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

May 26, 1994|TED JOHNSON | 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."

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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."

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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.

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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.

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