Monday, June 15, 2009

Camping, networking and re-entering the work force

Put me in a room full of strangers and I’ll immediately recede to the background. I’ll find a place to sit with my back to a wall so I can survey the area. I prefer to observe my surroundings while deciding whether or not it’s worth participating.

That allows me to look at the others. I can often pick up details of their personalities this way. It’s something I've always done. As a reporter it became a valuable skill. The fewer people who knew I was in a room the better.

Take last Wednesday. I attended LaidOffCamp Chicago at Loyola University’s Water Tower campus. I arrived a bit early and was told to wait in the lobby with the others until we could be brought up to the 15th floor where they had the sign-in tables and held opening and closing remarks.

So I found a chair at the far end of the lobby, sat down and began scanning the room. I discovered most of the people must have the same feelings as I do about small talk. They looked up, down, to the left, to the right. But never directly at anybody else. Heaven forbid we make eye contact and have to nod a hello or – gasp! – engage in brief conversation.

Some were smart – they pecked away on their laptops or flashed their Blackberries and iPhones in desperate attempts to seem important. The young woman in a dark skirt sitting next to me kept her nose buried in a Wally Lamb book. A man paced around, making it very clear he intended to be first on the elevator when we were given the OK to go up.

As the day went on, I became more comfortable in the settings. The camp was a series of break-out sessions designed to help with the job search. It wasn’t a job fair. Instead we heard from experts in topics like writing a resume, organizing your job search and how to succeed as a freelancer.

The biggest thing I took from the event was the advice about networking. The topic came up again and again, from session to session, from sign-in to closing remarks. Apparently it’s the key to success in the 21st century.

As you may have guessed, networking is not my strong suit. It’s hard to strike up a conversation when I’m parked against the far wall scanning the room. Which, now that I think about it, could seem a bit stalkerish to some people. At the very least it's a tad creepy.

In reflecting about the event, something dawned on me. It turns out I actually do network. I even did it at the camp, meeting several people and exchanging business cards. Well, I didn’t have any business cards to exchange, so I basically just collected cards (again, that sounds vaguely creepy).

But more than that, I’m networking all the time. I have profiles on LinkedIn and Facebook, which I’m constantly checking and updating. I have profiles on Twitter and MySpace, too, though I don’t utilize them much.

It’s not just social networking either. I have tried to keep in touch with former co-workers, especially those who have escaped the newspaper industry. You never know who can help you down the road.

Case in point, my new job. I used to work with Jennifer Golz Dooley at the Sun. She was a news reporter who left to take a position in the communications department at Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove.

I stayed in touch with her through Facebook. Last month she contacted me to write a couple articles for a monthly employee newsletter produced by her department. She must have liked my work because last week she called to offer me a three-month assignment, which I accepted and began today.

It’s not full-time work and it’s temporary. But it gives me more hands-on experience outside of newspapers. I hope that continues to expand enough where I can confidently say I am self-employed.

So maybe I'm more sociable than I thought. Now if I can only stop standing against walls or sitting in corners.

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