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For unemployed, searching for job is full-time endeavor

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The most up-to-date report about white-collar job losses in Indianapolis comes every Monday at dawn in the parking lot at St. Luke's United Methodist Church.

The number of cars that pull in to attend the weekly gatherings of the Business and Professional Exchange has more than doubled in the last two months.

Inside, men and women in business suits give repeated 30-second introductions of themselves, their skills and their goals for new jobs. They have lost or left jobs at not only prominent companies such as Eli Lilly and Co., Simon Property Group Inc. and Gannett Co. Inc., but also small firms, not-for-profits and even churches.

As job losses accelerate in the worst recession in a generation, it's becoming tougher and tougher for even well-educated, experienced professionals to find work — or at least to find a job in the area and at the pay they want.

"It's as bad as it was in 1983," said Bruce Flanagan, a salesman who has been out of work since April. "It's definitely an employer's market."

Out-of-work professionals say they're spending 50, 60 and even 80 hours a week networking, searching and submitting resumes for jobs.

They're staying upbeat — but the pressure is rising along with the unemployment rate. The rate for the Indianapolis area was 6.7 percent in December, up from 3.9 percent a year earlier.

"The sense of urgency in looking for a job is something that I don't think is appreciated by those who are currently gainfully employed," said Scott Sigman, who has been searching for a job since November and coming to the north side chapter of the Business and Professional Exchange since January.

Sigman left Indianapolis in June to take a consulting job at Global Insight in Boston, earning a salary of more than $100,000. But in October, the company was acquired and he was out of work the next month.

Since their Carmel house still hadn't sold, Sigman and his wife, Jamie, decided to move back to Indiana once their teenage sons finished school in December. Upon their return, Jamie Sigman started working part time and Scott Sigman started searching full time for a new job.

Sigman, who has a master's in economics, has had one offer. But it was for about half what he made in Boston, and it fizzled when he asked for 10 percent more pay. A couple of other companies have interviewed him multiple times but have yet to make a decision.

"They're percolating but not brewed," Sigman said of those leads. Since employers are so uncertain about the economy, he added, "It's really a go-slow atmosphere."

Sharon Gatlin-Chambers counts the time off as a blessing. She said her previous job in sales management, for a large aluminum and plastics company she declined to name, had gotten so stressful that she needed to leave. She also saw it was only a matter of time before her company started trimming staff.

"This is a great time to reflect on what we did in the past," said Gatlin-Chambers. "We were so in tune to making dollars and cents."

Gatlin-Chambers negotiated a separation agreement in October and has been searching for a new career since. She stays busy networking and volunteering. She's had interviews but, so far, no offers.

Lou Begnel also looked at unemployment as an opportunity. He took a voluntary buyout from Lilly in June — right after the company finished paying for him to earn an MBA.

Begnel wants to move into a project management role, so he has spent hundreds of hours volunteering for groups like the Business and Professional Exchange and Startup Weekend Indianapolis, a project that launched five businesses in a 48-hour period.

But Begnel's severance pay ran out at the end of January. Then in February, Begnel's wife, Ilona, lost her job with a logistics company — and the couple's health insurance.

"What I've been searching for has been a step forward in my career," said Begnel. He had a job offer in July that would have paid him $20,000 less per year than he made at Lilly and required him to commute an hour each way when gas cost $4 a gallon. He decided not to take it. But now he's changed his outlook.

"I'm now at a point where, if it's lower in pay scale and even less responsibility, I'm going to apply for and interview for those positions."

Making connections

Career coaches and outplacement experts say the kind of networking Begnel, Sigman and Gatlin-Chambers are doing is crucial to finding a new job.

Most open jobs are never posted on online job boards like Monster.com, they say, and, even if they are, having even a loose personal connection to the hiring manager is a key way professionals can make themselves stand out.

Distinguishing yourself is perhaps even more important in this recession than in previous ones, career coaches said.

Gatlin-Chambers and Begnel are trying to do that through volunteering. Sigman gives a PowerPoint presentation about himself, tailored for each company he interviews with.

In fact, he and other professional job seekers say they write a different resume for every job they apply for, spending hours to research the company and to emphasize how their skills meet the job opening.

"What I'm hearing about this particular downturn is, they're feeling the competition a lot more," said Patrice Waidner, a career coach at the WorkOne Center in Fishers, part of the Indiana Department of Workforce Development.

If there are things different about this recession than the ones in 2001 and 1991, said Jack Robertson, an independent career consultant and executive coach in Carmel, it's that smaller companies are less able to hire refugees laid off from larger companies.

"Today, those [smaller] companies are also being adversely impacted, I suppose because of the lack of credit flow," Robertson said. "They're not in a hiring mode because they're currently not in a growth mode. That leaves people saying, 'Where do I go?'"

The credit crunch also makes it harder for individuals to borrow money to start their own business — another fallback strategy that worked in past recessions.

And the health care sector, a refuge in past recessions, isn't this time around. Large local hospital systems such as Clarian Health and St. Vincent Health have shed non-medical staff. Waidner has seen a few former health care professionals show up in the job-search workshops she conducts.

Jena Hartman is searching for new work in health care but has so far been stymied. For the past 15 years, she has used her backgrounds in nutrition education and commercial recipe development to create meals and snacks that fit her husband's diabetic diet.

When he lost his job last fall, Hartman began trying to find a job helping other diabetics manage their diets.

"I've been networking, and I've been talking to everybody," said Hartman, taking a break from a Business and Professional Exchange meeting in Greenwood. "I've not made the right contact to find the right opportunity."

Unexpected offer

Some people are making the right contacts and finding jobs.

Barb Richardson was laid off in January from a job in development at the Simon Youth Foundation, part of layoffs throughout the corporate office of Simon Property Group Inc., she said.

But as Richardson was calling to cancel her upcoming appointments, one woman asked her to apply with her organization.

Richardson landed a similar development job at the woman's organization, Kappa Delta Pi, a national education honor society based in Indianapolis.

For the last year, Norma Jean Graves had helped many laid-off administrative assistants find new jobs. As president of a local chapter of the International Association of Administrative Professionals, many of her members turned to her for help and counsel.

But late in February, Graves herself lost her job at Woolpert Inc., an architectural and engineering firm, in Indianapolis.

"Now I have to walk the walk," she said.

More and more people are in the same position Graves is.

The unemployment rate in Indiana is among the nation's highest, at 8.2 percent. Since the end of October, the number of Hoosiers receiving unemployment insurance has more than doubled, to nearly 160,000.

The largest layoffs have been in the construction and manufacturing sectors. But white-collar workers have suffered their lumps as well.

From October to December, the number of Hoosiers employed in professional and business services fell 3.4 percent. Employment in finance dropped 2.2 percent and even government jobs shrank nearly 1 percent. Education and health care remained flat.

In this kind of environment, one other key strategy for job seekers is to pinch pennies.

That's what Sigman and his family are doing.

He received no severance from his previous job, but has had to pay about $1,000 a month to continue his health insurance under COBRA, the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act.

His family stopped going to restaurants for dinner, as they had multiple times a week before. They turned down their thermostat, even in the unusually cold winter. And they've held off on gifts for their kids.

"There was no Hanukkah, effectively," said Sigman, who is Jewish. When his youngest son turned 14 recently, Sigman said, "the birthday was just a cake and an IOU."

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