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Unemployed, she hopes planning a pink slip party will boost her confidence

Cara Christopherson, 40, has been in the Army, was in child welfare, including as a child protection investigator for Manatee County, and worked in human resources.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

Cara Christopherson, 40, has been in the Army, was in child welfare, including as a child protection investigator for Manatee County, and worked in human resources.

TAMPA — One day this past spring, her 371st day of unemployment, Cara Christopherson was sitting outside the Tijuana Flats near her Westchase townhome reading the job ads in the paper when she met a local businessman. They got to talking about her job search. Nothing was working.

He asked her: Ever heard of a pink slip party?

It's a common event with a catchy name.

People who are hiring and people who are looking get together in the same room, and there are speakers, snacks and drinks, and people make contacts and swap cards and hopefully somebody gets hired.

Maybe, the man thought, Christopherson could help him throw a pink slip party in the Tampa Bay area.

Maybe, she thought, she could do what she's always tried to do: help herself by helping others.

• • •

She has spent most of her working life trying to solve other people's problems.

She was in the Army for three years, at Fort Bragg, N.C., where she worked in personnel.

She was in child welfare for five years, first as a family support worker in Kansas, then as a child protection investigator for the Manatee County Sheriff's Office.

She was in human resources for parts of the last three years, doing contract work for companies in St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Tampa.

Christopherson's resume has the kinds of words somebody decided were essential to sell yourself to get ahead. "Leader." "Strategic." "Dynamic."

All true at one time or another.

But lately? Maybe not as much.

• • •

One day a couple of weeks ago, her 482nd day of unemployment, she went to the Westchase office of Jeff Stanislow, the businessman from Tijuana Flats. He runs an online marketing and advertising agency called Bay City Interactive. He is the company's only employee. Christopherson sat down at a desk and opened her laptop. She was alone.

Clipped to the wall behind her was a pamphlet, ''Managing Value in a Downturn.'' On her screen were headlines of the stalling recovery and the rising job claims. In her e-mail inbox was the daily glut of stock messages from CareerBuilder.com.

Time to work on the pink slip party. "This," she said, "has given me a purpose."

It remained to be seen whether it would give her something more than that.

The pink slip party was set for Wednesday evening at the Centre Club on West Shore and Kennedy boulevards. She helped line up a couple of motivational speakers and got recruiters to pledge attendance and nailed down sponsorships from local businesses so job-seekers could get in free.

"I want to find a job," she said, "but I want to help other people in the same position, too."

She tried to spread the word on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. In the office, she leaned back in her chair, stared at the ceiling, scrolled through a list of staffing agencies, clicked the top of her pen. What if nobody showed up?

Planning for a pink slip party sounds a lot like a job hunt these days. Job hunts sound like mouse clicks. Like the occasional keyboard clickety-clack. Breathing in an empty office.

• • •

One thing Christopherson learned working in child welfare was the resilience of children.

"I watched children pick themselves up," she said, "and heal."

And adults?

Are they resilient?

"Not to the same degree," she said. "True resiliency, I think, in part comes from an ability to forget. And I don't think there are many adults who can just forget.

"When you're unemployed," she explained, "you're questioning everything you do. You're questioning yourself."

She has trouble selling herself. She doesn't like it. Doesn't think she's any good at it. She took drama class and became a cheerleader her last two years in high school to overcome her shyness.

"My confidence," she said, "is not what it used to be."

Before heading to the pink slip party that she helped plan, she said, she would have to give herself a pep talk: I'm an interesting person. I can make people laugh. I made it through basic training. I got my master's degree in just over a year and I was working full time. I've been through a lot. I can do a lot. I can do it well. I will do it well.

• • •

She showed up in black heels, a black skirt and a sleeveless red top. There were eight tables in an eighth-floor room, fruit and cheese, coffee and tea, cash bar. On a table off to the side were books with titles like Inspiration to Realization and Mission Impossible, and on the check-in table was a sign-in sheet, blank.

It started to rain. Drops flicked the windows and stuck.

"No," Christopherson said to herself. "No rain."

People started to appear. People without jobs. People with jobs, too: a recruiter from Levin Financial, a managing partner from Central IQ, a "relationship manager" from Raymond James who brought fancy pens and blue tote bags and a list of open jobs. The sign-in sheet filled up — to 43.

Christopherson reached into her black bag and got out her own business cards. She stuck her name tag to the front of her red shirt and left a lipstick stain on her glass of white wine.

The small-talk patter got louder.

"So you do HR?" a woman asked.

"I used to be in social services, child welfare," Christopherson said. "I finally found a job I loved, and was really good at, and then there was a hiring freeze ..."

Trouble selling herself.

Stanislow turned on the microphone, the people got settled and he introduced Christopherson as "the driver of this event."

"If you're like me," she told everybody, "you just don't know what to do anymore. There are jobs out there, but there are so many people. How do you do this in today's economy?"

She described her professional background like this: "In a nutshell, military, child welfare, recruiting."

Undersold again.

After the two speakers, though, after the microphone went away, the vibe in the room turned more informal and intimate. Now it was everybody talking with each other, swapping stories, trading tips. And Christopherson was not only someone who needed a job but someone who had advice to give based on experience earned. She stood up and spoke up, confident and natural, selling herself without thinking she was. It wasn't so much the words. Everybody always says the same things at these events. It was how she said it. People listened. "Dynamic."

On his way out, a man from realestatelives.org gave her his card, with a message written on the back: "Cara. Great Event. Let us know if we can help ... "

The next day, she sent e-mails thanking people who had come, answered e-mails from people thanking her for setting it up, and also got a couple of phone calls, she said, from people who knew some recruiters with some jobs who might be able to help.

Day 490.

Times staff writer Robert Trigaux and news researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

Unemployed, she hopes planning a pink slip party will boost her confidence 08/29/10 [Last modified: Monday, August 30, 2010 8:21am]

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