Fort Worth Career Search Network fetes first birthday

The Fort Worth Career Search Network had modest beginnings a year ago this week: 12 people at its first meeting, including the three volunteer co-founders.

These days, the all-volunteer network's flagship group, which gathers Mondays at North Fort Worth Baptist Church, regularly sees 60 to 70 job seekers at its meetings -- a mix of networking, elevator speech practice, pep talks and job search brush-up.

The Career Search Network now has more than 20 branches, including specialty groups such as human resources, information technology and marketing/advertising. Churches offer the space for free, and the network organizes the volunteer leaders.

The group has added free résumé reviews, interview practice and training workshops. It established relationships with the Texas Workforce Commission and and networked with recruiters and employers. It estimates that its members are landing jobs at a relatively constant rate of 17 percent.

"A year ago, it was pretty bleak," said Paul Vercher, a former Home Depot human resources manager and network co-founder who's looking for a job himself. "We thought there was an opportunity to help people pick up the pieces and focus."

On tap for this year: a move to nonprofit tax status; establishment of a detailed database on the network's 500 members and how their job searches are playing out; a fundraising launch; more training programs; and a bigger press on employers.

"I want to see more of us going to corporations and saying, 'I've got a roomful of individuals that can add value to your organization,'" Vercher said. "'Why aren't your recruiters at my doorsteps? I can bring your sourcing costs down to zero. You can keep paying Monster $15,000 if you want. You can come to us and pay nothing.'"

The Star-Telegram sat down last week with Vercher and other group leaders: recruiter Foster Williams, whose Web site powers the network's jobs board; volunteer coordinator Ret Martin, a former Dunlap Co. administrator and HR manager; database manager Milo Rixe, a former American Airlines manager; registration and speaker coordinator Tammy Philpot-McCune, a former HR rep at Computer Sciences Corp.; résumé review coordinator Christopher Eberhardt, a former Motorola engineering manager; and newcomers Marla Lee, an attorney, and Robert Bair Jr., an HR man.

Here are excerpts from the conversation:

What does the experience of your members say about the job market?

Vercher: That the active layoff process is beginning to slow. There are people still right-sizing; people are still losing jobs. We still have new membership each week.

Rixe: The interview process is still taking a long time. Companies are going very slow.

Vercher: Before, you may have had three critical requirements for the job function; you now have a list of maybe 18. This lengthy process is not cost-effective, but it keeps the candidate warm [for when] they have the budget. We're seeing a lot of that. A lot of multiple interviews. Five-hour interviews. In a hot job market, you just didn't see that.

Rixe: Statistically, we had a little bit of a burst with our members in terms of [job] landings toward the end of the year and in January, presumably because people got budget authority to hire. February's been a little bit slower.

How would a more formal approach to employers work?

Vercher: Active sourcing. We've got the résumés posted, profiles built. We're in the process of identifying the segments the job search community wants. If I'm Corporation X and I want to find recruiters, it's a matter possibly of going to the recruiters section on our Web site. One thing I want the business community to realize: When somebody flows through the CSN, they're changed for the better. Employers can pick up somebody who's been a volunteer here. They've got skills they otherwise wouldn't have had.

What are the network's biggest sectors?

Vercher: We're weighted heavily with HR and IT [information technology].

Are you seeing more of certain sectors now than before?

Philpot-McCune: We're seeing more blue-collar. For them to network, I think that shows how cultural change of how to get a job is growing.

What kind of budget does this organization have?

Vercher: Zero. It's all pocket-driven.

Martin: There's a wealth of talent in the D-FW area that is more than willing to share their knowledge. You can look at our speaker list and see examples of professionals who are working full time and are willing to jump out and share their knowledge.

What changes with gaining not-for-profit 501(c)3 tax status?

Vercher: More formalization, while keeping it as lean as possible. If we want training courses on-site, we need laptops and projectors. If we had funding, we could provide more hands-on training. These individuals we get to participate in training, there would be reimbursement for their services. Volunteers would be funded, possibly, depending on the dollars coming in the door. These volunteers could possibly find themselves in a role of senior vice president, executive vice president, of a large organization.

Scott Nishimura, 817-390-7808