Join the club

Not content with sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring, casualties
of the US recession have been proactive in seeking work – tapping into the jobs
grapevine via self-help groups 

Wiling away an afternoon at a Silicon Valley cinema last June, out-of-work
Internet executives Michael Feldman and Andrew Brenner had an idea as they
joined the other dotcom casualties in the queue – why not start a social club
for people in the same boat as themselves?

Thus was hatched Recession Camp – an online organisation hosting a roster of
pursuits to drag the laid-off legions away from the lonely job-hunting trail.
Fashioned after the summer camps that are an American rite of passage,
Recession Camp has captured the imagination of the post-boom economy in a way
neither of its thirty-something founders dreamt of.

In San Francisco and Silicon Valley, ground zero for the downturn, the
organisation has garnered more than 600 members since Feldman and Brenner
reserved an Internet domain name and posted their Web pages a few months ago.
An average 25 people flock to thrice-weekly events such as wine tastings or

The phenomenon has easily eclipsed the splash made by either of the dotcom
start-ups both formerly worked for. "It’s just got way out of hand,"
says Feldman, ex-CEO of an online marketing firm. The two have fielded calls
from other time-rich former high-fliers in London and New York to set up
satellite chapters of Recession Camp and have found themselves emblazoned
across the pages of Business Week and the Los Angeles Times.

Despite suggestions that they have a company on their hands, Feldman and
Brenner insist Recession Camp is strictly a hobby until either finds work.
Nevertheless, with the camp’s continued success, Feldman admits to having given
commercial possibilities some thought. However, it would be hard to cash in on
the finance-strapped unemployed participants who rely on the camp for both
practical and emotional support.

"It’s a great networking outlet," says one such camper Brian
Frank, laid off from a software start-up in March. "We trade leads and
[job-hunting] experience." On top of physical interaction, campers can log
onto online bulletin boards to swap experience and advice. As well as helping
each other tap the employment grapevine, Recession Camp offers a group hug for
the unemployed, much as a self-help group provides psychological support.
"We commiserate and cry on each other’s shoulders," says Frank.

In the San Francisco Bay area, where the IT-heavy workforce has been at the
sharp end of the slowing economy, Recession Camp is just one of a menu of
self-help consolations to combat the out-of-work blues.

Meanwhile, despite the emergence of grass roots upstarts, traditional
back-to-work services continue to flourish. Many established Silicon Valley
firms are using outplacement firms to soften the blow of redundancy. The New
Jersey-based Lee Hecht Harrison, for instance, counts contracts with six of the
leading 10 companies in the region. Under its contract with California-based
Hewlett-Packard the firm has put a global network of 10 dedicated careers
centres at the disposal of 6,000 staff laid off by the computer and printer
maker in July.

"Centres are set up like regular work offices with cubicles, fax
machines and administrative staff," says Sharon Winston, Lee Hecht’s
senior vice-president in San Jose. Also part of the package are training
seminars, interactive workshops, round table discussions and networking group
events. The programme is available for one to 12 months, depending on
employees’ length of service.

"We’ve tried to revolve the programme around treating employees with
dignity and respect," explains HP global workforce management policy and
programme manager Steve Hastings. In addition, Lee Hecht holds regular job
fairs for ex-HP staffers. An event in Silicon Valley, earlier this month, drew
30 employers with most of the 250 attendees thronging the booth of HP rival
IBM, according to Winston.

Such cross-industry co-operation is surprisingly commonplace among US IT
firms. Santa Clara-based Intel, which retains Wright Resources as its
outplacer, recently opened its doors to other IT companies to help laid-off
staff find work.

However, the most staggering example of one company reaching out to others
is an e-mail from Dell Computer CEO Michael Dell to fellow IT executives. The
missive paid tribute to staff axed in the PC and laptop maker’s cost-cutting
efforts and beseeched other companies to consider them for any available
positions. Borrowing from its direct sales model of bypassing the middle man
and selling straight to customers over the Internet, Dell has christened the
initiative, "Direct2Dell Talent".

Of course, many fired workers cannot count on the umbrella of a well-heeled
corporation to kick-start their job search and this is where self-help has
filled a vacuum. Cash-strapped or bankrupt dotcoms without the resources to
splash out on expensive exit services for departing staff have accounted for
more than 116,000 redundancies since January 2000, according to the latest
figures from Web Mergers.

Also swelling support group ranks are former workers for whom Recession Camp
and its kin are an adjunct to outplacement services. Those who find themselves
in the jobs market after their entitlement to such services has expired, have
also joined the do-it-yourself fold.

Although Recession Camper Brian Frank is not eligible for lavish corporate
outplacement services, his multi-stranded approach is typical of many earnest
California job seekers. As well as Recession Camp, the former software
executive is a member of the alumni association of his alma mater Cornell
University and the Young Alumni of the Bay area group for Ivy League graduates.
Both groups offer mentoring, help with CVs and invaluable networking
opportunities, says Frank.

Meanwhile, Recession Camp co-founder Feldman says the group is contemplating
proffering its services to companies as an official resource for laid-off
workers. Far from treading on their toes, Recession Camp and similar groups
complement the work of outplacement firms, according to John Challenger, CEO of
Chicago-based outplacer Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

"Outplacement firms do not find jobs for people… [they] explore
resources and should leave no stone unturned," says Challenger.
"Every [social] circle that people can excavate is to their

Self-help groups take their cue from university and corporate alumni
organisations, notes Challenger. It is the Internet, though, that has been the
catalyst for extending the idea beyond college or corporate boundaries.
"Through e-mail people have the ability to send a message to 1,000 others
in a single mouse click or keystroke," says Challenger. "Previously,
people scattered to the wind after a downsizing," he says. Now they can
congregate online.

However, at the same time, the Internet is bringing down the curtain on many
traditional career centres, which are finding themselves spurned by IT-savvy
job seekers. Casualties of previous recessions flocked to Lifeprint, a San
Francisco career centre, to pour over its binders of job listings. This time,
they scour the Web for openings. Lifeprint, which has also been stung by
dotcoms that hired its services for laid-off staff then defaulted on payments
when they folded, is now preparing to shut down.

The going is also tough for independent career counsellors, who are finding
there is not a lot of spare cash around for their services these days.
Combining the convenience of the Web with the networking opportunities of
events, Recession Camp and similar groups offer job- seekers an effective tool
to get their foot in the door.

However, such informal organisations are not without potential pitfalls.
After all, misery loves company. "You can have the people who are most
emotionally upset and panicky guide the whole group in this direction,"
says Challenger. And assuming that their members remain constructive, any group
has its work cut out getting people back to work in the current job market.
"The jobs are not out there," admits Feldman.

Feldman says he is being choosy about his next job. Nevertheless, he
diligently puts in several hours a day working the phone and chasing leads and
as a three-time company founder and two-time CEO with a computer science degree
from Massachusetts Institute of Technology offers impressive credentials. He is
not too discouraged by the lack of response, however, pointing to Recession
Camp’s other attractions. Since setting it up he’s had no shortage of dates, he
says, and other members attest too, to the matchmaking power of the group.

"It is also a chance to get more balance into your life," he
explains. "I’ve been in Silicon Valley, working hard, for 12 years
[without] the time to stick my head up for air."

The new way to network

When hardware, software and Internet
content companies rode the good times in the late 1990s, high-end service
industries sprang up to cater to their high-rolling employees. Now the local
economy has hit hard times, luxury car showrooms and boutique restaurants have
been displaced by back-to-work groups of various hues.

Like Recession Camp, many axed workers are doing things for
themselves. Ex-workers from computer chip giant Intel, computer hardware firm
Hewlett-Packard and other Silicon Valley firms that have laid off thousands
this year congregate in tight-knit support groups. Such groups typically meet
at local restaurants to swap job leads over a cheap lunch.

Also on the Web, Laidoff Central, started in June by laid-off
Arlington, Virginia Web developer Steffen Tengesdal, offers online condolences
and bulletin boards for members to exchange employment gossip.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles-based Layoff Lounge with chapters in San
Francisco and Silicon Valley offers job-hunting tips with a social bent.
Typical gatherings combine cocktails with lectures and pooling of job leads.

Jobless tech-support staff, the unsung heroes of the Internet
revolution, flock to their own support group at Cupertino’s Career Action
Center in downtown Silicon Valley. Other events at the centre, such as a
workshop entitled, "Marketing yourself to a roomful of strangers,"
reflect the tough slog job-seekers face.

In San Francisco’s financial district, out-of- work
professionals convene every Friday at the Lifeprint career-counselling centre.
Also on Friday, ProMatch, a state-funded career-counselling programme in Silicon
Valley’s Sunnyvale, whose streets are lined with downsized IT companies, counts
250 members and a month-long waiting list.

Also witnessing an uptake in business is philanthropic San
Francisco social group DoGooDates, whose charitable activities such as
dispensing food to the homeless draw a sizeable contingent of former dotcomers.

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