Saturday, Feb. 19, 2011 | 2 a.m.
As 58-year-old Harley Walker details his work experience to the small gathering inside a gymnasium at a northwest valley church, his story is a reminder that for some people the Great Recession has only just begun.
He tells how less than a month ago, he lost a job he held for more than 20 years, supervising construction projects and managing facilities. On his first day of work all those years ago, he told his employer he would retire there.
That was still the plan when his boss told Walker he was being laid off. Walker said he had been reassured his job would be the last one to go.
“I was stunned for a while,” he said. “I didn’t believe it. The next Monday, it began to sink in. It was a hopeless feeling.”
For the next week, Walker walked around in a fog. Payments on his home and two vehicles were due, and as he milled through hundreds of job postings online, “the stress began to build up,” he said.
Then a leader at Walker’s congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints told him about a program at an LDS meetinghouse in the Tule Springs area that helps the unemployed. For a second consecutive Tuesday night, Walker is here, looking for a job lead.
The church calls it Networking Night. Some of those who come are unemployed, although many have steady jobs and are trying to help their friends and neighbors. Think of it as speed dating for job seekers. It’s part support group, part job hunting.
The routine is simple: A volunteer host coaxes one of the job seekers, who are seated in folding chairs and wearing red name tags, to come forward.
He or she gives an introduction that includes work history and interests, and the host asks audience members if they have any leads — a name, a phone number, anything.
Sometimes, it takes some prying, but everyone who comes in walks away with something, said Doug Waggoner, one of the volunteers who leads the program.
He constantly reminds those attending about the importance of networking in the crippled job market.
“That’s how most people get hired,” he said. “We’re not going to let a person walk out of here without a lead.”
Networking Night grew out of the Mormon church’s normal outreach efforts — each stake, an administrative unit similar to a Catholic diocese that oversees several congregations, has an employment specialist. As the number of jobless people swelled, two valley stakes decided to combine their efforts this spring.
For the first few weeks, 20 or so people came, most of them “providers” trying to lend a hand. As word has spread, the group has grown to 70 or more regulars — mostly church members — who assemble at 7 p.m. each Tuesday. Of those 70, 15 or more will be looking for work.
Waggoner injects the introductions with the charm and humor of a game show host.
Any connection is legitimate — if somebody has paralegal experience and you know a lawyer, that’s a lead, he explains.
The group is making a small difference in a region facing a crushing unemployment rate of 14.5 percent. Organizers say about 100 people so far have found jobs.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says more than 30 percent of available jobs are never advertised. That statistic highlights the importance of personal recommendations, said Jeff Waddoups, a labor economist at UNLV.
“It’s one of the most effective methods that people use to find work,” he said. “One of the most difficult things for employers is finding out enough information about potential workers. If you know someone who knows this person, and you trust that contact, you’re a lot more likely to hire them.”
Job seekers have traveled from throughout the valley to the Tule Springs church, and members from more than a dozen congregations have shared their support by volunteering time and connections. The church also offers other employment outreach efforts: Before the sessions, the church offers a class on job searching and resume building.
The group hopes to keep growing, said Mark Waite, a church leader and one of the minds behind the program. It would be “an excellent problem,” he added, if the group became so large that it had to spread it over two or more nights. More people mean more leads, he said.
“Anyone can come,” Waite said. “We welcome that.”
Those who have found help often return, happy to give back after they have received. David Truman, 57, a licensed architect with 22 years of experience and a master’s degree, was another of the unexpectedly unemployed.
As the economy took its toll, he was laid off near the end of 2008. Like Walker, Truman, a church member, heard about Networking Night through a friend and came to the first meetings last spring.
Truman showed up for six months without any luck. As he spent the rest of his time sifting through impersonal online job postings, Truman said he found the fellowship at the networking night helped him deal with the frustrations of his job search.
One night, Scott Rasmussen, an organizer, told him about an engineer he knew who was also searching for work. Soon, the two men had an idea for a home inspection and consulting firm.
He and his new business partner filed their articles of organization in December, Truman said. Their brainchild, the DS Group, has opened for business and is accredited by the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors. Five projects have been completed so far.
But even after he found work for himself, Truman said he returned the next Tuesday and almost every one since because he believes he “might be able to help somebody.”
The job seekers also get in on the act. Lynn Patrick, 40, who has hunted for two years for a steady casino job, asked her neighbor, Lisa Jones, unemployed for the past year while looking for housecleaning work, to join her on a recent Tuesday evening.
The friends agreed that a night at the Tule Springs church beat soliciting faceless e-mail addresses and phone numbers for work.
The church is at 7500 Tule Springs Road, near the Durango Drive-U.S. 95 interchange. For more information, call 649-1012.