Looking for a Job? Join the Club.

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by Stephen Stamp

The UVic Job Club "at work". Stephen Stamp photo

Eighteen chairs surround a long conference table. The chairs' occupants lean toward each other and hold animated discussions in small groups. This could be a meeting of businessmen and women, except the people are dressed more casually than most corporate movers and shakers. Perhaps this is the story meeting of a popular television series, or the staff of a trendy new restaurant hashing out changes to the menu.

In fact, the people here aren't at work. They're looking for work, which explains the items spread about the table: phone books, newspapers open to the classified ads, and a Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce directory. This is day seven of the UVic Job Finding Club's three-week program. The people in the chairs are all either UVic graduates or grads of other universities or colleges who are currently receiving unemployment insurance benefits.

The program's official name is Career Search Strategies. Everyone calls it the Job Finding Club, though, including Jennifer Margison (BA'77, Social Work), Manager of UVic's Student Employment Centre, through which the program is offered. Margison came back to UVic in 1991 from the Western Communities Outreach Centre, where she was familiar with other job clubs. She put together a proposal to start a program at UVic, because the job club approach "just works better than anything else," and the first course was offered in October 1992. Much of the program's funding comes from Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC), though the UVic Alumni Association will be providing $10,500, which will ensure that UVic alumni have at least one spot in each of the ten sessions this year.

The job club concept is, according to Margison, "based on two main hypotheses: that job seekers can function more independently in their own job search without extensive reliance on government employment services; and that finding employment is in itself a full-time job which is easier done with a group of people."

The UVic Job Club meets from 9 A.M to 3 P.M. daily for three weeks. On the second Tuesday, I find the club's members preparing for practice interviews they will videotape the next day. Everyone seems nervous. I plop down into a temporarily vacated seat between Cathleen and Doug, both of whom ask me to use only their first names for this story. Cathleen tells me that they spent most of the first week breaking down their work experience into skills. "Most of us had breakdowns the first couple of days," she says. Her old resumé, Cathleen tells me, listed abstract qualities, such as interpersonal skills. Her new one, under the heading "Interpersonal Skills," specifies such experience as conducting assessments and mediating disputes.

That kind of detail is crucial to a successful job search, says program co-facilitator Lynn McCaughey (BA'85, French/English). "You can't expect employers to infer," she says. "You have to make the connection between your skills and the skills they need." McCaughey says that in the first week of the program "we have given them the tools for job searching." The program also stresses networking and finding the hidden job market. "We teach people to generate leads for themselves and to follow up leads in a gentle but appropriately persistent manner," she says.

The second week is devoted primarily to search time and interview preparation. In the third week, several guest speakers come in, including club graduates offering encouragement that the program really does work. Statistics indicate that it does: more than 80 percent of UVic Job Finding Club graduates have found work within six months of completing the program.

McCaughey is one of the 80 percent, having participated in one of the first sessions. "I can really identify with people sitting at the table with me because I was in the same position," she says. Margison adds that the encouragement helps participants to remain positive and optimistic; without those qualities, she says, your job search just won't work.

Encouragement, after all, is as much a part of the club's mandate as imparting skills and providing business cards and secretarial services. Doug tells me the program is "empowering." He was a little nervous about doing his upcoming interview when he first started the program, but now he feels confident. He says the "constant encouragement" of his club-mates has helped him become more comfortable with searching for a job.

Ben Greenwood (BSc '92, Economics), who completed the program in October 1994, says the help he received with his résumé was "invaluable" and agrees that the support and encouragement of the group is essential. "You all help each other along. You're on a roller coaster ride emotionally when you are looking for work," he says. Club-mate Darren Simms helped Greenwood get off that roller coaster by telling him about Ben's current job, Personal Banking Representative at the Royal Bank in Victoria, even though they are in the same field and Simms could have kept the information to himself to avoid competition. But that would not have been in the spirit of the club. At the current session, one of the participants tells me "we all seem to find jobs for each other, more than for ourselves."

The UVic Job Finding Club has been customized for the needs of people like Ben, Cathleen, and Doug, Margison says, because in today's tight job market "University grads are having as tough a time as other groups" finding satisfying employment. The customizing includes rewriting the program materials (which are usually written at a grade 10 reading level), focusing on the professional and technical positions which university grads tend to seek, and applying the research techniques that participants have acquired in university.

I leave the group convinced that the organizers and participants believe in the program but unsure how all the skill identification, encouragement, and support manifest themselves in the lives of a Job Finding Club graduate. Then I meet Daphne van der Boom (BA '93, French).

We talk in the middle of a large room at a neighbourhood pub. As van der Boom speaks, I wonder how much encouragement she needed from her club-mates. She seems composed and articulate. But she speaks of going into the club with low self-esteem, of her confidence being boosted, of growing more comfortable in interview situations. "I guess what I've learned is not to be intimidated by interviewers, because they're really just like me," she says. "Through practice interviewing at the Job Club and other things we did, I learned to make it a conversation rather than a question-and-answer session."

Van der Boom is animate evidence of the club's benefits. The job she held before coming to the Job Finding Club-from which she says she was fortunate to be laid off-made her dread going to work in the morning. But what was she supposed to do-leave a steady (if atrocious) job that paid the bills, with no specific prospects on the horizon and little confidence that anything better would turn up? She no longer frets about such things, van der Boom tells me.

It was not just encouragement that helped van der Boom succeed in her job search. She has used the networking techniques she learned at the club to her advantage. She also believes strongly in the importance of following up an interview with a call or letter. After she was not hired following an interview with the Ministry of Education, van der Boom says she called the woman who chaired the hiring committee. "I aced all the interview questions except one," she says, "I didn't use specific examples to show that I knew what I was talking about, like I did in my other answers." The interviewer told van der Boom that her résumé and cover letter were excellent, and that if it weren't for that one question she probably would have been hired.

Rather than be discouraged, van der Boom used that experience to improve on her next interview, with the B.C. Council of Human Rights, where she now works as an office assistant. "It's a great job, I absolutely love it. I love being able to help people," she says. Her contract is up soon, but a complaints analyst position may be available, and she is confident that she stands a good chance of getting it. And if she doesn't, it won't be a problem. "I'm not at all worried about finding work again," she says. Everyone who employs her recognizes her value as a worker, she adds, and she is convinced that she can show prospective new employers that they will feel the same way.

I return to the Job Finding Club at lunch time on day 12 and talk again with Cathleen and Doug. They may not be ready yet to take on the world, like Daphne van der Boom, but they appear much more relaxed and confident. Cathleen proudly pulls a business card from her freshly printed stack and hands it to me. Doug follows suit. Much as they were last week, participants are sharing information about jobs while they munch on sandwiches and fruit. Ken Oldenburger (MA'94, English) is a writer, editor, and researcher. He hands me a card. Drawn into the spirit of the club, I tell him that if I hear of any jobs in the field that I don't want, I'll let him know. And I will. The enthusiasm of Job Finding Club participants and graduates is infectious.

Stephen Stamp (BFA'93, Creative Writing) is a past editor of the Torch.

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