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They’re driven to network

The start of the meeting is still minutes away, but Paul Estes is telling several early arrivals that he’s fed up with the economy and sick of California taxes. He and his wife finally got a decent offer on their Placentia house and when the school year ends in June, they and their 9-year-old twins are heading for Virginia.

When someone chides him good-naturedly about his attitude, Estes concedes he’s a bit cranky this morning. “I’ve been here 12 years,” he says. “I hate being run off by the economy.”

Is he sure Virginia will be any better? “If we stay here longer than the fall,” Estes, 40, says, “we’re bankrupt. I’d rather be getting by there than bankrupt here.”

It was a mild kvetch, the kind that friends forgive in troubled times.

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And especially this group of friends that on a recent morning would grow to 13 for what has become a bimonthly meeting in a borrowed classroom at Webster University in Irvine.

The group is a mix of mostly former Volvo employees, part of the 100 or more who worked at the carmaker’s Irvine headquarters until the company decided last year to return its headquarters to New Jersey and take the jobs with it. But the group has been augmented by former employees at Jeep Land Rover, Jaguar and Ford Motor Co., all of whom lost jobs under varying circumstances.

But instead of saying their goodbyes and venturing out as lone wolves after their departures from the companies, a couple of employees met last fall at a Starbucks, just to catch up with one another. The first meeting led to a second. And a third. And in the months since, as the group grew to around 30, what started as coffee time morphed into a concerted effort to bolster one another’s job hunt and, not incidentally, their spirits.

Some knew each other well from the old days, some hardly at all. Many had seen each other in the halls over the years but hadn’t formed friendships.

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Though everyone in the room understands the ego-stripping potential of being out of work, these are not hand-holding sessions. If they first came together to commiserate, they fast saw the worth of helping one another. So, they bring notepads, not tissues. Once the meeting starts, those in the group take turns describing what seems to work on the job trail and what doesn’t, creating something of a how-to in the art of finding a job.

But this is far from a clinical seminar on how to get a job. They could go elsewhere for that. Only in a setting like this can everyone show up without worrying about what others will say if someone confesses to having zero motivation or, as Estes demonstrated at a recent meeting, a need to vent.

The group is mostly people in their 40s or 50s. For some, it’s their first employment search in a couple of decades. Instead of the daily routine of going to work, they’re suddenly facing the weird world of reinventing themselves, fashioning a resume for the first time in 20 years, working the job fairs, networking with friends or passing acquaintances. They’ve developed a whole new appreciation for Facebook and LinkedIn.

Through it all and lurking in the shadows for many of them is the biggest task of all: dealing with the self-doubt that can invade anyone’s head after months of rejections.

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“We’re all in the same boat together,” Linda Huey says, “people in transition.”

Because there’s no rank among the unemployed, no one pulls it. Huey jokes that because she was an internal auditor, colleagues assiduously avoided her during her work life. Now, for the first time, she feels she’s gotten to know the people she worked alongside for 7 1/2 years.

“Job title, grade level, it’s all kind of stripped away to who we are as human beings,” says Dan Louie, 46, who had several jobs during his 8 1/2 years but who now is thinking seriously of becoming an interior designer. “You could see everyone’s vulnerabilities as human beings.”

Estes, who’d ranged from peeved to puckish during the morning session, said hours after the meeting, “The last time I was there, I opened up and said, ‘I’ve cashed out the last of my 401K, I have no job prospects, and we’re going to leave the state because we have no prospects.’ ”

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Rather than being hushed, Estes says, others in the group nodded. “That was all I needed, to know that others had those same feelings and therefore it was all right to have bad days now and then.”

Steve Hansen was a Volvo employee for 32 years, having worked for the company in New Jersey and Sweden before coming to Irvine in 2001 when the company left the East Coast.

“There’s no denying when the group first started, it probably was a little bit of crying in your beer and commiseration,” Hansen says. But the perils and rapid changes confronting the auto industry focused people’s attention on the nuts-and-bolts of job-seeking. But although that’s at the core of the group’s purpose, Hansen says, its mere existence and regularly scheduled meetings also give structure to people who’d been used to it and then lost it.

“More than one person,” Hansen says, “has said that having the item on the calendar lets you keep some of that structure in your life that you depended on for years -- getting up at 7 a.m., jumping on the 91 Freeway, fighting traffic, doing your work and then going home.”

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Not surprisingly, not everyone is at the same place psychologically. Kent Ellis, a product manager at Jaguar and with 15 years with Ford before that, still wows some in the group with his energy.

He hasn’t reached the desperation stage of job-seeking but isn’t oblivious to the possibility. For now, he’s able to be more of a giver than taker. “It’s not like the group is negative, it isn’t,” he says. “But maybe some haven’t had a good week and haven’t moved on, and I give tips on things I do.”

Ellis tells the group he has nearly 250 numbers on a phone list. “I called three on the way over here this morning,” he says, reinforcing his belief that networking is much more valuable than checking job openings online.

He then tells them about a program that night in Los Angeles and his weekly agenda of scheduling at least two or three social outings, even if only for coffee, not to mention his current contacts with two European companies and recent work he’s done with a PowerPoint presentation.

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When Ellis concludes his update, former Volvo IT project manager Frank Fowles says, to laughter: “I feel like such a slacker after listening to you.”

And so it goes during the 90 minutes. Amid a boatload of tips on how to get an employer to say yes or how to keep yourself afloat until one does comes the occasional personal tidbit.

“All it takes,” Huey says, “is that one person who knows that one person.”

Estes says he’d spent part of the weekend working on a project for dealership inventories that he thought had possibilities. Others in the group give him some names to contact.

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Fowles, who left Volvo in January, says that five months after applying for a computer security job with the U.S. Border Patrol, “I finally got a letter back. I’m on a list somewhere. So, that’s exciting.”

Huey mentions that she was runner-up in a raffle for free enrollment in a program at Chapman University. The winner couldn’t go, so Huey got it. The group applauds. “Winning a raffle looks good on a resume,” someone jokes.

Eventually, someone brings up the group’s ultimate goal: dissolution. That would mean all had found jobs.

“Maybe we’ll all decide to climb Mt. Everest,” Fowles suggests. Then, providing his own punch line, he adds: “It’d be easier.”

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dana.parsons@latimes.com


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