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Finding a job: Step 1, meet people

WEST PORTLAND PARK - Cleon Cox sits down at a table at the Capitol Hill Library and sets out three piles of business cards, just like he does every Friday at noon.

The first pile is short and is printed with his mantra: 'Have Fun, Meet People, Learn Something.' The second is a bit taller and consists of glossy, business-card-size ads for his book, 'The 50 Most-Asked Questions from the Newly Unemployed.'

The final set is more than three inches high and wrapped in a rubber band. Those are business cards from just a sample of the literally thousands of people he's met during 16 years facilitating the Job Finders Support Group in Southwest Portland.

The group was started in 1991 by then-81-year-old Ed Burpee. When Cox, a Tigard resident, first heard about the support group he laughed at his wife for suggesting it.

'I mean, I'm not going to go to a group to listen to people whine and cry about losing their job,' he recalls saying.

But eventually he did go. And he found out what he knows now - that the group is a great place to network and to compare notes on job-finding techniques. Most importantly for some, he said, it forces people to get out of the house and see that they aren't the only ones struggling to be valued in the workplace.

Participant Rick Spies, a former Intel employee and trade show manager, agreed that joblessness can really affect a person's self-esteem and that people should use every opportunity to get out and network.

'What else are you going to do, stare at your shoes? Go talk to people,' Spies said. 'That's what it's all about: Getting out and meeting people. It's not through the Internet black hole (that you'll find a job).'

Cox said that time and time again, those who are looking for work find it in 'chance' meetings or 'random' acquaintances. All that's told him, he says, is that you won't find work sitting on the couch at home, even if you're waiting for that next big convention.

'You want to go wherever there are people,' Cox said. 'When you preconceive where you want to go, you miss the opportunities right in front of you.'

Cox estimates that the group has seen 8,000 to 10,000 people over the years. Some are one-timers, and some come for years after they've found a job just for the companionship. Some come back after they've gotten let go from the job they found.

The group draws from two to 35 people each and every Friday, except holidays. Attendees are mostly white-collar professionals, particularly from the tech sector, but Cox said that whenever blue-collar laborers show up, the group always flocks to them, giving them plenty of tips and contact information.

Cox credits the success of the group to something called group dynamics, which uses the collective intelligence of the group to offer answers and solve problems.

'They have all the knowledge in their heads,' he said. 'I don't demand people do it; it's just, it happens.'

So, what is the No. 1 'most-asked question from the newly unemployed'?

Well, Cox said, it usually comes out as a joke.

'You know, I've been wondering what I want to do when I grow up,' they usually say with a self-effacing laugh.

Cox said that choosing just one career path can be a monumental challenge because workers today have more choice and opportunity in their life than ever before in history.

That means the unemployed's first task is to decide what it is they really want to do.

'That's your first job,' Cox said.