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Getting savvy about seeking jobs

Image: People Between Jobs support group John Brecher / msnbc.com

Denny Overholser and Rachelle Brown listen to Les Keener answer practice interview questions during a meeting of People Between Jobs, a resource and support group in Elkhart, Ind.

If there is a silver lining to be found in the dark cloud that is the nation's soaring unemployment rate, it may be that Americans are getting better at looking for new lines of work.

In Elkhart, Ind., which has one of the nation's highest unemployment rates at 19.6 percent, many of those who have lost their jobs are finding strength in numbers. Instead of hitting the pavement solo, they are helping one another through the difficult financial and emotional times.

"It can be a very humbling experience," Greg Wilkerson, a former sales and marketing executive, said of being unemployed -- or as he puts it, "in transition" -- for 15 months, apart from the occasional consulting gig.

(You can read about how Elkhart's heavy dependence on the RV industry landed it in this mess in the latest installment of The Elkhart Project, "Industrial diversity is hard to do," by msnbc.com's Allison Linn.)

As the months between paychecks mounted, Wilkerson got involved with People Between Jobs, a support and networking group sponsored by the First Presbyterian Church in Elkhart that urges its members to focus not just on their own search, but also on what they can do for others.

Wilkerson says the group's members come from the factory floor as well as executive offices, although lately he's seen more jobless white-collar workers showing up. For some, the group provides a chance to network and share tips on job searches; for others, it's a chance to empathize with others in the same plight.

But most important, experts say, such groups increase the prospects of landing a job.

"Networking is absolutely the best way to look for a job," Bill Warren, founder of Monster.com and now executive director of the nonprofit DirectEmployers Association told msnbc.com. "I've seen it work too many times and seen too many studies to say otherwise."

He said online job hunting sites like the which his organization runs in alliance with the National Association of State Workforce Agencies, should be considered supplemental to those in person efforts.

"That always raises eyebrows when I say that because of my background with Monster.com," Warren said.

Rich Hobbie, executive director of the National Association of State Workforce Agencies, agreed that the self-help groups are effective, noting that they in many ways mimic one-stop career centers that many states have established to help laid-off workers get back to work. He cited a 2009 study by Brookings Institution economist Louis S. Jacobson that found such centers result in roughly $2 in savings for every $1 invested in providing counseling services.

"The savings are the results of lowering the duration on unemployment insurance," Hobbie said. "...There's a benefit to the unemployment trust fund and a benefit to them, because they go back to work sooner, and they earn more."

People Between Jobs and the Michiana Career Network, a similar group that Wilkerson helped launch in nearby South Bend, are taking on that role in Elkhart County, providing free job-search training sessions and sharing information about retraining opportunities.

So too is a support group operating out of the River Oaks Community Church in nearby Goshen, which was recently  profiled in the Elkhart Truth.

Wilkerson sees participation in such groups as a way for job seekers to take responsibility for their situation rather than relying on the government to bail them out. And he said such groups are looking to extend their reach by working with other non-governmental entities, including churches and nonprofits.

"What we're trying to do is build a network of organizations that will assist each other and not duplicate efforts ... that will help as many people as possible," he said.

Whether that help can sustain Wilkerson remains to be seen.

After 15 months of chasing empty leads, he says he is ready to leave the area if his plans to start an insurance and financial services company in the area don't work out. He says many other workers are growing similarly disenchanted, feeling that local officials are banking too heavily on a revival of the staggering RV industry.

"A lot of people are wondering what's going to really change here?" he said.

Elkhart's experience with rampant unemployment is hardly unique. What's it like to be unemployed and looking for a job in your community? What's the best strategy for finding a new job in tough times? Are you considering leaving your hometown to look for a job where the opportunities may be greater? Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.