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Local job seekers meet at Island library

Two months ago, as headlines began announcing the “end of the recession,” Microsoft program manager Michael Surkan was laid off. The news came to the Bellevue resident as a blow. But less than a week later, he had accepted his fate, along with a pro-active plan to get back into employment.

One of Surkan’s first steps was joining the Job Seeker Network, a local networking group for those without a paycheck.

Job Seeker Network, started by Bellevue resident Lesa Keller last January, meets twice a month, alternating between the Mercer Island and Newport libraries. The group ranges from 25 people to nearly 40, and includes Island residents, according to Keller. Despite varying backgrounds, all members share one thing in common: they’re looking for a job.

“They’re from all over,” said Keller, who lost her own job in human resources earlier this year. “It’s a place where we can talk openly and learn things.”

Keller started Job Seeker Network nine months ago on her own. Having been unemployed once before, in 2001, the Renton resident knew what it was like to be “out there.”

“It takes a while before you can gather your wits about you. So many people’s identity is based on their work. It’s a tough thing to get through.”

When Keller heard that the company she worked for was going to be acquired and that several H&R employers would lose their positions, she had a sinking feeling she may lose her position. Sure enough, she received a notice of termination weeks later.

This time around, however, Keller decided that she wasn’t going to jump into the sea of job-searching alone.

She met up with an acquaintance who was also out of work over coffee. Meeting with somebody — just talking — lifted her spirits. So the two women took to the Internet and reached out to others.

“The first time I posted an announcement about our group [on a job-seeking chat page], I got a handful of responses. The second time, 15 people showed up at the meeting. Now we have between 25 and 40 people,” Keller said.

Surkan is one of those 40 people. He has attended Job Seeker Network continuously since being laid off in July. Recently, Keller asked him to speak at a meeting.

“People were interested in things I was doing; how I network,” Surkan said.

Surkan, who juggles job-searching with the responsibilities of being a father, volunteer work and several creative writing outlets, has planned a presentation called, “The Anatomy of a Novice Job Seeker’s Search.”

The former Microsoft employee said that he spends as much time helping others in the quest for employment as he does himself. And the two efforts are not mutually exclusive.

“I’ve been doing a lot of volunteer stuff — writing up strategies for people looking for jobs and talking to people. The more people you meet, the better,” he said.

Keller agrees. In fact, meeting people, she said, is the main purpose of Job Seekers.

“Part of my philosophy is building your tribe, one person at a time. A tribe is everyone who knows your name,” Keller said, adding that “even shy people” can learn to network. “This is a great way to meet people for those who hate to network.”

“It’s a content driven support group,” she added.

Each bimonthly session has a fundamental focus. Keller, who facilitates the group, invites professionals to attend meetings and help coach the Job Seekers. Topics vary from grammar lessons to getting the most out of online networking sights.

This week’s meeting, which is being held at the Mercer Island Library on Sept. 10, will focus on direct marketing. The speaker is Claudette Hatcher, who will help Job Seekers learn to “sell themselves” with confidence. The session, as are all Job Seeker meetings, is open to everyone.

Keller will continue to lead the group as long as she can. The Renton resident has not yet found a career herself. Although economists are saying that America is slowly crawling out of its recession, Keller knows that this observation does not necessarily help those in unemployment.

“It’s a jobless recovery. While the numbers are improving, it doesn’t mean that companies are running out to replace people,” she said.

Meanwhile, those who attend Keller’s group, although not sanguine about their situation, are determinedly optimistic.

“I think [Job Seeker Network] attracts people who are naturally optimistic,” Surkan observed. “The people who come are doing so because they want to be active. They want to do something about their career.”

Job Seeker Network meets at 5:45 p.m. tomorrow, Sept. 10, at the MI library. For more information or to join, contact Lesa Keller at lesa_keller@earthlink.net.

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