Grassroots Support Groups for the Unemployed

How a New Jersey man created an extensive network of local meet-ups for out-of-work people to help one another.

By late 2010, John Fugazzie realized that his job search was just not successful. He had tried reaching out to former professional contacts in the food industry, which he'd worked in for more than 20 years. He'd treated his job search like a full-time gig, stationing himself at his computer day after day to send out résumés. None of it helped him gain traction. "Looking for work like I always had was going nowhere," says Fugazzie, now 59. "I was becoming very frustrated sitting at home."

To get out of the house, Fugazzie attended a networking group for jobless workers at his local library. But the meeting provided little in the way of job-hunting tips and too much venting that spirals into helpless frustration. Fugazzie liked the idea of gathering together with other unemployed people but thought that meetings needed structure and direction in order to be truly useful.

So in January 2011, with zero funding, Fugazzie started his own local group for out-of-work people in River Edge, New Jersey, near his home. He sought advice from two human-resources professionals, who urged him to think of his fledgling meet-up as a support group that made job seekers accountable—like Weight Watchers' weekly meetings, only for the unemployed, to help them chart their job progress. It was the start of something.

Fugazzie developed an agenda and a checklist of tasks that unemployed people should try accomplish as they search for work. He learned that meetings ran smoothest if roughly a dozen participated and if individuals within the group took turns running the sessions, so everyone felt some investment in the effort. By 2013, the group, called Neighbors-Helping-Neighbors, had expanded to 40 New Jersey cities and towns and had built an active online presence, including a LinkedIn group of 3,600 current and former members. Fugazzie even started advising groups as far away as Boston and Spain on ways to set up local Neighbors-Helping-Neighbors chapters. And he visited the White House—alongside CEOs of major companies—to talk through the best strategies for helping the long-term unemployed.

For Fugazzie, the group gave him a platform through which to share his personal experiences with unemployment. "The mistake is to think that the job market has not changed," he says about today's economic conditions. "The other mistake is to not put a ton of work into your job search. You are marketing yourself."

For Roderick Negron, a 54-year-old New Jersey resident, Neighbors-Helping-Neighbors gave him the support he needed after he got laid off from Sony, where he had worked as a product manager for roughly two decades. "I needed to regroup with like-minded people," Negron says. "It's easier to take advice from someone who has been there."

Negron first came to the Bergen County branch of Neighbors-Helping-Neighbors in 2011 following his layoff. The group helped him review his résumé, do mock interviews, strategize about the best ways to get the attention of potential employers, and connect him with potential job leads.

Negron eventually found a contract job and then a full-time one, which lasted about a year and half before he got laid off again. Now, he has been out of work since April 2014 and is living off savings. Despite the disappointments and uncertainty a job search can bring, Negron says that he looks forward to his weekly Neighbors-Helping-Neighbors sessions. The meetings usually last for two hours on Monday mornings: a kickoff to what everyone hopes will be a productive week. When one of the participants gets a job, the group celebrates with a bagel breakfast, and past members stay connected to help others with ongoing job searches.

Part of Fugazzie's philosophy with Neighbors-Helping-Neighbors is that older, unemployed workers need to approach their job search with different expectations. They should not be afraid to take contract jobs to jump back into the workforce, nor should they shun the idea of taking a pay cut, working with younger people, or cobbling together various freelance gigs to make ends meet. It can sound like harsh advice, but Fugazzie wants people to approach their searches with an open mind and not fixate, as many white-collar professionals do, on landing another six-figure gig. "If you think you will replace the job you once had, you are totally ignorant to the way the world has changed," Fugazzie says. "Most of the jobs coming back in the economy now are at lower salary levels."

Fugazzie himself has had to come to terms with this economic reality. He now works for the New Jersey Community College Consortium for Workforce and Economic Development, for which he helps to connect New Jersey employers with the long-term unemployed. The job came about as an outgrowth of his advocacy. He also teaches two courses at a nearby college, but he still earns 50 percent less than he did in his last job and had to move in with his mom and brother.

Most of all, Fugazzie acts as a spokesman for the long-term unemployed: someone who does not forget that millions of Americans have still been out-of-work for six months or longer. "With the perception of the economy improving, people in the group worry that they will be left behind and forgotten. And, in many ways, I think they have been," says Don Sciolaro, a volunteer with Neighbors-Helping-Neighbors. "John has represented the interests of people who are struggling and who are not officially organized."