Support groups for jobless Americans get creative

NEW YORK Fri Jan 7, 2011 8:43am EST

Job seekers attend a career fair at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, January 6, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Job seekers attend a career fair at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, January 6, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Mike Segar

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Support groups for the unemployed are getting creative as the jobless rate stays stubbornly high, trying approaches from using Weight Watchers-style accountability to encouraging people to work for free.

Support networks have previously popped up after large-scale layoffs. But with nearly one in 10 Americans now out of work, they are becoming more widespread and accepted, said career consultant Alison Doyle.

"The stigma attached to being unemployed that was there in the past isn't as prevalent now," Doyle said.

The August Group, which hosts networking events in the former manufacturing hub of Rochester, New York, holds members accountable for sticking to their job search goals.

"We're like Weight Watchers for job seekers," said Tracey Aiello, one of the group's organizers. "Every week people say what they will do to look for work and, at the next meeting, we ask them if they did, and if not why not."

Brooke Allen is a trader at a securities firm. But after giving an inspirational speech at a conference about how to find work, he started the New York group "No Shortage of Work" in his spare time as a community service to job seekers.

"For most people, the worst thing about unemployment is feeling like you are of no use to anyone," said Allen, who recommends volunteering at for-profit firms.

In a weak economy, he said, many struggling small businesses don't have the money to hire, even as the work piles up. Working for free can help job seekers make contacts, learn new skills and get hired when hiring freezes lift, he said.

Others are urging new approaches. Last summer, Stacy Kendall of New Bern, North Carolina, started a skills database to help people in her support group find part-time work.

For example, an unemployed social worker might be able to earn income teaching needle work to others, an office worker might get paid for doing yard work. And skills are also bartered within the group, she said.

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Kimberly Brady, a 40-year-old ex-Citigroup employee who has been unemployed since late 2008 and is a member of the "No Shortage of Work" group, is bartering her skills. A tech-savvy acquaintance helps with her computer and in return she teaches his friend, a Chinese national, business English for free.

Brady's work as an English tutor has reignited her love for literature, which she studied at university. She now hopes she may eventually become a college-level English teacher.

But still Brady said the longer her unemployment lasts, the tougher it gets to stay motivated.

"I have days when I go to bed at night and I think, 'Did anything I did today matter? Will it lead to anything?' But generally, talking to others going through the same emotional stress helps," she said.

A study by Princeton economics Professor Alan Krueger found job seekers sharply curtail time spent job-hunting as time passes. The New Horizons group in Rochester is trying to combat that problem with a program specifically targeted at the long-term unemployed.

Formed after a 2002 mass layoff by Xerox Corp, New Horizons has grown from a handful of former co-workers to 1,200 members from all industries. Xerox slashed half its workforce in the Rochester area -- to 6,800 in 2010 from 13,950 in 1990 -- as it adapted to a changing global marketplace.

In September, organizer Pete Chatfield started a program for members out of work for more than a year, starting an Alcoholics Anonymous-style buddy-system to encourage job seekers to motivate each other. Of the 23 in the program, seven have found jobs, he said.

"You have been out of work 12-plus months, otherwise you wouldn't be in the program, so you probably think you know it all, because you been through almost all of this stuff before," he said. "But chances are, you have shortchanged yourself."

(Editing by Mark Egan and Eric Beech)

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