When she was first laid off, accountant Mary Cremeans looked for help in the same place most white-collar professionals look: the Internet.
"We started going on Monster.com trying to find our new future," said Cremeans, who was "downsized" in April after 18 years with Verizon. For months, she sent out resumes, but the self-help approach was not working.
Now Cremeans has something else to aid her search: a local support group specifically for unemployed professionals.
ProNet, a booming Tampa-based nonprofit organization that helps local, out-of-work professionals find jobs in the bay area, is expanding into Pasco County.
Meetings are held at 11 a.m. every second and fourth Monday at Career Central West Pasco.
Run by volunteers and hosted by Career Central West Pasco at 4440 Grand Blvd., the Professionals Network of Tampa Bay helps job seekers while offering employers a way to cut recruiting costs.
"At first, I came out very boldly thinking this was going to take about a month," said Cremeans, 51. "I had a master's degree. I had certifications. I've been in the business 18 years. I had everything."
So did everyone else, it turned out.
"Looking for a job is totally different than when we graduated from college," said Cremeans, a Brooksville resident who is attending ProNet meetings in Pasco and in Tampa. ProNet membership throughout the bay area has jumped from a few dozen to more than 900 people in less than a year.
Members say the volunteer group provides networking opportunities, career training and a mental boost in a job market that can be disheartening.
"I've been looking for eight months," said Liz Wauldron, 57, of Trinity. "I've sent out 250 resumes.
"This organization helps so much. It keeps us together, helps us know we're not alone," she said.
Founded by Peter Contardo in Tampa, ProNet is expanding statewide. The chapters bring in speakers to discuss topics ranging from computer training and new business models to becoming entrepreneurs.
Community volunteerism also is encouraged as a way to sharpen skills, network and give back to others, said Russell Stallone of New Port Richey, who is organizing ProNet's push into Pasco. Cremeans is working to bring the group into Hernando County.
In Pasco, 7,324 people filed for unemployment benefits from October 2001 to May 2002 _ a 41 percent hike over that period in 2001.
By December the unemployment rate was nearly 5 percent, with only Citrus County ranking higher in the area.
Of Pasco's unemployed, "I'd say about 40 percent are professionals," estimated John Malley, One Stop center manager with Career Central of West Pasco.
"We have a great deal of professionals who live in Pasco and travel to Pinellas and Hillsborough to work," he said. "Layoffs there have a tremendous impact on us here."
A majority of the people at Pasco's ProNet are former information technology employees and managers, said Stallone, a software quality manager let go in November by Lucent Technologies after 12 years.
When his company hired a job transition firm to help downsized employees, one of the resources listed was ProNet in Tampa. He decided to move the group closer to home.
Pasco chapter members now number about a dozen and include human resource managers, engineers and lawyers. They began meeting in January. Some have since found part-time or temporary work through the organization. Others still are searching.
But at least now, "Having someplace to go and people to meet gives me a reason to get up and go in the mornings," said former payroll manager Mary Grady of Lutz.
_ Melia Bowie covers business in Pasco County. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6229, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6229. Her e-mail address is bowiesptimes.com.
Meetings are held at 11 a.m. every second and fourth Monday at Career Central West Pasco. For more information, visit www.ProNetFL.org.