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Minnesota Catholic parishes, organizations help people find jobs amid pandemic

Kari Elias, a senior partner with an employee recruitment firm, holds a job search checklist at Holy Name of Jesus Church in Medina, Minn., Sept. 17, 2020. (CNS photo/Joe Ruff, The Catholic Spirit)

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (CNS) — For nearly a year, Kimberly Burns was without a job.

Laid off as an executive assistant at a health insurance company in September 2019, the Plymouth, Minnesota, resident’s search for work continued for almost a year. Meanwhile, businesses and restaurants, movie theaters and department stores, schools and other establishments temporarily closed or personnel worked from home to help prevent spread of the novel coronavirus.

Since the start of the pandemic, business activity and the economy have remained uncertain. According to the most recent data, unemployment in Minnesota was double in September what it was one year ago that same month — 6% versus 3.2%.

Emails, virtual meetings on the internet and telephone calls have replaced many in-person job interviews. Interviews conducted in person also have drawbacks, such as the need for face coverings and social distancing, further complicating the search for work, Burns told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

“It was utterly hard,” she said. “I tried to keep my attitude up, worrying and praying. I kept saying, ‘The only way to climb this mountain is one step at a time.'”

She had help — from her husband, Derek, who continued to work, and from her faith as a Catholic. Burns, who attends Mass at St. Joseph Church in New Hope and the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, also found a dynamic and supportive career transition, job networking and accountability group at Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Medina, Minnesota.

Led the last six years by Mike Bangasser, a member of Holy Name and owner of a manufacturing equipment company in nearby Plymouth, the ministry had been part of Holy Name for at least 10 years before he took over. The group primarily helps people find entry- to mid-level white-collar work by helping job searchers develop interview skills, hone resumes and foster contacts with people that can lead to jobs. People don’t have to be parishioners or Catholic to participate.

“I am willing to help anyone who needs help, especially those who love Jesus, or are struggling with their faith, that I can influence as well,” Bangasser said.

He said he got involved after finding an employee for his company with assistance from Holy Name’s ministry. “I thought I should give back and help the group,” he said. “I’ve been doing it for quite a few years and I love it. It’s great to meet new people.”

Maintaining and increasing job-related contacts is key to an effective job search, he said.

“You meet random people, layers of people and they help you meet other people,” Bangasser said. Many who have had success report having met someone who knew someone who knew of a job — and even the person doing the hiring — which led to a good position, he said.

Bangasser’s group is one of several faith-based, job search groups in the Twin Cities. The Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, St. Joseph Business Guild in North St. Paul and Grace Church in Eden Prairie are just three examples of groups that help people find work.

There also are government-sponsored job search programs, and people receiving unemployment assistance are required to stay active in the job hunt. Bangasser and others encourage people to use any avenue available.

“Almost all new jobs land from some form of networking, and you never know what event, group, etc., that God will lead you (to), to meet the person” who can help find the right work, Bangasser said.

Burns said she used government-supported and other job search tools. “A parish-based group felt more like a community or family,” she said.

Before the pandemic, Bangasser’s career transitions group met every third Thursday at Holy Name. The ministry turned to virtual meetings with the statewide shutdown in March, but resumed in-person in August — this time in lawn chairs in Holy Name’s parking lot.

By Oct. 15, the career transitions group was back indoors at Holy Name’s monthly gathering, wearing face coverings and social distancing.

At the group’s Sept. 17 outdoor meeting, Kari Elias, a senior partner with an employee recruitment firm in Eagan, Minnesota, talked about the employment picture and navigating the challenges of COVID-19 .

“You can apply all you want online but the best route is, who do you know?” Elias said. “Last year, your application would be one of five. Now, your application will be one of 50.”

Elias’ tips included writing effective cover letters.

“Write something unique to the job you are applying for: ‘Here’s how I match up to the position,'” she said. “It’s not easy to change your resume each time. They are not spending a lot of time on your resume anyway. Write a good cover letter; be likable; show how you can fit in as a team.”

Elias gave the group homework for the week: “I want three solid follow-ups (to job applications). Not three voicemails, not three emails. I want you to get three people on the telephone.”

Matt Earhart, a Holy Name parishioner laid off in February in retail management, learned about Bangasser’s group from a neighbor who also attends Holy Name. He attended his first meeting in March. Six months later, after networking, dusting off his resume, practicing interviews and polishing an “elevator speech” for employment, he was hired as a risk manager for an engineering consulting firm.

Bangasser’s group was enormously helpful with “the support and the prayers,” said Earhart, who now is volunteering with the ministry as a resource for others.

Burns said she heard about Bangasser’s group through a friend, and she followed Bangasser’s advice despite her own reluctance.

“I’m very extroverted, but I don’t like to ask for help,” Burns said. “I had a really hard time with networking. I needed to build up a LinkedIn profile. This was right before COVID, so it was hard to find a job.”

And it is hard work, she said. She networked with Bangasser’s group and the job search group at Grace Church, where she attended webinars, signed up on a job board and attended an eight-week job search training program. She also took online computer classes to sharpen her skills and Zoom courses on any number of job-related topics, while connecting with people attending those classes who might be helpful.

“I really, honestly did not think I would find a job after COVID,” she said.

But Bangasser’s insistence on never giving up led her to contact a friend of a friend whose connections and a recommendation led eventually to Burns landing a job as an executive assistant at a home security, air and water systems company in Golden Valley, Minnesota.

“You never find an end to God’s faithfulness,” she said. “I feel so fortunate and so thankful.”

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Ruff is news editor of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

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