Until last year, Wes Padoll hadn't worried about looking for work since the Nixon administration. The next opportunity always presented itself before Padoll was even in the job market.
Then, a year ago, he lost his job.
"The world was on hold," said Padoll, 59, of New Port Richey.
For too many people, it still is. That's why more and more unemployed white-collar workers are turning to focused, near-daily networking to find a job.
With unemployment in Tampa Bay topping 10 percent, simply e-mailing resumes to companies rarely works. And not all employers post open jobs.
So to find the jobs that are out there, networking advocates say job seekers need to come up with a list of targets, then work on meeting people who know someone who works where they want to work. That imperative is pushing many professionals into uncharted territory.
Take Padoll. For decades, he got up, put on a tie and went to work as an information technology project manager.
These days, he still puts on that tie. But now networking is his full-time job.
And it ain't easy.
• • •
It's 9 a.m. Monday, and Padoll starts his week at the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance inside the old Floriland Mall north of downtown Tampa. One by one, 61 people stand up and introduce themselves to the alliance's weekly networking group for professionals.
It's a sobering exercise. Most are over 40. At least 10 are in information technology. Eight are in marketing. Eight more come from human resources.
The list goes on: Accountant. Architect. Lawyer. Teacher. Social worker. Insurance agent. Pharmaceutical sales rep. Licensed mental health counselor. Certified fraud examiner.
Management is represented, too: the former owner of a real estate firm, an ex-chief financial officer and a former senior vice president of real estate development. One speaker is a published author. Another has earned an MBA, a doctorate in economics and a prestigious Fulbright grant to study abroad.
"Now you get a sense of the talent we have in the room," group facilitator Fanny Leal says.
During the introductions, each participant gives their "elevator pitch" — a one-minute summary highlighting their strengths and ambitions.
As usual, Padoll mentions his Top Secret security clearances at the Pentagon.
"There are some things I can't tell you about, but you all have heard that before," he said.
Sometimes, he jokes that he used to sort UFO parts at Area 51 just to see if anyone is listening. Mostly, he wants to signal that he's been vetted thoroughly and can be trusted.
The group gets two pep talks, one on cultivating resilience, from private employment consultants. The meeting is one of five events — three networking meetings, a job fair and a dinner of professional project managers — Padoll will attend in one week on both sides of the bay.
At each, he sees a half-dozen or so familiar faces. The regulars occasionally meet for coffee and keep in touch, sharing intelligence and support. They often talk about how to get around screening software that rejects a resume before it's ever seen by a real human being.
At times, it's hard to believe the talent that is going unused, Padoll says.
"It's like having a gold mine that nobody's mining," he says. "Gold nuggets lying in the river that people are walking by because nobody's looking."
• • •
Networking in this recession demands organization, patience and persistence. You have to figure out what you can offer an employer, what gives you an edge over hundreds of other candidates.
Experts say you also need a plan — what employers you will target, how you'll meet people who might know someone there and what you'll say. That means working to make contacts not knowing whether they'll lead to job interviews in a few weeks, a few months or ever.
"The game has changed from hunting to farming," Padoll says.
With so many people chasing so few jobs, employers seem ready to latch on to any reason, like being over-qualified, to brush off an applicant.
"If you buy a product, and the product is better than you expect, that's a problem?" Padoll said. "I don't get that."
Until last March, Padoll's employment history had been steady, varied and rewarding.
Straight out of the Air Force in 1972, Padoll accepted a job offer from future presidential candidate H. Ross Perot himself to join EDS's computer engineering development program. Then it was on to Xerox, followed by half a dozen more employers.
Padoll specialized in fixing complex projects that had gone awry. Over the years, he worked on projects for the National Security Agency, the Federal Aviation Administration, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard.
In his last job, Padoll made $71,000 a year, plus commissions. Still, he wasn't worried when he lost that job. He didn't even apply for unemployment benefits. He figured he would find a job quickly.
Padoll spent months contacting recruiters and acquaintances, doing research and applying for jobs online. But with companies getting 400 to 700 resumes per posting, those who stay home and apply online are usually the last to find jobs, said Carolann Mannix, professional career solutions program manager for WorkNet Pinellas.
Then a former colleague, also unemployed, told Padoll about a networking event. Padoll was skeptical but went to a WorkForce Alliance meeting. He heard about a group called the Transitioning Professionals of Tampa Bay. Now, every Thursday morning Padoll and about two dozen others meet at a Rocky Point office building just across the street from his last job.
The free program has been run by financial advisers Paul Ferreri and Rob Wolf. In a self-published book, A Road Map to Re-Employment, they lay out 12 steps for self-assessment, setting goals, writing a plan and targeting opportunities.
What they offer is experience (they've been downsized out of jobs in corporate America), contacts (more than 5,000 people have gone through their program) and tough love worthy of American Idol judge Simon Cowell.
"You. Are. Lazy," Ferreri tells a couple of group members at a recent meeting. They had committed to writing a marketing plan for themselves but hadn't done it.
He goes on: It's not like you have a lot of other things to do. You're not employed. So it must be laziness.
Part of it's play-acting, he says, but the idea is to keep them focused and hold them accountable.
Since starting seriously networking around the first of the year, Padoll said he has come to like it. The social interaction does a lot to overcome the isolation of not working. And he said he works at it seriously, though Ferreri and Wolf still ride him about little things.
Like name tags.
Over pizza and salad on a recent Wednesday, Wolf asks Padoll if he has business cards and a name tag ready for a job fair that afternoon.
Many hardcore networkers get a customized name tag made at an office supply store. It helps them stand out from everyone else milling around with hand-lettered stick-on tags. Months into his networking, Padoll doesn't have one.
Why not? Wolf asks. You have just six or seven seconds to make a first impression. Why not take that one little step?
Then he mentions two people who recently got jobs. Both wore name tags.
Maybe there's something to it, Padoll concedes.
"I'm going to be so mad if that's it," he says. "I've been looking for a much bigger issue."
• • •
But name tags are only part of it.
Every Thursday, Wolf and Ferreri have a few class members account for how they spent their week.
How many events did you go to? How many where the people there had jobs? (This is key, they say, because networking only with other unemployed people doesn't help much.) How many business cards did you get? Meetings with contacts? Phone calls? Letters written? Applications sent? Interviews? Hours spent online?
If the last number is too high, it's a problem. It's too easy, they say, to fritter time away on the computer.
Based on what they're seeing, it can take four to five months of intense networking to land a job that pays $50,000, Wolf said. For jobs that pay six figures, searches can take a year or more.
Padoll estimates he's applied for 100 jobs in the past year. Because he targets his applications, he has had 20 to 25 face-to-face or telephone interviews.
He's turned down a couple of jobs that weren't good fits, such as sales jobs that would require him to try selling to everyone in his Rolodex but then would prohibit him from contacting them again for a year after he left the job.
That leaves five possibilities still working — three are in the Tampa Bay area and one each in Atlanta and Washington, D.C.
Padoll, who is married with four children, ages 19 to 37, estimates that his savings will hold up for another six months to a year. If he can't make something happen by then, he'll look for some other kind of sales job.
But he vows not to fail because of a lack of effort. And even now, before the job offer he's seeking, he sees that networking has helped him find leads.
"If I goof off," he says, "the opportunities go way down."
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5311.