Burlington program for laid-off professionals at risk

"I'm very disturbed about it," says Larry Sutter, who like other participants touts its role.
"I'm very disturbed about it," says Larry Sutter, who like other participants touts its role.
Posted: May 12, 2012

Laid-off professionals in Burlington County are calling Gov. Christie’s office and petitioning the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce to save a state-funded job-networking program scheduled to be phased out starting May 25.

“This will be an enormous loss to those who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own,” wrote Sue Van Sant, who credits the Burlington County Professional Services Group with giving her the tools she needed to find her current human-resources job after seven months of unemployment, and with keeping her encouraged and motivated throughout the process.

New Jersey officials say the PSG program costs too much while serving only a fraction of the state’s unemployed. It has an annual budget of $900,000 for 3,800 job seekers, in a state where about 400,000 are unemployed.

Plans call for rebranding the groups “Jersey Job Clubs” and, starting in July, making them more inclusive to serve all types of laid-off workers. To supplement that effort, there would be employment groups tailored to specific industries, such as life sciences and logistics.

The change in the PSG program raises the question about how best to help different kinds of job seekers. Will jobless blue-collar workers and laid-off individuals who may be computer-illiterate use the same techniques to find work as do professionals who were once highly paid?

“Of course, you can’t treat everybody the same,” said David Gross, a laid-off operations manager and former human-resources professional from Mount Laurel who is a volunteer leader for Burlington County’s PSG. “You need to get everybody the help they need, but not all help is equal.”

Counselors at the state’s One-Stop career centers typically refer professional or managerial job seekers to the PSG groups, where they can participate in more intensive networking and serve as peer counselors to one another.

Not every county has a PSG, but Burlington, Camden and Gloucester Counties do. Burlington’s was one of the most active in the state, serving 368 people last year, nearly triple Camden’s program. Gloucester’s program served 56.

“Currently, our PSGs serve less than 1 percent of New Jersey’s job seekers,” Mary Ellen Clark, assistant labor commissioner of workforce development, wrote in an e-mail to the state’s “One-Stop” network. “They are concentrated in the suburban areas, and not in the urban areas where there is higher unemployment.”

“The term `professional’ can be confusing to some job seekers and can appear that the groups are exclusively for those with managerial experience or higher-education degrees,” she wrote. “Many of the PSGs have membership requirements and rules which are off-putting to many job seekers.”

Most counties set aside separate space for PSGs. In some, Clark said, there would be only a handful of laid-off professionals using the space and it was more like a coffee klatch than a job service.

That wasn’t the case in Burlington County, where 160 were enrolled in the PSG, with 35 to 40 attending meetings twice a week and as many as 50 gathered to hear speakers discuss networking, resume building, and employment trends. On Thursday, about two dozen attended a volunteer-run session on time management, an important subject for unemployed people, who lose the daily structure that a job provides.

John “Jack” Bland, the much-loved state employee who facilitates Burlington County’s PSG, doesn’t buy Clark’s 1 percent statistic. On a weekly basis, he said, he would have almost the same number participating in PSG programs as Burlington’s One-Stop had attending the general sessions it offered.

“It came as a shock to me,” Bland said about the news. “My people are terribly upset about it.”

Even though he got referrals from the One-Stop job counselors, Bland said, he never turned anyone away from the program who approached him.

For example, Larry Sutter, who has not worked in his field since 2008 — he once earned more then $100,000 as a purchasing manager and product developer — joined the program simply by contacting the group.

“I’m very disturbed about it,” he said of the proposed change.

Clark said that she hopes to incorporate the “best of the best” from programs such as the Burlington PSG, and that volunteers like the ones at PSG would be able to contribute a lot to the state’s wider population of unemployed.

“I have to worry about 400,000 people,” she said. “I wish I could these give these services to all 400,000 people.”

She declined to say how much funding the state would provide for the new “Jersey Job Clubs.”

Elva Bankins, executive vice president at OI Partners, a Philadelphia company that handles outplacement services for laid-off employees, said that in her 14 years of experience in the field, laid-off white- and blue-collar workers both need help with networking, resume building, and interview skills.

“But if you put them in a group,” she said, “they’ll naturally separate.

“When they are together, the blue-collar workers end up being intimidated by the professionals, so what happens to the blue collars is they don’t talk much and they don’t get much out of it.”

The blue collars see value in connecting with white-collar workers because the white-collar workers may know of jobs, she said, “but the white collar won’t see the benefit of connecting with the blue-collar worker, because very seldom does a blue-collar worker know about a position that a white-collar person would need.”

Contact Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769, jvonbergen@phillynews.com or @JaneVonBergen on Twitter. Read her Jobbing blog at www.philly.com/jobbing.

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