Faith, Hope & Networking
Faith, Hope & Networking
AARP Bulletin October 1, 2010
In the age of online applications, networking is still the way people find jobs. Churches, temples and other places of worship are setting up job networking clubs to help the unemployed -- and not just their members -- find work. Faith-based job clubs also provide hope, a place to connect, and maybe whisper a quiet prayer.
By Elizabeth Pope
Over a year ago, David F. Papuga put a notice in his church's bulletin, offering to match the parish's job seekers with anyone who knew of job openings. "A lot of people were losing their jobs and coming to me out of desperation," says Papuga, business manager and deacon at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Moorestown, N.J. "So I thought this would be an easy way to help people connect."
It worked. "We've helped over 60 people land jobs so far," says Papuga.
Generally, a house of worship isn't the first place job hunters think of to get help. But religious institutions have long been involved in the economic as well as spiritual lives of their members, pushing politicians on issues such as the minimum wage and workplace discrimination. Now they're getting involved in the nuts and bolts of job seeking.
At the Our Lady of Good Counsel program, volunteers set up free job-hunting workshops, using meeting space offered by Virtua Health, South Jersey's largest health care system. Guest speakers covered search strategies, résumés, interview skills, computer literacy and salary negotiation.
"This has really exploded," says Papuga. More than 325 people are taking part in the seminars and workshops.
One is Russel Miller, 65, who was laid off in September 2008 when business tanked at his mechanical engineering firm. Miller attended a workshop after making no progress with executive recruiters, newspaper classified ads and online job postings.
"I was afraid to network," he says. "I worried what people would think when I said I was fired. But the meetings gave me the oomph to start calling around." That stepped-up effort helped him land a job at an engineering firm the following July.
Encouraged by their initial success, Papuga and other volunteers launched the Career Transition Partnership, a nonprofit coalition of South Jersey business, industry and interfaith communities offering help to the unemployed or underemployed. So far, CTP includes a dozen faith-based organizations that are pooling resources to help job clubs. It has established faith-based groups in all three South Jersey counties, says Papuga. And continues to expand.
As Miller's experience shows, networking is key to a successful job search, and faith-based clubs recognize this. Typically, they arrange for job hunters to quickly state their expertise, goals and target companies in a room of 50 to 300 people. Some assign partners or buddy groups to hold individuals accountable for their weekly job search goals.
Finding helping hands
"I can't tell you how many times someone gives their 60-second elevator pitch and four hands go up because somebody knows a contact inside that target company," says Sue Tileston, founder of Work Ministry, a private firm that advises faith-based and community networking groups.
In this age of online applications, networking is still the way people land jobs, says Tileston, a human resources professional. "Employers today are more likely to hire on a referral because they are so inundated with résumés," she says. "One online posting can result in more than 1,000 résumés, and HR professionals don't have time to review them."
Denise Bryant, 56, of Riverdale, Ga., said she knew networking was important but thought it was too time-consuming. She spent seven days a week answering online job postings that netted only a few interviews in two years. With foreclosure threatening her family, Bryant joined Those In-Between Jobs, a support group at Ben Hill United Methodist Church in Atlanta.
At weekly meetings, Bryant learned to restructure her job search by spending less time online and more time identifying and following up on leads. In April, she landed a full-time job at a call center. But it lasted only a few months, and she has returned to Ben Hill.
Faith-based job clubs are usually free and open to believers and nonbelievers alike. Such groups range from six people meeting over coffee in a church basement to highly structured programs with 500 members run by volunteers with backgrounds in human resources, executive recruitment and career development.
In larger programs, the participants often receive free career assessment testing and one-on-one coaching. Guest speakers lead workshops on developing a personal marketing plan or using LinkedIn and other social media tools.
"It's a way for HR people with industry knowledge to fulfill God's mission by helping others professionally, emotionally and spiritually," says Marilyn Santiago, a consultant who organized the job ministry at Ben Hill.
While no one knows the exact number of faith-based job networks nationally, there is no doubt that newcomers are flocking to them. "Our caseloads have increased 30 to 40 percent in the last 18 months," says Genie Cohen, executive director of the International Association of Jewish Vocational Services. "Traditionally we've helped lower-income, poor and disadvantaged people, but for the first time we're seeing more middle-income and professionals."
Faith-based job search groups often vary in the services they offer, so some job seekers attend more than one in their area. Marti Valentine, 61, arrived in San Francisco five years ago. She was recently divorced and had no contacts, no résumé and few marketable skills. "This is a young, techie city," she says. "I'd look at job openings on Craigslist and think, I don't fit anything."
Valentine dropped in at GraceWorks, a networking group at Grace Cathedral, the city's largest Episcopal church. "But I felt a little intimidated around a lot of high-powered attorneys and business professionals," she says. "My people skills are off the charts, but I needed help with basic skill building."
GraceWorks referred her to the local Jewish Vocational Service, where she got career assessment testing and computer training. To plug gaps in her résumé, she attended a two-week National Council on Aging hospitality training program, which led to an interview with a temp agency. Valentine now works for nine agencies at conventions and trade shows, an arrangement that gives her time off to visit her mother back East.
"Officially I'm a 'conference concierge,' but I like to call myself the Information Queen — you can ask me anything about San Francisco and I'll tell you," she says.
The religious message in faith-based job clubs can range from none, at nonsectarian Jewish Vocational Service agencies, to a moment of guided meditation at GraceWorks, to readings of scripture and opening prayers at some groups.
So far, job clubs seem to be less common at Hindu and Buddhist temples or at mosques. "I've heard of a few temples holding workshops, but the effort is highly localized," says Henry Shibata, executive director of the Buddhist Churches of America, based in San Francisco.
But many clubs focus on assistance first and religious affiliation second — if at all. The 25-year-old job club at Holy Family Catholic Church in Inverness, Ill., skips faith-based content. "We have Hindus, Muslims, Jews and nonbelievers," says group moderator Jim Phillips. "So we don't emphasize a religious message, because we don't want to offend anyone."
A place for fellowship
What faith-based groups provide is fellowship, trust and emotional support at a time when job seekers feel vulnerable, even traumatized. "Many newcomers say it's the first time they've said, 'I need a job' out loud. They were just too embarrassed to tell anyone before," says Ben Hill's Marilyn Santiago.
Civil engineer Steve Brandt, 52, of Coppell, Texas, had never been out of work before he was laid off in July 2009. "That was a shock," he says. "There's a grieving process after a layoff that leaves you lost and confused."
A friend brought him to a weekly CareerCare support group for the unemployed at St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Plano. "Right away, you learn you're not alone, and that's a huge consolation," Brandt says. At CareerCare, more than 50 volunteers provide one-on-one coaching, using workbooks with scriptural passages produced by Crossroads Career Network, a nonprofit group assisting churches with career ministries.
Brandt, a devout Christian, found the program's prayers and spiritually themed exercises a comfort during his job search. "My faith plays a large part in my life and sustained me during the layoff," he says. "That's why the CareerCare program resonated with me."
Last fall, a fellow church member offered Brandt a job with a consulting engineering firm that specializes in sustainable strategies for the commercial real estate industry.
The system worked for Brandt, but it's hard to say how successful faith-based groups are in helping job seekers land jobs, says Richard Bolles, author of the venerable job handbook What Color Is Your Parachute?
"Group leaders may keep a list of successes, but there's no list of failures or first-timers who come once, pick up a packet and slip out the door," says Bolles, a former Episcopal priest who helped create GraceWorks. Too often, he says, faith-based groups bring in speakers for pep talks and focus on basic techniques like résumé writing, rather than helping job hunters develop customized search strategies.
"Still, if these groups are actually helping people with the hard work of job hunting and not just providing an hour of inspiration, that is all to the good," he says.
Faith-based job clubs generate more than just job leads — they provide hope in dismal times, a place to connect with others and perhaps whisper a quiet prayer, says Papuga. "And anybody who thinks they don't need God's help in this job market is fooling themselves."
Elizabeth Pope writes about work and retirement.