Starting again

The Baltimore Sun

There was a molecular biologist. A few attorneys. IT and telecommunications executives. A handful of scientists and engineers. An energy trader. And banking and financial services executives.

What do they have in common?

They are all out of work. And three days this week, they packed a Columbia classroom to learn job-seeking strategies, interviewing skills, resume-writing techniques and how to network.

Some might even call it partly therapy, where they exchange ideas and stories of frustrations and success in a tight job market.

"You're in the sales and marketing business right now," career counselor Stephen Gallison told the nearly 50 professionals participating in the Maryland Professional Outplacement Assistance Center's JumpStart program.

Gallison is the founder and executive director of the center, which has seen an increased demand for its services in the past year.

The center helped 2,500 people last year, and Gallison predicts that number will at least double in 2009 because more layoffs are expected amid worsening economic conditions.

There are 11.1 million Americans who are unemployed, with the national jobless rate climbing to 7.2 percent last month. In Maryland, the unemployment rate reached a 15-year high of 5.8 percent. January's national unemployment rate, which is expected to edge higher, will be released today.

One indicator that it's taking longer to find jobs is the increasing number of long-term unemployed workers, those who are jobless for 27 weeks or more. The government says that figure rose to 2.6 million in December and was up by 1.3 million last year.

It seems as though every day, a who's who of employers announces another round of layoffs: Macy's, Home Depot and Sprint Nextel. And locally, some of the region's largest employers have slashed their work forces: Legg Mason Inc., Constellation Energy Group and Erickson Retirement Communities.

"I'm trying to maintain a positive attitude," said Salah Elleithy, a business development associate who was laid off from Constellation in the fall.

Elleithy has been through this before. When Baltimore-based NeighborCare was bought by an out-of-state pharmacy giant in 2005, Elleithy was one of many NeighborCare employees who were let go.

It took three weeks to secure a new job at Constellation. Things are much slower this time.

"Opportunities are out there but competition is pretty high," says Elleithy, 32, of Columbia.

She is trying to start an accounting and financial advisory firm with a colleague who was also laid off from Constellation. Meanwhile, he's looking for part-time or consulting work, volunteering at his son's school and keeping busy by attending career-related workshops, like JumpStart.

"I want to get a sense of who else is looking, what the trends are, refresh my resume and get ideas," he said.

The Professional Outplacement Assistance Center in Columbia was launched in 1992 during the last major recession and grew out of a need to help professionals laid off from manufacturer Westinghouse Electric Corp., Gallison said.

Today, the JumpStart program and other workshops are designed to help job seekers take a more entrepreneurial approach to career management. That could mean creating "multiple income streams," instead of relying on the traditional notion of having a 40-hour job, Gallison said.

Gallison and his staff also recognize that they must offer some emotional support. The center has "affinity groups" in fields such as government and engineering where job seekers share stories and strategies.

"They come in wounded. And between me and my staff, we talk about taking people in adverse conditions and showing them they have strengths," he said. "We show them how to go about doing this and lifting their spirits."

Jim Spencer, a 52-year-old Frederick resident who attended this week's session, is hopeful.

"There's a line or wall and it's very important to get over what happened to me to what am I going to do next," he said. "Once you get over that, it could be healthy."

Spencer was laid off as a business development manager in December after his biotech firm, Invitrogen Corp., completed a merger with Applied Biosystems Inc.

He found himself on unfamiliar ground. For the first time in 15 years, he put together a resume. And he has had to be industrious about finding leads after being approached with new opportunities when the industry was growing.

Spencer has had a few interviews but no offers yet. In the meantime, he's networking and trying to pick up new job-searching strategies and tips.

"Everyone here is not looking for pixie dust," he said. "They know it's going to take hard work."

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For more information on the Professional Outplacement Assistance Center's programs, services and resources, check out Registration is required and you must attend the JumpStart orientation, which is held every other week. Once registered, you have free access to the various training workshops. The center is holding seminars on applying for federal government jobs and maximizing online job searches this month.,

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