Job seekers share experience, tips, hope

Male and female. Black and white. As young as their 20s and older than 60.

The dozen people who gathered midday Friday inside a small conference room in a south Charlotte business park had different backgrounds but the same goal: finding a job.

It's harder these days. Unemployment nationwide hit 6.1 percent in August, its highest point in five years, according to federal labor statistics released Friday. Even in Charlotte – often championed as a boomtown – unemployment is at levels not seen since 2003, hitting 6.8 percent in July.

At Compass Career Management Solutions, a consulting and placement firm off Sardis Road North, job seekers shared with each other tips for navigating today's tough market and held out hope that conditions would improve.

The meeting is bigger than usual, thanks to a few first-timers. “We've got one, two, three, four HR folks,” says Bill Crigger, president of Compass, as he reads over the sign-in-sheet. “One finance. A couple in sales.”

At 11:45 a.m., Crigger proclaims today's focus is how to land a job in the next three months. “We basically have until Thanksgiving to hit a double, triple or home run,” he says, although “singles will still work.”

To start, Crigger asks people to write a few highlights about themselves on yellow 4-by-6 index cards, then use those notes to deliver a “commercial” about themselves.

Going around the table, Steven Collins, a former plant controller, says he started looking for work after his employer – which makes products related to new home construction – eliminated his job.

Stacy Garrison of Rochester, N.Y., wants a human resources job in Charlotte and is on her second visit here, taking a long weekend to make contacts and find leads.

Although he has a strong background in finance, Lynn Chappell is now interested in operations, and has learned to tell his children “plan for about four careers in your life.”

‘Just keep pounding away'

Introductions soon give way to ideas and advice. One good source is Michael Hurst, who says he was a sales executive for Fortune 500 companies, managed up to 300 employees at one time and worked overseas for several years.

As he looks for full-time work, Hurst now works with several companies, giving each a few days a month and making enough to pay his bills.

“How did you make those contacts?” Collins asks.

“The first few ones are tough,” Hurst says. “Now they're starting to come to me.

“Just keep pounding away at it.”

Crigger agrees. “His story may or may not fit you,” he says. “You just have to kind of think differently.”

Garrison wonders if living in another state hurts her chances of finding good leads in Charlotte. James Ferguson says he had similar worries before relocating from northern Virginia, where he left a successful real estate job to pursue sales opportunities here.

“That's why I moved,” he says. “The best advice I got was … put your feet in the fire.”

That magical phone call

With a half-hour left in the 90-minute session, Crigger asks how optimistic people are about finding a job before year's end. Complaints about the job market have been limited, but concerns remain.

Some employers seem to be holding out for the perfect candidate, Collins says, and for some jobs – such as director of accounting – they focus on certain credentials. “If you're not a CPA,” he says, “you're automatically in the next stack.”

Yet the group tries to be upbeat. “You've just got to stay positive.” Ferguson says.

Crigger asks again about optimism, this time calling a vote. Of the 12, seven raise their hands.

Then Robert Manning, an IT systems professional, shares a hopeful tale. He responded to an online job listing a little after 6 p.m. Thursday, he says. About four hours later, he got a personal note back, “which is unheard of.”

But while the group agrees that it has never been easier to search for employment from the comfort of one's own home, nothing replaces a phone call that leads to a meeting, which can lead to more interviews and ultimately a job.

“It is good conversation and good communication,” Hurst says, “that can get you where you want to be.”

Staff researcher Marion Paynter contributed