California's workforce has suffered heavy casualties in the current economic crises, and the East Bay in particular has seen serious growth in the number of individuals out of work.
Contra Costa County's unemployment rate is climbing to 9.8 percent. Estimates from the state Employment Development Department indicate the rate for Danville is around 5.2 percent, with 1,200 Danville residents unemployed.
Many have turned to Job Connections, one of the largest networking groups in the area, to get help in finding that next job. The organization is based out of Community Presbyterian Church in Danville, funded by a donation from the church, and staffed by volunteers.
"The program has been around since the early '80s but had a totally different look and feel," explained Tracy. "I restarted it in 2002 with its current configuration."
Job Connections brings the unemployed - and those who want a job change - into weekly sessions where they talk about the changing job market, finding new job opportunities and working their way through the interview process. Primarily, it allows members to meet with other people going through the same issues.
Issues that Tracy understands, having gone through his own job loss.
"For me it was a real awakening," he said while declining to give details. "Losing my job had nothing to do with performance. It was out of my hands and it was a business decision."
He tries to impart this to those at the sessions.
"Part of the program is to help people manage that process because unemployment has a big impact on many aspects of our individual lives. It impacts community, family and relationships," he said.
This can be especially difficult in the current economic climate, where people are employed at a job on an average of three to five years.
Tracy said losing his own job gave him the impetus to become more involved in helping others find their next opportunity.
"It's more than a concept or a cause, it was really personal for me," he stated.
Job Connections is what its name implies, a method for people going through the experience to get together and network.
"It's not a therapy session," Tracy said. "We're there to be a resource, to offer hope and encouragement to the community of unemployed and underemployed seeking new opportunities."
The group, which started out with only eight members has grown to more than 3,000, with each CPC Saturday session drawing around 270. Tracy said in the past several months he's seen a spike in attendance. "We were getting an average of 40 to 45 first-time visitors each week. January is when we really saw the influx of people. One weekend we had 86 new people."
First-timers go through an orientation that consists of an overview of Job Connections and how the program functions. Then the newbies join the larger group, where discussions will be held on unemployment, job seeking and other aspects of finding that next job.
After the group session ends, they take a 30-minute break to allow members to talk and network. Tracy said this allows people to share their experiences in the job market and get ideas of where they might seek work.
After the break, a speaker will discuss some aspect of the post-employment transition, offering advice and encouragement in getting back into the workforce.
"We've had athletes come and speak, life coaches, people who speak on living to your potential," Tracy said.
For some at Job Connections, the loss of a job has opened the way to new possibilities. Jim Conway, 52, had worked 23 years for the Sheet Metal Contractors Association when he suddenly found himself unemployed.
"It's really a shock," the Danville resident said, "a shock to the system when you've been at an organization for that period of time. I had the impression that I was going to be working my way through the organization."
Conway's position was lost in a company-wide reorganization. Rather than harbor any grudges, he's used that setback to start out in a new direction.
"I'm trying to make a shift into health care marketing, building on the strengths and skills from my previous career," he explained.
Conway started attending Job Connections after hearing about it through another job agency. When he learned that it was based in his hometown, he stopped in.
"It's a really dynamic and uplifting group of people," he said. "They're a group with a great sense of humor about where they're going. We laugh a lot and share stories."
The strong emotional support he's received from his wife Mary and from Job Connections have allowed him to keep moving in his new career path.
"The whole job search and reinvention has been a struggle. Mary's been a great support and very understanding. She's been invaluable to me," he said.
While Conway's new opportunity has not arrived yet, he said he's had some positive interviews and is confident that he's going to find the job he's been wanting his entire life.
In addition to its weekly sessions, Job Connections holds an annual Northern California Career and Leadership Summit. Scheduled for May 31 at Community Presbyterian Church in Danville, this year's free event will feature Olympic Medalist Paul Kingsman and other guest speakers and is designed to help attendees develop leadership and communication skills. It also provides a forum for professionals to network with each other and recruiters, as well as meeting representatives from hiring companies. Find information and register online at www.jobconnections.org.