Group helps unemployed professionals find way back into work force

A ProNet member says, ‘No offense, but there's nothing better than leaving this group.'

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Hit by the economic downturn and now open for employment, members of the Walla Walla Professional Network (ProNet) meet at Stone Soup for a weekly morning gathering to discuss recent opportunities, to network, share job leads and hopefully find jobs for everyone involved in the group.

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Meeting at 9:30am on Monday morning at the Stone Soup finds plenty of seats for the unemployed as members of the Walla Walla Professional Network (ProNet) gather to discuss opportunities, to network, share job leads and hopefully find jobs for everyone involved in the group. Left to right are Karen Binder, Jonathan Marley, Rhonda Donnelly and Mark Spinks. Another member, not pictured, David Hepker, showed up later.

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Rhonda Donnelly's phone, pencil, coffee cup and ProNet meeting agenda prepares her for the weekly gathering at Stone Soup.

The Monday morning meeting of the Walla Walla Professional Network commences at Stone Soup Caf.

Five people are gathered at the rectangular table, where a plate of fresh croissants sits among their meeting agendas, pens and cell phones.

Outside, pedestrians trickle past the picture windows, presumably headed to downtown offices and workspaces.

Inside, while the work of cafe employees warms the air with the scent of the week’s featured broccoli soup, ProNet members strategize about how they will become like the people strolling by with briefcases and neatly pressed attire: employed.

The 2-month-old ProNet is a grassroots resource started in the community as a platform to share rsum tips, job postings, interview experience and contact information. Members have come from all different professional backgrounds — operations management, human resources, accounting, coaching, sales, marketing, technology.

Unemployment is their common ground. All say they are victims, in one form or another, of the collapsing economy.

Consequently, accountant Karen Binder, downsized from her long-distance job for a Portland firm, quips that it’s "the group nobody really wants to join."

Binder hopes to use this period of unemployment as a time to transition into the wine industry. She’s been checking WorkSource for job openings that might offer a foot in the door. But the contact with other unemployed professionals helps keep her plugged into social interaction with others experiencing the same hardships.

As per the usual meeting routine, members go around the table and talk about what leads they’ve found and any progress on their efforts to find work. They learn that a potential employer is interested in coming to talk about his need for workers. They discuss the layoff at Milton-Freewater call center Sykes and whether outreach should be made to any professional-level employees.

When Jonathan Marley, a human resources specialist who was laid off from Key Technology in 2009, mentions running into an out-of-work friend, the true significance of the group is revealed.

"He looks like he’s lost about 20 pounds," Marley says.

He suggests inviting the man to join the group. He knows recovery from the shock of unemployment can take a while. The group offers a stable hand to professionals tossed in the emotional turbulence of unemployment.

"Anybody who’s been unemployed before knows the roller coaster," Marley said. "Apart from blaming yourself for losing the job, there’s the anger of why would this company let me go."

The layoffs were "a major blow to a good number" of his Key co-workers, said Marley, who founded ProNet after being part of a similar group in Indianapolis years ago.

Since his layoff, Marley has used his time as a relentless "data-miner." He has created a database of jobs from 6,000 to 8,000 companies. He is an equally exhaustive helper when it comes to members of ProNet.

New people are subject to a rash of questions from Marley: Where did you work? What did you do? What kind of job do you want? Are you willing to move? If so, how far? From their answers, he finds numerous leads in his database.

"The job opportunities depend on your geographic willingness," he said. "The future looks bright so long as you know what you’re looking for."

In addition to cultivating his exhaustive employment database, Marley believes in spending his unemployed days dressed for success. He attends the Monday meetings in work slacks and a dress shirt.

"It just makes your week brighter, sharper," he told the group. "As if you’re getting up for work."

He even dressed up for a telephone interview with a Houston oil company two weeks ago.

Marley hopes to transition into the energy industry, but other members are also showing that jobs can still be found in their own backyard.

For two members, the ProNet meeting is a chance to celebrate.

Rhonda Donnelly, laid off from her position as vice president of operations for QualitySmith last year, is preparing for a new role as an electronic medical records trainer at Providence St. Mary Medical Center.

Fellow ProNetter Mark Spinks, a Seattle transplant who was downsized from Washington Mutual after it was taken over by Chase, is looking forward to a February start date for Walla Walla County. He will step into the newly created position of public records officer.

Spinks said his qualifications obviously were key to landing the job. But he also believes walking into the office and hand-delivering his rsum might have helped his chances. The idea may not sound all that unusual to some. But for those who have not been out of work for a while, it’s an almost archaic concept.

Dave Hepker can attest to that.

"I hadn’t written a rsum in 10 years," said Hepker, an information technology professional.

What he’s discovered: He now has a need to "dumb down" his rsum so he doesn’t look overqualified for some jobs. And that’s just one trick to landing an interview.

He’s also learned that more government agencies, such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, want potential employees to apply online. The applications are filtered through special software that, in part, searches for key words that match the agency’s job requirements. But figuring out the key words is another trick completely.

This on top of wracking his brain to recall all of the training, accomplishments and successes he never thought to write down when he was employed.

ProNet members say this is one of the biggest lessons hammered into them since becoming unemployed.

"When you’re at your job you’re not thinking about losing your job," Marley said.

Donnelly seconded that. "To anyone who is not currently unemployed, what I wish I would have done is kept track of what I did when I did it," she said. "I didn’t think ahead, and I won’t make that mistake again."

Unemployment has given her a fresh perspective. Through ProNet she has also made connections with a number of people she never knew. The experience has been positive, she said. But as the meeting closes she is equally happy to face a future without ProNet.

"No offense," Donnelly says, "but there’s nothing better than leaving this group."

To join

Unemployed professionals are invited to join Walla Walla Professional Network. The group is also open to employers who can offer advice on job search techniques or to advertise job openings to the group. For more information, contact Jonathan Marley at sjmarley@yahoo.com.

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