August 15, 2009

Steve Arnold
The Hamilton Spectator
BURLINGTON (Aug 15, 2009)

Sometimes, it really is all in who you know.
Dawn Montgomery, Beth Higginson and Marg Pearson have all learned that lesson over the years as they've struggled to survive the roller-coaster ride of modern employment.

They've done it with the help of HAPPEN, an Oakville-based club that aims to equip workers to find new opportunities in the "hidden" job market by learning the skills of networking.

"Our original idea was to build a program around the question 'Who do you know that can help me get a new position, and who do I know who could help you?'" explained Robin Wright, HAPPEN's executive director.

That's the essence of HAPPEN's weekly meetings and Internet site job postings -- an organized chance for people to compare notes about their efforts to find a new job, trading hints and contacts while also getting lectures on resume writing and how to handle interviews.

"A lot of people find job hunting a pretty lonely experience," explained HAPPEN president Jim Geraghty. "It really helps to know they're not the only people out there."

Montgomery, Higginson and Pearson are all "graduates" of HAPPEN, passing through the club as they made the painful transition from one job to another, and sometimes from one industry to another.

Montgomery, for example, learned of HAPPEN from a friend after being forced into the job market. One long-time job with a consulting engineer ended and she moved to a position with an auto parts company just in time for that industry's train wreck.

Today's she's working for a property management company in Mississauga, a job she found by using HAPPEN's networking skills.

"I've had an up and down couple of years," she explained. "I had been going to HAPPEN meetings for about nine months and I kept going when I got the auto parts job because I could see the economic situation was getting tenuous."

From the meetings, Montgomery gained a sense of encouragement from the stories members shared at every gathering, and the example of those who proudly reported they'd nailed another job.

"HAPPEN members are very proactive about connecting with other people," she said. "The meetings are a tremendous resource, an opportunity to connect with a really diverse group of people."

From that resource she conceived the idea of marketing herself on GO trains every morning, moving among the commuters handing out business cards trying to make the one connection that would lead to a new job.

Eventually she found her current job by connecting with a co-worker from 12 years earlier on the Internet social networking site LinkedIn.

"I can't say HAPPEN was the only source that helped me get back to work, but it was an important one in helping me get back on track," she said. "Frequently, finding that next job is just a question of taking all those different strands and making something of them.

"The secret is to never close your mind to an opportunity," she added. "You have to make the connections because they're not going to fall into your lap."

Guelph resident Marg Pearson tells a similar story -- she's also a refugee from the auto industry who joined HAPPEN after hearing about the club through a friend.

"I'd worked for an auto industry consulting company and our business just kind of floated away," she said. "I'd been out of work for 18 months and joined HAPPEN because I wanted a network of people I could talk to who would understand my problems.

"What HAPPEN provided was a structure that helped me get my job search back on track," she said.

"I wasn't networking at all and HAPPEN helped me get back to thinking that my job now was looking for a job."

In the end it was networking that got Pearson back to work -- a friend of a friend heard about a job opening for a consultant/project manager "and here I am."

Higginson joined HAPPEN after hearing about the group from her brother who had attended meetings when he was unemployed during the 1993-4 recession. She was thrown into the job market after 26 years with a single employer and bouncing through five jobs since 2001.

"What it provided was a reason to get dressed once a week and focus on my job search," she said. "

She heard of the job she eventually secured with a security company after meeting someone who played in a band with one of her relatives.

"It really is all about networking," she said. "HAPPEN may not have got me this job, but I've certainly benefited from using its philosophy."

HAPPEN was founded during the 1990-1 recession "when a lot of companies were just stripping out their middle management ranks," Wright said. "Back then we had guys staying with us for up to two years looking for their next position."

Today there are branches in Burlington, Mississauga, Toronto and Vancouver claiming 10,000 members. A Hamilton branch is in the planning stages. HAPPEN's members are mostly mid- to senior managers/executives.

Most are over 40 years old and, on average, take 22 weeks to find a new job. Annual membership is $60.

More information is available at the group's Internet site www.HAPPEN.ca.

Steve Arnold
The Hamilton Spectator
© Copyright 2009 Metroland Media Group Ltd

Also ran in the Guelph Mercury newspaper.
Teaching the art of networking
August 19, 2009