The next session of Stephen Colella’s nationally recognized Job Club RI will begin on Aug. 5 with the hope of keeping up their 55 percent success rate for finding new employment for members.
A vocational rehabilitation counselor for the University of Massachusetts Worcester who helps students and injured employees with career counseling, Colella created the Club in October 2009 as a community-based organization to help members exchange ideas and information on improved job searches, résumés, cover letters, interview skills, follow-up skills, Internet job searching techniques and the hidden job market.
A resident of Warwick, Colella saw the Rhode Island economy starting to go down in 2009 and asked himself what he could do to help.
“I initially thought of starting a support group,” explained Colella, who has also worked as a chaplain at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “My fear was it would turn into a weekly woe’s me session.”
A self-proclaimed optimist who sees the glass half-full, Colella decided to use his skills as a vocational counselor to help people become successful in the ever-changing world of job searching.
With the help of a friend who is a reference librarian at the West Warwick Library, Colella designed the first six-week session of Job Club RI.
Six people attended that session, and three were able to get jobs with Colella’s coaching.
Now the Club, which meets on Mondays at 6:30 p.m. at the West Warwick Library, has between 35 and 50 people in a six-week session, with an average of 35 new members each cycle. Since 2009, a total of 370 individuals have taken part in at least one six-week session.
The majority of members are from the Kent County area, but others come from every part of the state, and even Connecticut and Massachusetts. The average age of a Job Club member is 40 years or older, and on average they have been unemployed for 50 weeks.
Colella says the average unemployed person searches for a job for four hours, four days a week. That means Club members may have spent 800 hours searching, with no luck.
He also explained that the majority of members have lost their jobs, are living on temp jobs to survive or are significantly underemployed in their current positions.
Colella says he tries to focus on helping those considered middle-class, however, he would never deny someone membership.
“We turn no one away,” said Colella, adding that members find out about the Club through word of mouth or referrals from the Department of Labor and Training.
“I was doing my goodie-two shoes, volunteer thing,” said Colella.
He says Job Club RI reached a turning point on March 22, 2011 when the Providence Journal ran an article about the program and its success.
Soon after, Colella began getting calls from outlets like the Huffington Post and the Wall Street Journal, Buddy Cianci and, eventually, the United States Department of Labor (DOL).
“The Obama administration is trying to create 300 job clubs across the country,” said Colella.
The DOL hoped to use Job Club RI as a model, but their focus on individuals making $20,000 a year or less did not match with what Colella is hoping to accomplish. He aims to place people in living-wage jobs, earning at least $22 per hour, not minimum wage positions.
The Club has also gotten attention from Rhode Island officials. Visitors to Job Club RI meetings include Lt. Governor Elizabeth Roberts and staffers from senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse’s offices.
With the exception of Congressman Jim Langevin, who Colella says was instrumental in helping Job Club RI earning 501c3 status, he has not received support from government officials aside from a pat on the back.
“I didn’t ask for a dime,” says Colella, who explains that currently the Club requires no funding. He simply has the space reserved at the West Warwick Library and brings his knowledge. The library provides refreshments at the meetings.
In an attempt to expand Job Club RI across the state, Colella has tried to apply for grants but has been unsuccessful. While he doesn’t require funding for the club currently because he volunteers his time, Colella explained that expanding would require hiring trained vocational counselors to operate other clubs.
And the interest is there. Through word of mouth, Colella says other libraries and communities have expressed interest in starting job clubs.
“Thank God for the West Warwick Public Library,” said Colella. He feels publicity from the library and their programming meetings with libraries throughout the state have led increased interest in expanding the program.
However, to expand the program, Colella says he needs support.
“I can’t do it myself,” explained Colella.
While giving up two hours on a Monday night for the meeting is nothing, Colella explained that he works on Job Club RI for at least 25 hours a week, in addition to his 40-hour-a-week job at UMass.
He said during evenings and on the weekends, he is helping members with individual counseling, reading and editing cover letters and résumés, finding jobs for his members to apply for, and finding companies to join the Job Bank.
Companies in the Job Bank, meaning companies that have agreed to have HR representatives assigned to look at applications from Club members, include AAA New England, Johnson & Wales University, Rhode Island School of Design, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Citizens Bank, Cardi’s Furniture and CVS Corporation. There are a total of 28 companies involved in the program.
Colella says the biggest benefit of Job Club RI is that members who may not be getting interviews on their own receive acknowledgement from these large companies.
“When they are acknowledged, you can see how it transforms them,” said Colella. “What you are doing for them is giving them some acknowledgement.”
And he stresses that is all members may receive. Being in the club does not guarantee employment at a company in the Job Bank. It simply guarantees that an HR person will read the résumé.
“If I can help them get through the door to an internal recruiter, I am out after that,” said Colella.
Colella says the most important skill he can teach club members is to “understand how employers hire and what they are looking for during an interview.”
He added that 95 percent of the résumés he sees are too task heavy, meaning that they focus on tasks performed at previous jobs. Colella says individuals should try to quantify past experience instead, such as knowing the number of successful sales calls they have placed.
Guest speakers also attend meetings such as HR representatives from CVS. Colella explained that the CVS representatives come in twice a session to help club members practice in-person and phone interviews.
Job searching skills is not the only thing Colella says his club members gain.
“There is an element of support,” he says. “And a lot of them come for networking.”
Colella says the members can serve as a resource for one another because of their various connections to other companies. Like a real-life LinkedIn, members are featured on a contact sheet with their desired employment field. If one member has a contact at a company in the field of a fellow member, they can, and do, pass that information along.
In addition, those who have passed through the program and found employment do not vanish into the workplace. Colella says many of them return to support the club, provide networking and even design promotional materials. Colella’s business card, club brochure and club website were all designed by former members at no cost. They simply wanted to give back to Colella for his help during their time of need. Colella says this is a testament to how much this program has helped people and how much they appreciate it.
“I know how much the people value and appreciate what I am doing,” said Colella. “That’s why I am doing it.”
No registration is required for a session of Job Club RI. Interested persons can just attend one or more meetings. The next session will run on Mondays from Aug. 5 to Sept. 9 at 6:30 p.m. at the West Warwick Public Library. For more information, log on to the Club’s website, www.jobclubri.org.