RIVER EDGE, N.J. - He had lost his job, house, car and credit. His online applications disappeared in a black hole, and optical software rejected his résumé based on mysterious keywords.
Finally, John Fugazzie decided that job seekers like him had no one to turn to except themselves. So he started a job-search support group based on the belief that unless you're out of work, you don't really understand someone who is.
In the group's first year, dozens of members got jobs. Fugazzie, who was hired as a $125,000-a-year A&P supermarkets division manager, was No. 3.
Last September, he was invited because of his volunteer efforts to a White House jobs conference.
Two weeks later, he was invited into his boss's office and laid off.
Five years after the start of the Great Recession, housing starts are up, bankruptcy filings down. Yet 12 million Americans still are out of work, 41% of them for at least six months. The jobless rate crept back up to 7.9% in December.
"Unless you have a job," Fugazzie says, "the recession isn't over."
Many of those seeking work join support groups like Fugazzie's. Ben Seigel of the U.S. Labor Department estimates there are 10,000 such groups, most formed in the past few years. He calls them the recovery's "unsung heroes."
Some are organized by religious institutions or non-profit agencies, and led by paid professionals. Others take the isolation and desperation of being jobless in a jobless recovery to its logical conclusion: They are run by job seekers for job seekers.
One is Neighbors-helping-Neighbors, the network of local support groups that emerged from the first Fugazzie founded here two years ago. A weekly session at a public library is part AA meeting, part Weight Watchers check-in.
Members sit around a table. Everyone starts with a 30-second introduction - name, experience, expertise, expectations - followed by what they did to find work last week, and what they vow to do this week. They exchange contact information, search tips, maybe a job lead.
They speak the language of the job search subculture. To get a job is to "land." A "contract" is not a legal document but a short-term job without benefits. A seasonal sales job is "a temporary assignment." One is never unemployed, merely "in transition."
More than anything, members savor the companionship of others who endure indignities such as group phone interviews, fickle headhunters and online job boards that list jobs long filled.
They've learned to expect only so much empathy from friends, former colleagues, even spouses. "Unless you've been in a protracted job search, you can't commiserate," says Kim Caudill, a human resources specialist who attends several Neighbors-helping-Neighbors weekly meetings. "People in this group understand what a grind it is."
He says the group offers "a nice contrast to the rest of the job-search world. It's brick and mortar and real faces, instead of getting lost in cyberspace."
Neighbors-helping-Neighbors was the result of Fugazzie's desperation. In 2010, after the collapse of his retail marketing consulting business, he'd moved back in with his mother, into the house he grew up in, along with his wife and three sons. His job search was stalled.
He dropped in on a local job club. But it met only once a month; its leader already had work; sessions meandered. And members spent as much time bemoaning their situation as figuring how to change it - "a pity party," he calls it.
After that group petered out, Fugazzie and a few holdovers started another one that met weekly. The tone was positive, the agenda simple, the pace brisk. Members held each other accountable for what they'd said they'd do to find work. Those who landed were expected to "pay it forward" by passing along leads and staying in touch.
Peddlers of services like financial planning or job counseling, who sometimes seek to infiltrate or lead such groups, were banned.
Although each local group had one or two regular "facilitators," the format was designed so that any member could fill the role. "If you can't take a simple agenda and lead a meeting, then you're never gonna find a job," Fugazzie would say.
As word of the group spread, Fugazzie was asked to start others at libraries in other towns. The total now stands at 26 - 25 throughout New Jersey and one in Boston.
"The end game," Fugazzie likes to tell Neighbors members, "is for you to disappear."
They do. Over the past two years more than 230 people of the 1,000-plus who've attended meetings have found work. They're a ghostly presence at every meeting, reminders of what can happen.
River Edge members take heart from success stories such as Susan DeBaun, who got a consulting job with Univision & ABC to launch a joint-venture cable network, and Doug Brooks, a lawyer who landed with Bloomberg Law in New York.
The list of Neighbors' success stories is filled with members who got jobs because of the wisdom of the group - a tip about an online course, a strategy for using LinkedIn to contact a hiring manager, an insight into how paralegal skills might be relevant to sales.
Fugazzie says that job seekers often give more credence to each other than to experts who aren't facing daily rejections. "In this group, we're all in the same boat," Fugazzie says. "If the leader is employed, a career coach or something, it's not the same."
Seigel, deputy director of the Labor Department's Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, spoke last month at Neighbors' second anniversary gathering.
He says labor experts used to discount job clubs because members didn't stay connected, especially after they found work. But that may have changed, he says, because of the lingering impact of the recession and how the labor market itself has changed.
First, the recession created an enormous pool of people who have been unemployed, many for the first time. Some formed friendships and alliances in job clubs. "It's like after (Superstorm) Sandy or any disaster," Seigel says. "If you go through a battle with someone ... there's loyalty."
Graduates of job clubs, he says, "come back to help. I can't tell you how many times I've heard, 'Pay it forward.'"
Second, workers now hold jobs for shorter periods, change them more often, and do more part-time, consulting and contract work. As job search becomes a more-or-less continuous state, the job club becomes more vital.
Neighbors-helping-Neighbors assumes that almost everyone should be ready to search for work, because almost everyone is a step away from the next job search - or the first.
Employment counselors such as Abby Kohut and Cynthia Clark, who've been invited to speak to local Neighbors groups, say they're impressed by how, at a time when most new jobs pay lower wages, many of its members have gotten relatively high-paying ones.
Many also take part-time work - making sandwiches, selling cosmetics, caring for children. Fugazzie counts all as "success stories." Indeed, he includes anyone who attended a meeting and lands a job, even if the decisive lead or tactic did not come through a Neighbors connection.
Support groups such as Neighbors, however, unquestionably succeed at making members feel better about themselves. That helps them keep searching, which helps improve their chances of landing.
Scott Hildebrant, a former hotel chain marketing manager, has been job hunting for the past year. He says the club helps him keep going: "You kind of get beat down. This energizes you. It gives you hope. You think, 'I can do this.'"
Losing a job, finding a vocation
The founder of the network that has helped so many people find jobs has been unable to find one himself.
When he was laid off four months ago, the first thing Fugazzie did was e-mail all the other members. "Your fearless leader," he announced, "needs a job." That night, when his local club met, he was there.
Nothing has turned up. "I'm struggling with my own search," Fugazzie admitted at a recent meeting of Neighbors local group leaders. He worries that he's not much of a role model, but he's convinced that an applicant of his age for a full-time management position winds up in what he jokingly calls a company's "old guy pile."
At 58, he is living on a $611 weekly unemployment check. He has no credit card, no health insurance, no cellphone. The dented 15-year-old van in the driveway needs a starter and a battery. He has to borrow his mother's car, or his son's. He used a friend's to drive to the White House conference.
Fugazzie, who has an MBA from Rutgers University and worked for three decades in retail marketing, says he never thought he'd be in this position. But he seems, despite his money problems, to be happy. In losing his job, he found his calling.
"Doing Neighbors-helping-Neighbors has been like having a job again. I feel like I'm back in the work zone," he says. The last two years have been the most rewarding of his adult work life. "Making an impact on people's lives," he says, "is so much better than hitting a sales target."
(Copyright © 2013 USA TODAY)