NEWARK -- When the pet food company he served for 30 years "decided to just pick up and move," Earl Brown had no idea how hard it would be to find a new job. The last time he had applied for work, the Internet was a lab project for computer programmers. These days, many companies won't even interview a candidate who hasn't submitted a resume online.
"It looks like you got to go to school just to push a broom," said Brown, a high school graduate living in Irvington who attended a few months of college long ago.
Brown has been looking for work for a year and a half. On Thursday, he tried something different: He attended one of the first meetings of a new state program launched July 31 called the Jersey Job Club. Following the example set by private clubs and at least one other state's efforts, New Jersey is attempting to provide its jobless citizens with a chance to network their way into work.
The state hopes that some 30,000 people will have enrolled in its 23 job clubs -- which are voluntary and open even to people not on the unemployment rolls -- by June 2013.
"We really see the Jersey Job Club as a jump start to job searching," said Catherine Starghill, director of workforce skills services for the state's Department of Labor and Workforce Development. "If there are other members who are in your field or your industry, then you might get the heads up of some jobs opportunities."
Job seekers certainly need opportunities in New Jersey: the state's unemployment rate, 9.8 percent, is the highest it has been since 1977.
Somewhat similar state-sponsored job clubs exist elsewhere in places like California. But many are targeted at the white-collar professionals who are best positioned to find new jobs. New Jersey previously had a similar effort, the Professional Services Group. Its newest initiative, however, is different in that it includes blue collar workers like Brown.
Part of the job clubs' offerings will include speeches from members from the state's talent networks, which include professionals in quickly growing industries. Most of the actual networking at the meetings, said state officials, will occur after such speeches and training sessions.
But a job club's mission isn't only about networking: it's intended to be a place for peer support. Joblessness can be alienating and emotionally draining for many -- and in America today, many people are looking for work not just for a week or two, but for months or years, sometimes with devastating emotional and physical consequences.
On Thursday, at the first meeting of one of Newark's new job clubs, that peer support was still in what seemed to be its early stages as the club's newly minted members were hesitantly getting to know each other.
The job club's leader, an energetic employee of the center clad in pearls and a rich blue pantsuit, mentioned her own former career as a recruiter at Lucent that was cut short by layoffs. She outlined the range of trainings -- from basic computer skills to mock interviews -- that the job club would go through together. And she explained in sincere tones that she would do whatever she could to help her clients in their job searches.
For some of the 11 people in the room, a mix of older and younger, men and women, the job club was one more stop on the frustrating road to employment.
Sherman Glasco, a 61-year-old resident of Bloomfield, said the club's offerings of resume tune-ups and Internet training seemed nice. But they might not be extraordinarily useful for a man who had three crisply-printed copies of his resume -- replete with an impressive list of computer certifications -- on thick stock paper. He has both a bachelor's degree and an MBA in technology management.
Although it was only the job club's first meeting, Glasco was optimistic that it would offer personal attention and support. "You got some help," he said. "Usually you're on your own."
The difference between the educational backgrounds of Glasco and Brown, the former pet food plant worker, illustrates the difficulties inherent in New Jersey's job clubs experiment. The state will be bringing together people who started out in divergent circumstances but now have unemployment in common.
Glasco lost his job as both a counselor and a webmaster at a drop-in center for people who are homeless or have HIV in June because of state budget cuts. He believes his difficulties in finding work despite his strong educational background and technological know-how had more to do with a decades-old conviction ("my misspent youth") than skills he needed to touch up.
But when asked why he came to the job club meeting, his response was a lot like others' in the club. One of the unemployment center's employees asked him if he would like to join, Glasco said, and he had thought, "Why not? What do I have to lose?"