Innovators

Grassroots Support Groups for the Unemployed

How a New Jersey man created an extensive network of local meet-ups for out-of-work people to help one another.

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Nancy Cook
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Nancy Cook
April 8, 2015, 8:22 a.m.

By late 2010, John Fu­gaz­zie real­ized that his job search was just not suc­cess­ful. He had tried reach­ing out to former pro­fes­sion­al con­tacts in the food in­dustry, which he’d worked in for more than 20 years. He’d treated his job search like a full-time gig, sta­tion­ing him­self at his com­puter day after day to send out résumés. None of it helped him gain trac­tion. “Look­ing for work like I al­ways had was go­ing nowhere,” says Fu­gaz­zie, now 59. “I was be­com­ing very frus­trated sit­ting at home.”

To get out of the house, Fu­gaz­zie at­ten­ded a net­work­ing group for job­less work­ers at his loc­al lib­rary. But the meet­ing provided little in the way of job-hunt­ing tips and too much vent­ing that spir­als in­to help­less frus­tra­tion. Fu­gaz­zie liked the idea of gath­er­ing to­geth­er with oth­er un­em­ployed people but thought that meet­ings needed struc­ture and dir­ec­tion in or­der to be truly use­ful.

So in Janu­ary 2011, with zero fund­ing, Fu­gaz­zie star­ted his own loc­al group for out-of-work people in River Edge, New Jer­sey, near his home. He sought ad­vice from two hu­man-re­sources pro­fes­sion­als, who urged him to think of his fledgling meet-up as a sup­port group that made job seekers ac­count­able — like Weight Watch­ers’ weekly meet­ings, only for the un­em­ployed, to help them chart their job pro­gress. It was the start of something.

Fu­gaz­zie de­veloped an agenda and a check­list of tasks that un­em­ployed people should try ac­com­plish as they search for work. He learned that meet­ings ran smoothest if roughly a dozen par­ti­cip­ated and if in­di­vidu­als with­in the group took turns run­ning the ses­sions, so every­one felt some in­vest­ment in the ef­fort. By 2013, the group, called Neigh­bors-Help­ing-Neigh­bors, had ex­pan­ded to 40 New Jer­sey cit­ies and towns and had built an act­ive on­line pres­ence, in­clud­ing a Linked­In group of 3,600 cur­rent and former mem­bers. Fu­gaz­zie even star­ted ad­vising groups as far away as Bo­ston and Spain on ways to set up loc­al Neigh­bors-Help­ing-Neigh­bors chapters. And he vis­ited the White House — along­side CEOs of ma­jor com­pan­ies — to talk through the best strategies for help­ing the long-term un­em­ployed.

For Fu­gaz­zie, the group gave him a plat­form through which to share his per­son­al ex­per­i­ences with un­em­ploy­ment. “The mis­take is to think that the job mar­ket has not changed,” he says about today’s eco­nom­ic con­di­tions. “The oth­er mis­take is to not put a ton of work in­to your job search. You are mar­ket­ing your­self.”

For Ro­d­er­ick Neg­ron, a 54-year-old New Jer­sey res­id­ent, Neigh­bors-Help­ing-Neigh­bors gave him the sup­port he needed after he got laid off from Sony, where he had worked as a product man­ager for roughly two dec­ades. “I needed to re­group with like-minded people,” Neg­ron says. “It’s easi­er to take ad­vice from someone who has been there.”

Neg­ron first came to the Ber­gen County branch of Neigh­bors-Help­ing-Neigh­bors in 2011 fol­low­ing his lay­off. The group helped him re­view his résumé, do mock in­ter­views, strategize about the best ways to get the at­ten­tion of po­ten­tial em­ploy­ers, and con­nect him with po­ten­tial job leads.

Neg­ron even­tu­ally found a con­tract job and then a full-time one, which las­ted about a year and half be­fore he got laid off again. Now, he has been out of work since April 2014 and is liv­ing off sav­ings. Des­pite the dis­ap­point­ments and un­cer­tainty a job search can bring, Neg­ron says that he looks for­ward to his weekly Neigh­bors-Help­ing-Neigh­bors ses­sions. The meet­ings usu­ally last for two hours on Monday morn­ings: a kick­off to what every­one hopes will be a pro­duct­ive week. When one of the par­ti­cipants gets a job, the group cel­eb­rates with a ba­gel break­fast, and past mem­bers stay con­nec­ted to help oth­ers with on­go­ing job searches. 

Part of Fu­gaz­zie’s philo­sophy with Neigh­bors-Help­ing-Neigh­bors is that older, un­em­ployed work­ers need to ap­proach their job search with dif­fer­ent ex­pect­a­tions. They should not be afraid to take con­tract jobs to jump back in­to the work­force, nor should they shun the idea of tak­ing a pay cut, work­ing with young­er people, or cob­bling to­geth­er vari­ous freel­ance gigs to make ends meet. It can sound like harsh ad­vice, but Fu­gaz­zie wants people to ap­proach their searches with an open mind and not fix­ate, as many white-col­lar pro­fes­sion­als do, on land­ing an­oth­er six-fig­ure gig. “If you think you will re­place the job you once had, you are totally ig­nor­ant to the way the world has changed,” Fu­gaz­zie says. “Most of the jobs com­ing back in the eco­nomy now are at lower salary levels.”

Fu­gaz­zie him­self has had to come to terms with this eco­nom­ic real­ity. He now works for the New Jer­sey Com­munity Col­lege Con­sor­ti­um for Work­force and Eco­nom­ic De­vel­op­ment, for which he helps to con­nect New Jer­sey em­ploy­ers with the long-term un­em­ployed. The job came about as an out­growth of his ad­vocacy. He also teaches two courses at a nearby col­lege, but he still earns 50 per­cent less than he did in his last job and had to move in with his mom and broth­er.

Most of all, Fu­gaz­zie acts as a spokes­man for the long-term un­em­ployed: someone who does not for­get that mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans have still been out-of-work for six months or longer. “With the per­cep­tion of the eco­nomy im­prov­ing, people in the group worry that they will be left be­hind and for­got­ten. And, in many ways, I think they have been,” says Don Sci­olaro, a vo­lun­teer with Neigh­bors-Help­ing-Neigh­bors. “John has rep­res­en­ted the in­terests of people who are strug­gling and who are not of­fi­cially or­gan­ized.”

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