering. "Times like this force you to become different. To think differently. Do different things. Try different things. You'll find out a lot of things about yourself that you didn't know.''

Callis said that playing with the band has served as a breath of fresh air, and he intends to stick with it.

"I was so down and out on my luck that I had nothing to look forward to,'' he said. "I played in a band in high school, and I've been playing music all my life. My mom taught me how to play guitar. It was something I had just stopped doing. I was so focused on getting back on my feet that I had lost track of everything else that had made me happy.''

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'A right-brain program for left-brain people'

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Though the unemployment rate has dipped below 10 percent in the St. Louis metropolitan area in recent weeks, the problem isn't simply the still-high number of displaced workers but the extended lengths of their job searches, said Blair Forlaw, who directs regional talent development programs for the RCGA.

BounceBack served 1,100 people in the fiscal year that ended on June 30, offering help with job-hunting basics such as resumes and interviewing skills for highly skilled and highly educated professionals whose jobs were lost in the recession and won't be coming back, Forlaw said.

"There are jobs out there, but they are much more competitive," she said. "It's an employers' market; they can afford to be very choosy. They're stacking up requirements for positions; nobody has all of the certification or experience being asked for. Our approach in BounceBack is to help people get tougher and to really hone in on those skills.''

For professionals who need help breaking out of their comfort zones, the new Creative Comebacks program will offer a variety of unique "out-of-the-box" options -- from juggling, art and improvisational theater to leadership workshops.

"It's about getting more creative about what you aspire to be and how you put your skills to use and finding ways of breaking out of their old way of thinking because if you're just thinking about jobs in the old terms you may not find anything,'' Forlaw said.

The program is still taking shape, she added.

"What we're trying to do with this program is foster creativity in people who have strong technical skills but haven't developed their creative side,'' Forlaw said. "Sometimes I say this is a right-brain program for left-brain people.''

While BounceBack is funded by the state of Missouri with federal funds -- $150,000 for this fiscal year -- Creative Comebacks is so far making do with a $10,000 donation raised by the Gateway to Innovation Conference, Forlaw said.

Although funding for BounceBack was cut by $50,000 this year, Forlaw said the programming has been reorganized so that it will provide the same amount of services but in a more condensed format.

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'This was meant to happen'

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Callis said he was on 15 job interviews before landing a position as business analyst with Fabick Cat of Fenton, a family-owned supplier of farming and construction equipment.

"What one recruiter told me was I'm in an awkward position for professionals. I'm not entry level. I'm not upper management. I'm fighting for that middle ground,'' he said.

Callis, originally from Kansas City, said he worked for Citi Mortgage for four years after graduating from St. Louis University. He then took a job with ExpressScripts, from which he was laid off. He had earned his MBA from Webster University while he was working.

Callis said his job search was frustrating because he knew he had the education and qualifications the positions required.

"What I eventually found out was folks who had 10 to 15 years of experience on me were fighting me for the same positions, taking salary cuts -- and they've got the experience,'' he said.

The theme for the Bouncers is "rockin' for a resilient workforce," and the band is comprised of mostly information technology workers -- both employed and unemployed.

Crenshaw, the founder, had been laid off from AT&T, where he belonged to a corporate band active in United Way fundraising. He missed the music and sent an email to members of a LinkedIn group asking if anyone played an instrument.

"Music is in my soul,'' he said. "Just because we're searching for jobs doesn't mean we can't have fun."

After AT&T, Crenshaw was hired by IBM, but was laid off on June 15, 2009. This past June 15, he landed a position with MasterCard.

"This was meant to happen,'' he said with a big smile.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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