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Jobs picture improving, but area's laid-off professionals still need work

The U.S. Labor Department jobs reports are glowing - unemployment down to 5.5 percent last month and a robust 295,000 jobs added to the nation's payrolls.

The U.S. Labor Department jobs reports are glowing - unemployment down to 5.5 percent last month and a robust 295,000 jobs added to the nation's payrolls.

Even in the Philadelphia suburbs, the latest figures show the rate even lower, at 5 percent.

But why, if everything is so good, are monthly sessions packed at My Career Transitions, a local networking group of volunteers who help people looking for work?

"It's not as rosy as the numbers indicate," said Michael Hughes. "I see new faces every month."

Nearly 100 people came out to a free session at Penn State's Great Valley campus in Malvern on a miserable Saturday morning to hear a speaker talk about battling the mental misery that accompanies unemployment and underemployment.

Cheryl Bonner talked about "overcoming stinkin' thinkin' " and "awfulizing."

"It's OK to feel sad" about a lost job, said Bonner, director of alumni career services for Pennsylvania State University, "but after a while we begin to beat ourselves up."

These days, there are many networking and support groups for the unemployed. My Career Transitions attracts college-educated people, most at least in their mid-40s and many older; most of them professionals - and most of them suburban whites.

"This is a microcosm," said Hughes, who serves on the organization's board. He had lost a job in banking and now works full time as a business adviser at Community College of Philadelphia.

In this group, the struggle is to return to full-time employment. Many have cycled in and out of contract assignments that may (or may not) pay well, without benefits or security.

Natalie Fitzgerald, of Devon, juggles three per diem contract jobs and her job search, which she calls "a full-time job."

Laid off from her sales and business development job in medical devices in October 2011, she was kept out of her field for two years because of a non-compete agreement. In that time she earned a graduate degree in business administration and a $700 monthly payment in student debt.

"I went from a six-figure income to barely paying the mortgage," said Fitzgerald, a volunteer for the group. "It's a big emotional roller coaster."

Annamarie Walter, president of the group, and Hughes said new members were still coming from the changing pharma sector, from financial services, even from information technology.

Among the relative newcomers was Larry Schmidt, of Glenside, a manufacturing engineer laid off in January after 25 years. When he looks at job postings for the same kind of jobs that he has had, the qualifications look daunting, even though, until January, he was doing the work.

"You get discouraged. They are looking for the perfect person," he told volunteer Karen DeLise on Saturday.

"The reality is, there is no perfect person," DeLise reassured. She advised him to concentrate on the first three or four requirements listed in a job posting.

DeLise, of Glen Mills, who had been unemployed for six months, starts a new job Monday in leadership development. "I'm excited," she said.

My Career Transitions was founded 10 years ago by marketing specialist and Penn State graduate Bart Ruff, who at the time had recently lost his job.

For More Information

Name: My Career Transitions.

What: Free job-search advice, networking.

When: Second Saturdays; 9:45 a.m.; 8:30 a.m. for new attendees.

Where: Penn State Great Valley, main building, Malvern.

Web: EndText