As unemployment persists, support group for jobless professionals prepares for the long haul | St. Louis Public Radio

As unemployment persists, support group for jobless professionals prepares for the long haul

Dec 20, 2010

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 20, 2010 - With the nation's economy stuck in low gear, a St. Louis organization that provides support for unemployed business professionals is retooling for the long drive home.

The GO! Network, which was organized by the St. Patrick Center nearly two years ago, has incorporated as a nonprofit corporation, said Chuck Aranda, who recently stepped down as the program's director.

GO! will continue to provide free networking and educational assistance to hundreds of white-collar workers laid off by local corporations, Aranda said. He stressed that the St. Patrick Center will remain a founding sponsor and will continue to provide conference and office facilities for the organization's meetings and staff members, as the program works to become a self-sustaining entity.

"GO! Network is evolving to address the ongoing and growing need," Aranda said. "It's requiring more dedicated time because this problem continues to grow. It's an important lifeline for so many people, and it's important to keep this going on."

Two current GO! Network members will share the management duties: David Greenwalt, a consultant specializing in insurance appraisal, and Roni Chambers, a former human resources director at Anheuser-Busch.

Since its first meeting on Feb. 3, 2009, about 3,000 professionals have joined the GO! Network, which offers speakers, workshops and other resources aimed at helping members search for jobs or establish their own start-up businesses, Aranda said. The original premise was to assemble free services to help laid-off St. Louis professionals get over a temporary bump in the economy.

But the bump wasn't temporary, and it wasn't just local.

"We didn't think the thing would go this long. I don't think anyone did," said Aranda, who directed GO! Network in addition to his duties as director of Celtic Consulting, an in-house agency of St. Patrick's Center.

New Managers Have Been There, Done That

While economists say the Great Recession officially ended in June 2009, the "new normal" has included chronic joblessness: a 9.8 percent unemployment rate nationally (November); 9.4 percent in Missouri (November); 9.6 percent in Illinois (November); 9.3 percent in the St. Louis metropolitan area (October).

Aranda said that even though the massive corporate layoffs that rocked the St. Louis economy have eased, new members arrive weekly at the GO! Network's Tuesday meetings. Some have just been laid off; others have been unemployed for a time but just found the network. In some cases, past members who accepted temporary positions as consultants or contractors are returning to GO! because they are once again unemployed.

GO! filed as a nonprofit corporation with the state of Missouri in November and has applied for nonprofit status with the Internal Revenue Service, said Aranda who will continue serving as a board member and adviser.

He said the goal has been to make the transition a quiet and smooth process so members won't notice any changes in services or programs.

"We didn't want anybody to think that GO! Network was going away. Membership doesn't need to think here is one more thing going away that I won't have access to," Aranda said.

Chambers will spearhead fundraising and development for the program, which was initially started with donations from local corporations and United Way assistance but was basically an "unfunded" program run by its membership and guided by St. Patrick staffers, Aranda said.

Chambers said she believes GO! can build long-term partnerships with St. Louis companies of all sizes. She cited a survey of local displaced workers by St. Louis Community College last summer in which 34 percent of the 300 interviewed said their companies did not provide severance benefits or outplacement opportunities.

"I want the companies to funnel them here so we can scoop them up and provide that safety net and retool them. And as companies are filling positions, it would be nice if they fished in our pond," Chambers said.

Chambers believes that unemployment isn't going to ease soon, and it is important for the region -- and the nation -- to take action.

"This is a systemic problem in the United States, so we have to do this as citizens of our country," she said.

Chambers, 55, who worked for Anheuser-Busch for 23 years before being laid off, understands both sides of the coin. She handled the task of laying off hundreds of employees after the corporation was bought by InBev.

"I did the letting go two years ago," Chambers said. "It's tragic what happened to our community, but I wanted to do those layoffs so I could do them kindly. We were altering entire families' lives not just employees' lives. We were changing the landscape of families in the city and all across the country."

Chambers, who was a director in A-B's sales division, said she handled layoffs in every city where the company had salespeople before she also fell victim to downsizing.

"I wanted to handle them with care vs. not handling them with care," she said. "I worked on the 2008-2009-2010 layoffs, and then I laid myself on March 15."

Chambers said she soon realized the importance of joining an organization like GO! even though she left A-B feeling well-equipped for her own career transition.

"I felt like I had all of the tools it would take to get out in the community and get the next job, but after having been in one company for 23 years, the landscape of this world out here has changed. The new normal is not walking into an employment office in a company and filling out an application and getting a job," she said. "It's about your network. And I left A-B with only an A-B network, not a community network. That's what people my age are facing."

Chambers said that although her new position is currently unfunded, she was eager to take it on.

"I believe in what's going on here," she said. "This is the future of how communities need to come together and deliver professionals in transition through this crisis. It's an amazing organization."

It's a Small World, After All

Since June, 527 new members have joined the GO! Network, according to statistics provided by the program. Nearly 400 network members are considering an entrepreneurial enterprise.

Chambers believes it will be the growth of new and small businesses that will eventually pull the nation out of the employment mire.

"We started this country with boats of people who came and built small businesses that grew into large businesses," she said.

She said the "new normal" is that many large corporations that laid off workers either won't hire them back or will hire them in nonpermanent contract positions. For corporations, such as A-B, that went international, the jobs are simply gone and won't be back.

Chambers said that searching for a job in a country that has lost 8.5 million of them since 2008 is a bit like playing musical chairs.

"People without chairs have to start small businesses," she said. "They have to create the businesses of the future."

Greenwalt, 48, who will handle operational duties for GO! Network, said the program will continue to evolve as it assists both the newly unemployed and those who have been out of work for extended periods.

He said he joined the network because it offers both inspiration and practical sessions. The organization will continue to be led by its own members who serve on programming committees.

"Our model works because we are a peer-driven organization," he said. "This is not something that one or two people could do. It works because we strive to keep people engaged, so that they can keep their skills sharp."

Greenwalt believes the program will fill an ongoing void for a workforce where transition has become the norm. Employees can no longer count on staying at a company for years and should always be prepared to reenter the job market.

"There will continually be the need for an organization like GO! Network where professionals can go to brush up on skills and networking," he said.

'Hang in There. Stay in the Game'

Aranda estimates that about 35 percent of the 3,000 people who have joined the organization have found jobs. Active membership is about 1,000 at any given time, though GO! has no way of tracking them and not everyone reports back when they have found work.

He said GO! is trying to start a campaign to reconnect with past members.

"The group we're trying to reach out to now are those who stopped coming and didn't find a job and are really disillusioned," he said. "We have a few people who were gone for a while and came back."

Aranda said that it is no longer unusual for a job search to take more than a year, but the long-term unemployed often face an unfair stigma that is rooted in the days of low unemployment when long-term joblessness might have reflected an applicant's shortcomings.

"That's an issue we're trying to address," he said. "This is the sign of the times. It does take time. Hang in there. Stay in the game. Keep your skills sharp."

Ross Livengood, 55, of St. Louis, a GO! Network member who recently landed a new job, hasn't forgotten about the many talented -- and still jobless -- St. Louisans he met while he was figuring out his own next step.

Livengood, who joined BJC Healthcare as a project manager for software development in November, was displaced from Monsanto in fall 2009. He said GO! Network was helpful as he considered whether he should start his own start-up business.

He credits the organization for its professionalism and well-run meetings.

"You feel like you're coming into a business environment," he said.

And, he adds, the organization was positive, unlike some groups he attended where participants seemed too focused on negatives.

"I didn't need a gripe session," Livenwood said.

He believes the online job application process that has become standard practice with companies can be a tremendous challenge -- and frustrating -- because it is so impersonal.

Livengood believes in the power of networking and is now working with members of his church to help others find jobs. He is also interested in seeing the GO! Network expand its visibility among St. Louis companies and become a go-to source for job applicants.

"The big challenge is how do you get people who have jobs or who are in some sort of hiring capacity aware of who's out there and who's looking for a job," he said.