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Columnist
Unemployed network, learn at local libraries
By Burt Constable | Daily Herald Staff

David Waring of Barrington uses the reference department at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library to re-invent himself, as he transitions from working in the service industry into work for a non for profit company.

 

Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

David Waring of Barrington does research at the Arlington Heights library, as he switches careers.

 

Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

Allen Zhou of Schaumburg, right, listens at an employment seminar at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library. Zhou, who have a job, attended for the training.

 

George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

Al Demming, of Naperville, center, listens at an employment seminar at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library.

 

George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

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Published: 5/1/2009 11:58 AM

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The impeccable color-coordinated jacket and skirt with matching stockings, the perfectly coiffed blond hair, the professional business bag toting her laptop, the fancy cell phone pressed to her ear, even her eye-catching bracelet suggest that Joan McCullough is about to land the biggest sale of her career.

Instead, she is among dozens of unemployed folks who pack a boardroom at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library on a weekday morning to receive the latest training in online business networking.

With unemployment now topping 9 percent in Illinois, libraries where weekday programs catered mostly to retirees and preschoolers now offer myriad services and training for those searching for employment.

"Libraries are where they start," says Barbara Vlk, business librarian at Arlington Heights Memorial Library.

One counselor tells of a woman who pretends to go to work and then hangs out at the library all day as a way to save her mother the anguish of worrying about her unemployed daughter.

But most of the unemployed people visiting libraries these days treat the library as a place to work at finding a new place to work.

"I get out of the house every day," says McCullough, an Aurora woman who spent 27 years in sales and marketing until she lost her job in February. Her severance package included help from an employment placement service, where she goes to look for her next job.

"Sitting at home and doing it is not beneficial," she says. But she acknowledges, "I have my meltdowns."

Finding a job is a full-time job, which on this day includes a library seminar with the Executive Network Group (engchgo.org).

"I go in dressed as though I'm going to work," McCullough says. "You get to see people. You get to talk to people. You find out about opportunities."

Every few weeks, she'll even take the train into the city to work out of a job-placement office there for a change of pace.

That's what unemployed people should do.

"When you don't have a structure to your day, before you know it, your day is over, and then your six months of unemployment is over," says Mohammed Faheem, manager of business and employer services with the Illinois workNet Center (illinoisworknet.com) in Arlington Heights. "You're not shaving. You're not putting on makeup. Nine o'clock is Oprah. Twelve o'clock is Jerry Springer, and pretty soon the day is up."

In breaking out of that funk, the first stop for many suburbanites is the local library, which offers everything job-seekers need -- except jobs.

"We do see people, men and women, professionally dressed with their briefcases here for much of the day," says Vlk, of the library in Arlington Heights. Much of the training, seminars and networking possibilities offered at the library come through Vlk's networking.

"You never know when a contact will open a door," says Bob Podgorski, who, when he found himself out of work in 2003, joined other unemployed people at his Hoffman Estates church to form the St. Hubert Job & Networking Ministry. Since then, they've hooked up with 27 other parishes, libraries and government agencies and helped more than 13,000 people.

Podgorski, who now manages extension services at Harper College in Palatine, hooked up Vlk with Rich Henquinet, a human resources executive from Mount Prospect who lost his job in September. Henquinet volunteers at the library, reviewing résumés for other unemployed people.

"When I was going through grad school, I did all my research at the Arlington Heights library, so this is my way to give back," says Henquinet, who also volunteers with job services at St. Raymond Parish in Mount Prospect. Four of the people he has helped have found jobs.

"It's a lot healthier for me to be doing this than to be sitting at home watching the phone and waiting for it to ring," Henquinet says.

"This is how networking explodes, and this is why you have to get out," Vlk says. "After networking, volunteering is the No. 1 thing to do in looking for jobs."

Volunteer Matthew Prazenka, a former chief financial officer who lives in Lake County, teaches library seminars while he looks for business opportunities for himself.

"I'm busier now than I've ever been," Prazenka says.

Whether it's working with job programs at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in Naperville, attending a seminar at Gail Borden Public Library District in Elgin, or simply going to a coffee shop to update your LinkedIn profile, "you've got to be out there," says Edie Kleinman, a professional counselor who also volunteers to help job-seekers.

"Volunteer to meet the people who make decisions," Kleinman says. "It's like a dating game."

You never know where you might find that perfect match.

"Just as in the real estate market, everything is location, location, location. If you want to be contacted, you have to be visible, visible, visible," Podgorski says in his seminars.

"It's not who you know; it's who your friends know," Prazenka adds.

And looking good in public helps all that happen.

"You are at your best and looking the role of a successful business person. You are maintaining a schedule. You have a plan, a daily plan of what you are going to be doing," Podgorski says. "Job fair in morning, meeting with two people in the afternoon and meeting peers at a Panera in late afternoon. You come home for supper and you are going to be looking just like you came home from work and you are going to be talking about your productive day. You aren't doing it in the same pajamas you woke up with."

That's the attitude that keeps McCullough looking good.

"Networking," McCullough says. "It's a lifelong skill."