Published June 29, 2011
Steve Colella earned a divinity degree, but became a vocational counselor instead of a priest.
You can find him on certain nights at the public library in West Warwick, R.I., ministering to people so demoralized by the economy they can barely even look for a job anymore.
They've been searching for 77 weeks, on average, by the time they meet him. "That's a year and a half of hearing 'No.' Of hearing, 'We're not hiring,' or 'We'll call you,'" Colella said.
They also hear the news: Jobless claims were up big last week, indicating a softening recovery ahead. The unemployment rate is 9.1% nationally, and 10.9% in Rhode Island, one of the nation's highest.
Bad news drones in Rhode Island like the factories and machine shops that once ran there. Stanley Black & Decker Inc. (SWK), for one example, continues closing its nail and staple plant in stages by December 2012. For want of a globally competitive nail, a kingdom was lost.
Colella, 56 years old, who works as a counselor at the University of Massachusetts, said he is mostly providing "grief counseling" in the state where he resides. A job loss can be as profound as any other kind of human loss, particularly these days when jobs are not easily replaced. The gainfully employed do not realize how quickly they could lose their confidence, dignity, respect and self-worth were they to lose their job.
Since voluntarily forming his club in 2009, Colella strives only to prevent just a few souls at a time from becoming discouraged job-seekers -- the statistically ignored folks who help hold down the nation's official unemployment rate by giving up their searches.
"If you're doing that, you're not even in the game," Colella said. "And then you've got no chance."
But keeping hope alive is grueling.
Jon Polis, 55, his lost his job as a warehouse receiver for a home medical provider in March 2008. He's since applied for hundreds of jobs, only to receive a handful of interviews.
On one interview, he was asked if he knew a certain brand of warehousing software. "Whatever you do, don't say you are a quick learner," he says now. "Everybody says that. .. But what was I supposed to say?"
Truth be told, Polis worked with paper in three-ring binders for most of his warehousing career. He says employers won't invest in on-the-job training, while the software knowledge they require is often so company specific, he s been unable to learn it anywhere else.
He has, however, become computer savvy enough to keep his job-search alive online, joining social-networking sites and trolling websites for opportunities.
"At computer speed, you can get rejected 800 times a minute," he said.
Polis said Colella taught him to not take rejection from machines personally. What's worse than this is not hearing anything at all--the most common result of filing a job application these days. Polis said he's gotten used to that, too.
Since losing his job, he's blown through 99 weeks of unemployment benefits. He now collects Social-Security benefits and lives in his late parents' house--at least until it sells.
Others he meets aren't quite so lucky. "They can't pay their bills," he said. "They're going into foreclosure. They're at the end of their ropes."
Colella says the folks he's trying to help are largely middle class. Too rich for welfare. Too downtrodden by relentless economic forces to find meaningful work on their own.
He's hoping the federal government will do more to develop opportunities for the unemployed and underemployed middle class. He sees the erosion of their souls, first-hand.
"When you've lost your desire and motivation to be a human being, then we're in serious trouble," he said.
So far, Colella said he has served 93 people through the job club he voluntarily formed. Of those, 33 have found jobs paying an average of about $15 an hour. It is the service to mankind he once sought as a theology student.
"I don't do any magic," he said. "I'm not the messiah."
(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. Contact Al at email@example.com or tellittoal.com)