Between jobs, businesspeople gather for camaraderie and connections
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 21, 2009 - It's 7:30 on a Monday morning, and men and women in their best business attire are streaming into the Ritz-Carlton in Clayton as part of what may be the hardest job they've ever had -- finding a job.
Some of them hang back, tentatively surveying the crowd -- those who need work and those who may have work to offer. But most plunge straight in with a big smile and a right hand thrust forward in greeting -- and business cards at the ready, just in case.
On most Mondays, the group known as Businesspersons Between Jobs meets at St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Ballwin, with a much smaller group sharing stories, swapping possible job leads and appreciating the chance to have a place to go to start for what most people is the beginning of a new workweek.
But today, BBJ is hosting a larger networking reception -- a chance for members and prospective employers to meet and maybe make the connection that can lead to a paycheck and a return to normal that has been elusive, perhaps for weeks, perhaps for months.
"People need a support system," says Mike McCarty, director of the group that began in 1972, at a time when the workplace was segregated enough that it was called Businessmen Between Jobs. Tough times have nourished its growth, he said, with membership over 500 and typical attendance at regular weekly meetings up fourfold, to 180.
"They are going through a lot of change, and this is a time for them to look at their strengths and weaknesses, what their value and marketability are and how to tell others about that value."
McCarty is no stranger to what most of the crowd is going through. He said he used the services of BBJ twice, in 1989 and 2001, when he was out of work. Now retired, he said he wanted to "give something back" to the nonprofit organization that helped him when he needed it.
"I'm not trying to sound noble," he said, "but it really does help a lot of people. And donating time to BBJ is an excellent thing to put on a resume. It shows that you were trying to do something useful during your period of unemployment."
Executive Director George Fish, who has been with BBJ for 11 years, first got involved in the 1980s when the company he worked for went out of business.
"It gave me the tools to look for a new job," he said. "Networking wasn't a big word back then, but it's how I got a new job. I knew some people who knew some people who finally gave me a phone call."
A lot of people who are now helpers at BBJ got their start the very same way, Fish said.
"It's the best support group you can have. We have people who come here, 45 years old, who have never lost a job before. They're scared to death. They feel they've been picked on. They can get together, start comparing notes and develop a real camaraderie. That's probably the best thing about BBJ."
It's certainly the thing that has drawn many of the crowd to the Ritz-Carlton.
Patty Herzog, for example, has been a stay-at-home mom for 11 years. For the last two years, she has had her own company selling jewelry, but she is looking for something in sales or marketing. She was chatting with Frances Kennedy, who has a long resume in IT and clerical jobs but has been out of work since June.
Kennedy said she had been talking with someone about IT jobs, but all they had was sales. She passed that word on to Herzog.
Though Monday morning's session was designed as a meet-and-greet, not a place to exchange resumes, Kennedy came prepared, just in case. "The handy dandy thing is to carry a stack of business cards," she said.
For Herzog -- who has found that the volunteer work done at her children's school neatly replicates the skills she can offer a prospective employer -- BBJ offers the chance to enter a workforce that has changed quite a bit since she last was actively in the market.
"The last time I did a resume," she said, "I literally did it on a typewriter."
Asked how long he has been out of a job, James Hock, who is looking for a position in manufacturing or operations, was precise: On March 31, 2008, the company he had been with for 28 years closed down its St. Louis operations after it was bought by another firm.
Now, he says, BBJ provides what he needs to help find work and to help keep his spirits up.
"It's a good Monday morning starting point," he said. "It gets you up and out of the house.
"Everybody is in the same boat. Everybody here is in transition, looking for something new. We can share leads and keep each other up and going. It's easy to fall into the doldrums. It's a hard job."
With its mentoring programs, brown-bag lunches, training in resume writing, mock interview sessions and more, BBJ is designed to make that job as smooth as it can be in tough economic times.
And when times get better, McCarty is looking forward to the day when he shows up on Monday morning and finds an empty meeting room.
"We're probably the only organization in the world," he said, "that sets forth its goal as zero membership."