Economic Lookout: At Duluth job club, a portrait of unemployed

MinnEcon note: JP Rennquist told us in December he was “new to unemployment” but working his contacts and staying positive. In his first Economic Lookout report, he gives us a look at the challenges of being jobless in Duluth and the hope for better days.

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JP Rennquist | Duluth

Monday Morning Job Club, Duluth. After a six week hiatus I finally returned to job club last week. And it had grown.

The club is a semi-formal gathering of unemployed people led by staff from the Minnesota workforce center and the city of Duluth workforce development program.

We had our biggest group ever.

That may have been due to the fact that we had a recruiter from Thrivent Financial for Lutherans looking to fill a few spots in its newly expanded Duluth office.

Or it may have been just that unemployment keeps rising here in Duluth, in spite of a few glimmers of hope .

I started coming to job club after I lost my non-profit job last November. It draws people from the old economy (teachers, manufacturers, construction workers) and the new economy (writers, web developers, telemarketers).

Some are displaced homemakers dealing with an empty nest, a divorce or the loss of a primary wage-earner in their family. Some are ex-prisoners navigating the difficult passage from incarceration to independence. Others are baby boomers nearing the end of their professional careers or young adults at the dawn of their working lives.

One man is trying to get back into the workforce after taking six years off to be a stay at home dad to his special needs daughter, who is now in school. Another guy, a recent addition who showed up during my hiatus, got laid off by Sam’s Club when they outsourced their food samplers to an outside firm.

The structure is pretty simple: start with who you are and the kind of work you have done or what you might be interested in doing, later we go around the tables again and share the results from our efforts or things we’d like help with. If there is time, we share goals for the next week. Along the way there is a lot of conversation and, perhaps surprisingly, a lot of laughter.

There is definitely a lifeboat philosophy there – people realize that everyone is essentially in the same boat and they offer lots of support, encouragement and ideas to other job seekers.

Each person gets a piece of heavy card stock paper to write their name on and put in front of them on the table.

When I started coming, the name cards fit neatly in two rows on just one table. Now they cover almost two full tables. There is a stack of cards about 2 inches high for people who have been gone for awhile, either for jobs or other distractions. That’s where I found mine.

I had gotten a job but instead of a new career it turned into a temporary position. They couldn’t afford me, “after all,” the owner said, sales were in a real slump.

I was a little embarrassed to go back after telling everyone I had a job. The people at job club were sorry to hear that my job didn’t work out, but they were also happy to welcome me back.

Most of them had been through something similar before.

In March Duluth’s Advanstar communications announced they were laying off 100 employees. Well, they weren’t just laying them off, the company, which specializes in publishing, events and web design, said it was outsourcing them to a company in Asia.

Some of those outsourced employees have already been to job club even though their severance packages run through the summer.

Being unemployed is not fun in this job market, it’s a real challenge, it’s demoralizing and sometimes it seems like it’s never gonna end.

But for me, and a thick stack of other attendees, Monday morning job club at least makes the job search much more bearable, and for some people who have come and moved on now, it’s helped to make their searches successful.

JP Rennquist describes himself as “pretty broke” but with a million-dollar view of Lake Superior from his modest home in Duluth’s Central Hillside neighborhood. He runs a couple of micro-businesses out of his house, does a lot of volunteering and is “waiting for his ship to come in.”

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