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Without help, two programs for white-collar unemployed may face pink slips

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 26, 2012 - For white-collar St. Louisans still struggling to recover after losing their jobs to the Great Recession, there is another sign that the economy is moving on, with or without them: evaporating financial support for two local programs tailored to their needs.

Go! Network and BounceBack St. Louis were both born of crisis -- to assist the thousands of professional and middle-management St. Louisans who were laid off, bought out or otherwise “displaced” in the months following the financial meltdown of 2008. The urgency has passed — and with it funding — say organization leaders who stress that the need remains for the networking and support opportunities they provide to mostly middle-class unemployed workers.

Go! Network was started as a short-term intervention in early 2009 to help laid-off middle managers from local corporations such as Anheuser-Busch, which was the major initial donor. St. Patrick Center organized the program with the assistance of the United Way, the St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment and the local business community.

Now a stand-alone nonprofit organization, Go! Network is still providing a place for the long-term unemployed — and the newly unemployed -- to share experiences and retool, said executive director Roni Chambers. Between 75 and 125 people still attend weekly workshops on Tuesday mornings, and Go! links them to a wide range of professional and social services that can help them polish resumes or find foreclosure counseling.

Chambers believes that Go!, which celebrated its third anniversary earlier this month, has been successful in taking its own advice to stay relevant and adapt to the U.S. economy’s “new normal,” where unemployment has stabilized at 8-plus percent.

“It’s not a crisis anymore. We don’t have hundreds of people coming from one employer anymore,’’ she said. “Our marketing has been a grass-roots approach. We are known all over St. Louis, and people find their way here somehow.’’

On the up side, she estimates that 70 percent of the 4,000 people who have taken advantage of Go! services and programs have landed new jobs. On the down side, the unemployed keep coming — and some GO! members are back for a second time.

“Some landed and got separated again for various reasons. Some for performance. Others, the economy just squeezed them twice,’’ she said. “In today’s world, we should all be prepared at some point to be in this unemployment space. It’s unrealistic to think that anybody’s ever going to receive a gold watch from their employer.’’

When corporate funding ran out, Go! incorporated as a nonprofit and has been attempting to raise donations to keep operating, said Chambers.

St. Patrick Center remains the group’s largest in-kind donor, providing downtown office and meeting space at its Catholic Charities Conference Center. Other in-kind sponsors have provided legal and marketing support. But with the exception of small donations, Chambers is her nonprofit’s most reliable cash donor: She works for free and pays for day-to-day expenses, such as website maintenance and software licensing fees, from her own savings.

“A-B was a large supporter early on, one of the founding companies. Since then, we have survived on small donations from alumni who’ve consumed the program and me — my 401k,’’ Chambers said. “You’ve got to pay the bills.’’

Program looking to bounce back

BounceBack St. Louis is also in transition, according to Michael Holmes, executive director of the St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment (SLATE), but he is hoping to revive the program by midsummer.

BounceBack was organized by the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association and provided social and networking opportunities for displaced science, technology and engineering professionals. In its heyday, the group had about 2,100 members. The program had depended largely on federal funding distributed through the state of Missouri and SLATE. That funding fell victim to budget cuts on June 30, said Holmes.

Because SLATE recognized the value of BounceBack, Holmes said his agency asked to take the program over during RCGA’s leadership transition that followed the departure of CEO Dick Fleming and the arrival of his successor Joe Reagan.

“We felt BounceBack was important to keep around,’’ Holmes said.

SLATE has procured a small federal grant from the Department of Labor that it is using to redevelop the program and expand its focus to include bioscience workers, Holmes said. For now, SLATE is staying in touch with about 900 BounceBack members through the internet.

Holmes said that everyone agrees that networking organizations such as Go! Network and BounceBack provide vital services, but funding is difficult to find because outcomes are difficult to measure.

“We talk about businesses supporting programs like this, but it’s hard to get businesses to fund and keep funding these type of outreach programs,’’ he said.

That leaves government or foundation support, and those funding opportunities are also limited, Holmes said.

While the massive corporate layoffs have ended, the loss of more than 8 million jobs nationwide during 2008 and 2009 left a huge void of unemployed and underemployed American workers, he said.

“If a company laid off 10,000, but they’re only hiring back 100, you still have 9,900 people out of work from that one company. So we need to figure out a way to keep these people’s spirits and hopes up, and that’s what these networking groups like BounceBack and Go! do.’’

Holmes said that SLATE has expanded services for displaced professionals and midlevel managers at its career centers, but networking groups provide an additional support for folks trying to regain their footing.

“These are people who have done everything right. We told them, ‘Go to school. Get a career.’ Some of these people worked for companies for 15 and 20 years. Their company downsized or left the country or went out of business and these individuals were left here. This is where they work and play. This is their livelihood. They need opportunities. They can’t all pick up and move. These organizations are a foundation for them and help them find peace of mind,’’ Holmes said.

Although BounceBack’s website is no longer active, people interested in staying in touch with the group can join its LinkedIn group St. Louis Job Angels, he said.

The relevance of staying relevant

Chambers often illustrates the importance of Go! Network by drawing a pyramid to represent corporate America. When executives at the top are displaced they often get outplacement services, she said. And government-funded career centers — unemployment offices — have traditionally tailored their programs for workers at the base.

“When these people are separated, they get nothing,’’ she said, pointing to the middle section of her pyramid. “This is Go! Network. This is Middle America.’’

In the past year, Go! has also broadened its mission to serve younger job-seekers and to help military veterans move into to civilian corporate jobs, said Chambers, a former human resources executive at Anheuser-Busch. After InBev bought A-B in 2008, she had the task of laying off workers before she was laid off herself in March 2010. Chambers is well aware of the irony.

“I laid people off and here I am on the other side helping people,’’ she said.

From its inception, Go! has tapped into the planning, development, IT and marketing skills of its own members who volunteer their time to keep the production going, Chambers said. She and David Greenwalt volunteered to lead the organization during its transition to nonprofit status. Greenwalt has since returned to the workforce, leaving Chambers as the organization’s only full-time staffer.

Chambers said she has stayed because she believes in the mission and in the curriculum she helped develop for members navigating the stages of unemployment: They must first deal with their emotional turmoil before they can move forward to reassess their skills, discover their relevance in the current job market and eventually land a new position.

“When you see this happen, you stay because you know what you’re doing is important and works,’’ she said.

Chambers said the goal was that Go! would attract financial support and become a permanent community resource. That support hasn’t developed and Chambers is now considering her own future.

“I have to figure out how to get myself paid, or I, too, go off and find another job, and we find some way to transition [Go! Network] to something or some place that can nurture it,’’ she said.

Chambers said that St. Louis needs organizations that can help the unemployed transition through the ever-changing business climate.

“Jobs are there, but not in big enough numbers,’’ she said. “And there are gaps between the unemployed and the jobs. We have to be open to figure out how to transition our skill set and expertise to someplace else.”

She believes the region’s workforce must stay nimble and capable of filling new jobs that are being created. As an example, she cites a recent study reporting that applications for smart phones have generated close to a half-million jobs in the past five years.

“I tell people all of the time at Go! Network that the job you are looking for today might not even exist. A lot of the discovery process is to figure out your passion and find or create the job that will pay you,’’ she said.

Chambers recognizes that the advice applies to her own situation.

“I’ve been trying to create that job that drives my passion,’’ she said. “I’ve created it. Now I need to work to communicate its relevance to the business community.’’

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.