Sticking together in hard times

Employees laid off from a local architecture firm have started their own networking group to stay in touch, share job prospects and help one another get by.

Empty glasses cluttered the table at an Uptown coffee shop as 10 former colleagues spent a Wednesday morning buzzing about the latest from the office, job prospects, unemployment benefits and life at home.

It wasn’t long ago that they were all working together at the same Minneapolis architecture firm. Now they’re working together for a different reason. Each of them was laid off during the past year and even though they’re competing for jobs in a tough market, they’re helping one another out.

The group got its start in January after Brian Ivers, then still employed, met a couple laid-off colleagues for coffee. It wasn’t long before another round of layoffs brought others to the group and in March, Ivers lost his job. The group now meets biweekly, drawing as many as a dozen people each time. More than 20 laid-off colleagues are involved and they’ve even developed a name for themselves: O.O.W.E., or Out Of Work Employees.   

“I think it’s catching on that it could be useful for networking,” Ivers said.

Architecture firms throughout the U.S. are experiencing historic lows, said Scott Frank, a spokesman for the American Institute of Architects (AIA). The AIA’s billing index, a performance scale developed from a regular survey of various firms throughout the U.S., has been well below flat for several months, Frank said.

He said construction has ground to a halt because of a credit freeze that has kept developers from securing financing for projects. The result has been widespread layoffs in the construction and architecture fields.

But when the industry rebounds and more projects come online, firms will likely need many new employees in a hurry, Frank said.   

“When people need to ramp up, they need to do it immediately,” he said. “That’s why networking, staying in touch and making contacts for when things get better is important for out of work architects.”

O.O.W.E. members run the gamut of age and experience. They declined to share the name of their former employer because most left in good standing and would like to return if possible.

Ivers, 51, lives in Linden Hills with his wife and three children. He lost his job as a senior associate when funding evaporated for two projects he was working on.

But even without his job, he has an opportunity every other week to get some face time with his old co-workers. They catch up on each other’s lives, share job leads and search tactics and talk about their experiences with various career programs. The meet-ups are also a good reason to get out of the house, Ivers said.

“When you’re unemployed, you actually do like getting out and having a purpose to go some place,” he said.

Group participant Susan Tadewald, 38, said she started going because she missed her colleagues. The St. Louis Park, Minn., mother of two lost her job in March on the same day as her husband, John, who worked for the same company.

“It just makes you feel a little bit better to know that most of your friends are in the same situation,” Tadewald said. “I mean, it’s sort of depressing, but also you don’t feel quite as depressed if you know you’re not the only one who is trying to figure out what to do.”

She said her and her husband’s unemployment payments and 401k will dry up in five months, so they’re willing to pick up and move anywhere for work.

“We don’t have a choice unless we file for bankruptcy,” she said.  

Though O.O.W.E. members are continually on the hunt for architecture-related jobs, some are willing to take whatever they can get.

Jennifer Kaiser, 24, of North Branch, Minn., lost her job as a designer in December. She started at the firm as an intern fresh out of college and isn’t expecting to land another job in the field anytime soon.  

“I’m willing to take anything,” Kaiser said. “I’ve been willing since I got laid off because I knew there wasn’t going to be any jobs in architecture.”

She left the last group meeting with some information on the state’s Dislocated Worker Program and other tips from her former colleagues.

Bill Barron, 50, of Linden Hills, said taking any available job isn’t easy for him because of his age and previous pay level. The laid-off project architect said he could work in a grocery store, for instance, but he might not look as appealing to a hiring manager as someone younger who would stay with the job after the economy improves.

Barron has been a regular at O.O.W.E. meetings. He’s on unemployment and hasn’t found any job openings yet, but said the group has become a great resource to help him do so, even though they’re all vying for similar positions.  

“Everybody seems to be OK with sharing information,” he said.  

Linden Hills resident David Jones, 51, who was featured in a previous Southwest Journal story about layoffs, is also a regular at O.O.W.E. meetings. He shared at the April get together that he had recently interviewed for a temporary architecture position. He was waiting to hear back.

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or [email protected]