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VOL. 35 | NO. 25 | Friday, June 24, 2011

Brentwood support group helps unemployed

By Colleen Creamer

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In 2009, when Hal Hassall was hit with his second job loss, he had the emotional and tactical tools he needed to hit the pavement running.

He’d gotten them after his first layoff, in 1996, which sent him to Brentwood United Methodist Church’s Career Transitions Support Group, the growing Monday night gathering that’s even attracting some professionals from other states given the condition of the economy and unemployment.

“For two and a-half years, I pursued entrepreneurial projects and consulted for a small group of friends, and it was not fulfilling all of my career aspirations, and I decided to make a change,” Hassall says. “That’s when I discovered the Career Transitions Support Group. It [the second layoff] was uncomfortable, but it surely was not scary frightening with cold sweats at night like the first time, when I was a rookie, and by January of 2010 I landed the best job ever.”

Hassall’s “dream job” is now as senior vice president and chief marketing officer at IRON Solutions, Inc. in Nashville. He also volunteers at CTSG.

Now it its 23rd year, CTSG holds presentations and panel discussions on topics such as personal and career planning, cutting-edge job search skills and networking by job function. The meeting of “transitioning” workers includes the unemployed, those looking for a different career track and those who know that to continue to network while working is the best remedy for recession fear.

CTSG program director Rick Ross, who facilitates presentations and advises members one-on-one, says the recession certainly has had an impact on the number of members.

“We went from an average of about 35 to 40 attendees, and we now average at least 90 to 100, and we’ve had as many as 220,” Ross says. “That usually happens in January, which has a lot to do with folks looking at the New Year and deciding that this was the time they were going to do something about their career.”

Hassall says those numbers are an indicator of how well the group is promoting itself and how tough the economy is. At the very least, he says, the gatherings offer hope where there has often has been none.

“I think people feel encouraged by it, by and large, that they are not in it alone, and that they too will make it through this journey called transition,” Hassall says.

Ross agrees.

“When nobody else will talk to you, you have folks here who will talk to you and listen to you,” Ross says, noting the program’s pragmatic advice is equally critical.

“We try and keep the program as contemporary as can be,” Ross explains. “We have professional recruiters and all the latest ways to find jobs and get hired. So we offer support and we also work individually with people to develop personal marketing plans, personal goal setting, help with resumes. That’s just a function of what the volunteers do. Everything is free.”

The group “mixes it up,” Hassall says, to keep the program fresh and so that any new member can come in and get something from any scheduled event. Not only does the group address long-term career planning and handling re-entry into another career, it addresses the nuts and bolts of finding a job, such resume building, appearance/perception and the art of the interview. The group even boasts experts on LinkedIn, the increasingly complex social site for working professionals.

“Essentially, we bring in speakers and coaches to unpack one aspect of the psychological and skill toolbox that people need to be successful at doing it themselves,” Hassall says.

Hassall says he meets each week with up to four members over a cup of coffee to help with direction.

“Ninety percent stumble on what I call ‘the elevator pitch,’ a concise statement of what I want to do next and why I am prepared and passionate to do it,” Hassall says. “Without that, you are telling me that you want direction, but you don’t have a destination in mind.”

Some come from far away, Hassall says, and others come to the program expecting CTSG to find them a job.

“There is no silver bullet,” Hassall explains. “What we are trying to do is give people the courage, the skills and the training to be able to do it themselves because it truly is a DYI kind of job.”

Initially, the group was simply based at the church, but then Brentwood United Methodist Church took on an advocacy role. Now prayer is one of the tools in the group’s toolbox, Ross says.

One of those millennials is recent grad, Brad Birkmaier. Birkmaier, who is new to the group and to Nashville, came to CTSG because he’d gotten laid of his first job at Bank of America and was forced to move in with his parents. Birkmaier said he was “open” at the moment to almost any kind of work.

“My parents are doing everything they possibly can, but I don’t think they can see some of these things,” Birkmaier says.

“I don’t know exactly what direction I am going, and one of the things I heard here is you have to know your direction. It’s good to hear that from different people.”

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