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Local networking group helps St. Louis job-seekers find support, new careers after pandemic recession

Local networking group helps St. Louis job-seekers find support, new careers after pandemic recession

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CHESTERFIELD — Just in time, Vito Alu found a temporary job in human resources that starts next week.

An extra $300 weekly payment added to unemployment benefits stops flowing in Missouri after this weekend, spurred by Gov. Mike Parson’s decision to pull out of federal unemployment benefit programs that Congress intended to last until September but that Republican governors say is a disincentive to work.

“That’s going to help diminish some of that pain,” Alu said of his new, part-time gig.

But what’s helped him more than unemployment insurance, he says, is a new networking group that has bloomed amid the economic disruption of the pandemic: The Job Seekers’ Garden Club of St. Louis.

Amid talk about how many open positions are currently going unfilled, the reality is many of those jobs are for lower-pay, hourly work, such as hospitality and retail. Despite the improving economy, the St. Louis area was still down about 70,000 jobs from its pre-pandemic level as of April.

Many of the members of the Job Seekers Garden Club are longtime professionals, white-collar workers whose careers were upended by the pandemic. It has taken some of the group’s members months to a year to find similar-paying jobs after pandemic layoffs, founder Bob Kolf said. One of the federal programs ending in Missouri this weekend is for long-term unemployed people who have exhausted the regular 20 weeks of state unemployment.

“Hourly candidates, there’s so many opportunities, it’s just a matter of picking and choosing where they want to go,” Kolf said. “The people we’ve struggled with are the higher-level folks.”

Alu, for instance, still needs to find something permanent. The pandemic hit just as the west St. Louis County resident began to execute a plan to switch careers from sales to human resources, a field he’s working on a master’s degree in and one he figured would always have solid employment prospects. As the economy tanked last spring, he took a yearlong job in a seed processing facility, happy to secure any job at that point. He’s been looking for something permanent since that gig ended last month.

“I’ve been pretty focused on my job search,” Alu, 54, said. “I’ve been motivated regardless of unemployment (insurance). It certainly helps, but I don’t see it as a long-term thing. It’s good to use to get you by.”

Sending out dozens of applications online can be discouraging and lonely, he said. There’s often no feedback. That’s why he’s enjoyed the in-person networking events the Job Seekers Garden Club has hosted. He’s even started volunteering with the group, organizing a coffee and networking event Tuesday, June 15 at the Kaldi’s Coffee in Chesterfield that he hopes to make a monthly gathering. Job seekers are welcome for the morning coffee, which starts at 8:30 a.m.

Brian Young, co-owner of Chesterfield-based recruiter RockIt Career Consultation Services, said he suspects openings for higher-level positions will be more plentiful as the economic recovery continues.

“Your frontline employees, your hourly employees, those are the ones they’re really trying to hire at the moment,” Young said. “As those get filled and teams get larger, they’ll require more management positions. We’re just going through the beginning stages of a cycle.”

The Job Seekers Garden Club started as a small group on business social networking site LinkedIn run by Kolf, a retired civil engineer who was doing some consulting work for RockIt. But as the pandemic hit and some 180,000 jobs in the metro area vanished, “I started connecting like crazy,” Kolf said.

Tiffany Hill-King of Belleville found the group when it was still just a small LinkedIn group. She started going to events as she was looking to move into a higher-level position than her old job at a bank. Kolf helped coach her on salary negotiations and interviewing, and she was able to land a new job in the middle of the pandemic. During one of their monthly lunches, she said his group was kind of like watering seeds — and the Garden Club name stuck.

As the pandemic set in, it quickly grew from a few dozen members to a few hundred. Other employers and recruiters beyond RockIt asked to join. Its first event was a socially-distanced September networking gathering in Forest Park that the city allowed just 35 people to attend, Kolf said. Now, there are about 3,000 people in the group, which holds regular happy hours, coffees and now has a major job fair planned for Wednesday, June 23 at the St. Louis Premium Outlets center, complete with a guest speaker.

The group and the June 23 job fair are not just for white collar professionals. “We’re trying to find jobs for everybody,” Kolf said.

Simon Property Group, which owns the outlet mall, will be helping its retail tenants recruit, too.

“Almost all of our retailers are hiring,” said Kassandra DeMoss, director of marketing and business development at St. Louis Premium Outlets.

The Job Seekers Garden Club is sort of the nonprofit arm of RockIt, Kolf said, but other recruiters and companies have since tapped into the network. It has its charitable certification from the IRS and is run by volunteers, many of whom offer free mentoring help to job seekers.

“It helps job seekers feel like they’re not alone,” Young, the RockIt co-owner, said.

Tracy Tubbesing, a member of the group who lost her corporate HR job during the pandemic, said that was part of the appeal.

“There’ve been a lot of people that have come into our group that have been beat down and just exhausted,” she said. “And we’ve given them confidence and created this environment where they’re supported.”

“When people lose their jobs, for me the first thing was I felt a loss of identity,” she added. “Where’s my purpose? And I feel a lot of other people felt that as well.”

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