A team of Montclair career coaches is making a difference.
By Mark Stewart
It happens to the best of us. And that’s just the point. When the United Way of Northern New Jersey established its free career coaching program in Montclair five years ago, the employment landscape was in turmoil as America clawed its way out of a job-obliterating recession. Everyone, it seemed, had a highly skilled and motivated friend or family member who just couldn’t catch a break.
“A lot of people were going through downsizing or other transitional periods,” Durelle McPherson (right) recalls. “Some were working two or three jobs just to keep food on the table. These were skilled, experienced individuals who needed a little perspective, a little mentoring, and some basic one-on-one coaching to get the tools they were missing to move forward.”
McPherson, who manages United Way’s Montclair office and oversees the career coaching program, says the goal is simple: assist job-seekers in securing family-sustaining employment. Often the fix is a bit more complex. For instance, when clients fall into the long-term unemployed category, they are often overwhelmed or even depressed.
“A coach has to be passionate and detailed to filter through that before he or she even gets to the job-searching part.,” she explains. “We want clients to leave their session with a great deal of hope.”
The sessions are free and last about 45 minutes. There are daytime and evening coaches. The program runs Tuesdays and, if there is an overflow, also on Thursdays. McPherson says they see some remarkable people, most of whom just need some “real-world direction,” including professionals transitioning into another field. More than 500 individuals have taken advantage of the one-on-one mentoring so far.
The quality and quality of the coaches, she points out, are what has made the program a success.
“They know how to sit down, talk, and go from there,” she says. “They help clients identify their transferable skills. They help them ‘reinvent’ themselves if need be. They talk about emerging fields and what skills might be dormant in a client. Our feeling is that everyone has a gift… our job is to tease it out of them.”
Currently, six career coaches are shouldering the load. They volunteer as little as twice a month, usually conducting sessions with two clients back-to-back, so the time commitment isn’t overwhelming. The six individuals include the co-founder of an executive search firm, a work-strategist who has authored a book about the changing economy, a communications specialist, a marketing and media specialist, and two human resources professionals. Most schedule sessions in the evenings, but lunch-hour sessions are not unheard of.
All the coaches are results-oriented, as one client—a single Montclair mom with a teenage daughter—recently found. Out of a job and coming to the end of her unemployment benefits, she received confidence-building mentoring and retooled her résumé during her one visit and ended up landing a job that paid better than her last one, and offered a better path to career advancement.
“It was a god-send,” she says. “I would recommend the career coaching program to anyone.”
To a person, the coaches in the Montclair program say it is one of the most fulfilling things they have done in their lives. The people they see are extremely appreciative of their time and expertise. They are smart, stable individuals who are underemployed and scrambling to improve their financial situations.
“Most really just need a sounding board, someone to talk to, someone to lend some perspective,” says Matthew Frankel, who volunteers two or three evenings a month. “We map out goals and strategies, and also explore how to get them to a place where they feel good about themselves again. We also try to identify a person’s ‘passion points’ and look at jobs that hit those points. The results can be surprising—a high percentage improve their job situation.”
Frankel says that being in a position to help people with the skills he’s developed over 20 years has had a profound impact on his life.
“I’m moved by the stories I hear and the desire people have to improve themselves,” he says, “It’s a very powerful experience. For those who are out there and want to get involved for a couple of hours a week—and still balance family and professional life—something this fulfilling is very hard to find.”