Peter Kenny, founder of The Good Works Project, sits in his new office in Wesley United Methodist Church’s basement
In November 2008, Peter Kenny’s disaster restoration firm got caught in the undertow of AIG’s collapse , and his sales job was eliminated.
He was 64, and he had planned to work for a few more years.
“I was highly indignant,” he said. “When you’ve done a good job and end up out on the street, there’s something inherently unfair.”
With two months, he had launched a support group for the unemployed in Windsor Locks. Kenny spent 30 years as a professional headhunter, so he felt he had lots of wisdom to share with jobseekers, and he could relate to their feelings of dislocation, isolation and anger.
Nearly four years later, that support group has transferred to East Windsor, to the charming Victorian Methodist church where he’s a member, and about 175 people have attended for a time.
He hasn’t kept track of how many of those support group members have found work, but he guesses two-thirds of them.
He thinks folks who were laid off this year are getting jobs more quickly now than they did in 2009. Bureau of Labor Statistics number support his perception — while the median length of unemployment climbed throughout 2009, 2010 and 2011, it has steadily fallen this year.
For those who were unemployed in July, August and September, half had been unemployed for 17.7 weeks or fewer. Last year, the median was 21.4 weeks. But the labor market still has a long way to go to return to normal. In Connecticut in 2007, half of the unemployed had been out of work 8.8 weeks or fewer.
Kenny said five of the support group members have gotten a job in the last few months. One woman got a job in administration in health care. Another got a job in the automotive sector. A man who used to drive a delivery truck got a job as an energy audits field supervisor. A man who had been a computer programmer got another job as a computer programmer in suburban Boston, and moved there.
When someone he’s met through volunteering with the unemployed finds work, it lifts him up.
“It justifies my existence,” he said, though he quickly added, “I can’t always take all the credit. By virtue of the fact they’re here, they might have absorbed some little tidbit.”
A sample: ” Cold calling is probably the single best job search technique.”
Jerry Zalewski, who joined the support group in early 2009, has not found a job yet, though his consultancy is busy enough that he’s earns nearly half of his old six-figure salary in industrial technical sales.
He said it’s possible he could have gotten a job in the Carolinas, but said, “At this point in our lives neither my wife nor I want to relocate.” He’s 60, and has lived in Connecticut for all but 12 years of his life.
Zalewski said while he no longer attends the support group, he’s stayed in touch with Kenny, and still refers people to that group, which is one of many in the region.
This month, Kenny has ramped up his commitment, having decided that providing tips and sympathy once a week isn’t enough. He’s now running an employment agency of sorts, where he screens job candidates and then shops their resumes around to local businesses. So far, he’s representing four jobseekers — two former stay-at-home mothers, a manual machinist who has more advanced machining training, but no experience on those computerized machines, and a former warehouse worker with a certified nursing assistant’s certificate but no experience in that area.
“I got tired of just being another re-employment group,” Kenny said.
When he was a headhunter, he mostly worked in insurance, and, in non-recessionary times, for every 1.5 resumes he sent out, he got a bite.
“I have more credibility than somebody who’s marketing themselves,” he said.
Kenny has been working 40 hours a week on launching this placement service, which he’s calling The Good Works Project.
“I have the time. I’m retired,” he said. Why would he spend so much time on this effort when there are people at CT Works and professional staffing agencies who are paid to do it?
His first response: “Why wouldn’t I?”
His wife still works full-time. “She sees enough of me,” he quips.
“I feel an obligation. On balance, I’ve had a happy life. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for other people [helping me]. I think we all can say that.”
Because he has skills as a headhunter, he said, “There’s not everybody who can do what I can do.”
Zalewski said that belief motivates Kenny, and said he has a soft spot for him.
“The same reason we would for Don Quixote,” Zalewski said. “He’s tilting at the windmills and still believes he can win, and some of us believe he can. It’s not going to be earthshaking, but it’s going to make a contribution.”
To attend the Thursday night support group, or to see if The Good Works Project can help you or someone you know, call (860) 758-7774