The Job Luck Club : Unemployed Professionals Trade Ideas, Find Solace Among Others

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Around a rectangular table, a dozen business executives critique videotapes of job applicants interviewing with a recruiter.

"He's playing with that pen on the desk," one notes.

"He's slouching, not good," says another.

Then the interviewer asks a 60-year-old applicant the trick question: "What are your weaknesses?"

"I don't pick up on things as quickly as I would like to," he says.

Not the best answer--pointing out his own flaws. But he need not worry.

This was a mock interview, one that everyone around the table went through in their first week as members of The Job Club, an exclusive group of South Bay out-of-work white-collar workers.

Members have to be professionals, by and large holding college degrees. Many of them are middle age or older. They believed they would spend their careers at their companies, but they were laid off or offered early retirement in the last several years.

The rules of the club are stringent: All members must wear business clothes, including ties for the men, even though they are out of work. Each member must spend four hours a week helping to answer phones, type into computer databases or survey prospective employers for openings at club headquarters. And who directs the out of work to this exclusive group? The state unemployment office.

The Employment Development Department launched such self-help groups for the once highly paid unemployed in the late 1960s, when aerospace cuts put highly skilled engineers and white-collar administrators out of work. The Torrance group--officially the Professional Career Assn.--was started seven years ago. It serves residents from Santa Monica to Long Beach.

The professionals who arrive at the unemployment office have "a lot of frustration, anger, a feeling that the world owes them," said Agnes Dodd, manager of the Torrance office. "It is much more difficult for them to accept that they are out of work than, say, the (blue-collar) worker who already has gone through a cycle of layoffs."

*

To displaced professionals--some of whom haven't interviewed for a job in years--the club is their surrogate corporation. Here, a former nuclear arms expert teams with a former Disney Imagineer to craft a good resume.

"If this were a company, it would be the most dynamic firm," said club President Herbert Woertler, a former Sears sales executive. "Many of the members are advanced in age, tremendously experienced. They're the ones that brought the rockets to the moon."

These white-collar workers, many of them former aerospace workers, previously had viewed the state employment office as the place where the down-and-out waited in long lines for their unemployment checks.

Jenifer Wald Morgan, 40, said that when she first walked into the state unemployment office, "it was like 'Hang on to your purse.' "

But after the unemployed computer consultant joined the club, "suddenly there was this magical room in the back, people that were professional, in the same situation that you were."

The club's vice president, A.W. Hedge, decked out in a double-breasted suit with silk pocket handkerchief, is in charge of "external affairs," spreading the word to local elected officials and corporate chiefs about this group of available professionals. He comes equipped with Professional Career Assn. business cards, which list his title and address.

Hedge was trained in marketing and public relations and worked as a management consultant in Connecticut. But he tired of the weather there and moved to Southern California five months ago, even with the dire job market.

He has not found a job, but he strolls through a bakery in downtown Torrance, schmoozing with the president of the South Bay Assn. of Chambers of Commerce. When it comes to the club, his sales pitch easily rolls off his tongue: "We act like headhunters, but for no cost."

*

To promote its members, the club uses their combined brain power. If it's sending out a cover letter, they've got a technical writer to help. A job database? There's plenty of software engineers for that. Videotaping a new public service announcement to promote the club on cable TV? They have the former Disney designer.

In fact, some computer engineers have created grand plans for job database networks, and "you have to remind them that the whole reason for being here is to look for a job," Woertler said.

The unemployment department provides the club with a room and pays phone charges, but members must raise money for other expenses by selling raffle tickets, soliciting companies to donate old computer equipment and even gathering groups to go to talk show tapings, where producers offer $200 if enough members show up to fill an audience.

*

In the cramped club room, members monitor the phones to get the latest tips on job openings, which are posted on a chalkboard called "The Hot Board." Cryptic messages, such as "UPS LA citywide 30 sales positions," urge members to call immediately before positions are filled.

Club members also are encouraged to volunteer elsewhere, not solely for the philanthropy of it. Job contacts can be made at the local Rotary and YMCA.

"Creative people are going to do things to keep themselves sane," said Edwin Peura, 53, who retired as the chief of staff of the space and missile systems center at the Los Angeles Air Force Base two years ago. "It's an opportunity to broaden into other areas." When he left the military, Peura thought an aerospace job in the private sector would be waiting for him. He had a 28-year career behind him, including a stint in the early 1980s as part of the Geneva arms talks.

"I sent resumes out, but I had friends in high places who just told me . . . (I) couldn't have picked a worse time to retire," Peura said.

But his two years of volunteer work as a vice president at the club, as well as with the Hawthorne Chamber of Commerce and the South Bay Assn. of Chambers of Commerce, have pointed him to a new career path: government affairs. He's been interviewing for employment as a legislative aide.

"I'm really having a ball," said Peura, who has had to draw on savings and refinance his home to make ends meet. "I'm really enjoying things. I say to new (club members): 'Don't stay at home. Get out and do things.' "

Another club member, J.W. Wong, for years had thought ofleaving his career as a theme park attraction designer for the Walt Disney Co. He wanted to become a video producer. When Disney laid him off in August, 1992, he quickly put his goal into action. He has produced public service announcements for the club, and is at work on longer versions that can be used as infomercials.

"It's not like I'm sitting around waiting for a job," said Wong, 46. "I'm trying to do what I want to do on my own."

But it has been a struggle. The value of his Torrance house is dropping, and he has dipped into savings, including his children's college funds.

His annual salary was $67,000 at Disney, but his search for leads among theme park design firms, video production firms and other amusement companies turned up empty. He recently interviewed for a position as a sales agent at Delta Airlines, but was told he was overqualified.

"People just don't think I'm going to transfer into a $5-an-hour position," he said. "That's one of the problems I am having."

The club has averaged about 280 members per month this year, and about 40 have found work each month. It is better than at the depths of the recession two years ago, when only about 15 members per month were finding work. But many find themselves competing against hundreds of job applicants.

The Torrance unemployment office as a whole places about 150 to 250 people per month, Dodd said. The state also offers job training workshops to blue-collar workers, although the club's services are more comprehensive, she said.

"It really is more difficult" for professionals to find work, Dodd said, citing the need to network with prospective employers.

Woertler, the club president, is entering the third year of his job search. With Sears cutting commissions to its sales force, he retired early at age 55, after 20 years with the company.

"They used to say at Sears, 'You're a member of the family,' " he said. "In my case, Mom and Dad got a divorce."

Woertler began tucking away savings 15 years ago. But others did not have that foresight.

"So many were not prepared for this," Woertler said. "We have members who have lost their cars, their homes."

*

Through Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, club members get free counseling. Credit counselors also are available, and members help each other when they can.

"I have people calling me constantly," said Sandra Livingston, who was laid off from her job as an administrative aide at Hughes Aircraft Co. in El Segundo. "Some are hysterical. They need a place to live, or their phone was turned off."

A 42-year-old computer consultant, who did not want his name used, is sleeping on another member's couch. His Hermosa Beach apartment, which also served as his business, was damaged in the Jan. 17 earthquake and his computer equipment was wiped out.

"I'm at the end of my ropes financially; I hocked a camera," said the man, who so far has had little success in finding a job. He even applied for a job at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to no avail.

*

Many club members in the battered aerospace industry counted on their employers to provide a lifetime of security.

"If you found yourself in need of a job, half the time you could call someone you know," said H.C. Hunt, 60, a former aerospace contract negotiator at Rockwell International in El Segundo. "It worked for (the) last 40 years in (the) aerospace industry very well."

But the recession changed things. "It's deader than a dead circuit now," Hunt said.

Hunt took early retirement two years ago, with the intent of finding another job. He worked as executor of a friend's estate, but when that was finished last year, he found it wasn't so easy to re-enter the work force. He didn't even try other aerospace firms, but turned to state and municipal purchasing departments and insurance companies. Finally, two weeks ago, he got a job as a settlement negotiator at a law firm.

It is not exactly what he had hoped for: He works as an independent contractor, which means he gets no benefits, and has to commute from his home in San Pedro to Woodland Hills.

Still, he's glad to have a job and is excited about a new challenge. The club, he said, helped him realize that his true talent is in negotiating, not necessarily in aerospace.

Instead of dealing with multimillion-dollar aerospace contracts, he negotiates insurance claims worth thousands of dollars.

"After 30 or 40 years of doing this, I've found it's all personal, no matter how much money is involved or what is at stake. When (President) Clinton is dealing with Russia, it comes down to a personal relationship."

Morgan, the computer consultant who was out of work for about a year, found a job through a former club member who worked at Alpha Therapeutics in Alhambra.

"It's the ultimate network," she said.

Five months after she found a job, Morgan still helps out her colleagues at the club, recently spending a weekend helping Wong produce a video. And she hopes to recommend a club member if Alpha has another opening.

Once she became a club member, she made friends, she said. "There is a compassion, kind of like a soap opera, to always see if you could help."

On the Cover

Each month, Retired Air Force Col. Edwin Peura and other out-of-work business executives get dressed up in suits and pack their portfolios with paperwork to listen to an expert size up the South Bay's economy. These meetings are orchestrated by The Job Club, a self-help group for white-collar workers who are back in the job market. Members train other members how to go on job interviews, network with prospective employees or craft a resume. For the state Employment Development Department, which oversees the group, this is a low-cost way to tackle the heavy losses of aerospace and other highly skilled jobs in the area. For Peura and other members, the club helps them stay on top of the market--and keep their spirits up as well.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
66°