With the economy in the tank, one can never have too many friends. By Laura Holson at The New York Times
So a few weeks ago, Katherine Wu, an executive at NBC Universal, packed an overnight bag with her yoga mat and drove 80 miles to Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, N.Y., to a retreat organized by 85 Broads, a women’s networking group. In between spa treatments and sun salutations, she and 17 fellow executives discussed career prospects in an unsettled economy.
It was not her first time at such an event. Ms. Wu, 30, found the job she has now through 85 Broads. A self-described “networking evangelist,” her profile is posted on LinkedIn and she gets five to seven calls a month from people looking for jobs. She answers every one. It makes good sense, she explained. Someday it could be her placing the call.
“I equate this to dating,” Ms. Wu said. “Networking is a basic numbers game. If you don’t get out, you won’t meet as many people.”
With companies firing workers in droves and those with jobs worried that they could be next, 2009 is shaping up to be a golden era of networking. Universities have shifted alumni outreach efforts to focus on career counseling and networking instruction, rather than social gatherings.
The Center for Networking Excellence in New York, which advises companies, says requests for corporate seminars have increased 50 percent in the last year. Informal groups are popping up everywhere, inspired by people’s hopes that any connection might lead to the next job.
Although networking has traditionally been the urgent preoccupation of the unemployed, these days many are subscribing to the axiom that it is easier to find a job if you already have one. Networking before the pink slip arrives is a measure of the anxiety seeping into nearly every corner of the work world, during a recession that has already claimed 1.5 million white-collar jobs.
“People are worried about where the next job will come from even before they lose their old one,” said Janet Hanson, a former Goldman Sachs executive who was a founder of 85 Broads in 1997. “They know that three months from now, they could be gone, too. What we are seeing and what we expect to happen even more is that people are going to become chronic networkers.”
If anyone appreciates this, it is Vincent Lauria, the 29-year-old organizer of the Silicon Valley NewTech Meetup Group, whose membership has swelled 75 percent since last fall, to 3,500. Since December, attendance at a monthly gathering that Mr. Lauria organizes at a Palo Alto, Calif., law firm has tripled. He cuts off the guest list at a generous 200 and is still forced to turn people away. “I don’t want it to turn into a convention,” he said.
But clearly he is filling a need. Conversations among guests, Mr. Lauria said, tend to focus on two things: how long will the recession last, and whom can they meet who will help them if they are laid off.
Mr. Lauria said there is an increasing wariness in Silicon Valley among engineers and developers who are concerned about their own job security and, at the same time, are being hounded by peers desperate to connect. Two weeks ago, he had lunch with a friend who asked him for a contact at Twitter.
“I e-mailed two people who are connected to people there, but they both said ‘no’ because they have been asked to make too many referrals,” Mr. Lauria said. “They didn’t want to waste the political capital on someone they didn’t think would get a job.”
In this on-all-the-time generation, ubiquity is key. Consider Sonja Kosman, a 32-year-old executive at the online video advertising firm Spotzer Media. She attends two career-related events in New York each week, she said. Some are sponsored by Columbia University, from which she graduated in 2008 with an M.B.A. Others are through professional groups like Sobel Media NY: Media Information Exchange Group.
And that does not include Ms. Kosman’s online forays. Last year she joined a group through the networking site Meetup.com. And she has profiles posted on LinkedIn and Facebook, where she currently has 460 friends.
“You don’t know where the opportunities are going to come from,” she said. “They could come from sites. You could meet someone at an event, at the grocery store. You have to be open to anything.”
Social networking sites, particularly the business-oriented LinkedIn, are aggressively taking advantage of the hunger to connect in the current economy. LinkedIn has more than 37 million members and says it is adding a new one almost every second. Requests from people using the service to find jobs are up 48 percent from a year ago, the company says. The number of members writing recommendations for friends or colleagues (which are included on users’ pages) has grown 65 percent a month since December.
But so much networking comes at a price.
“If you are a good networker, it takes a lot of time,” said Cathy Stembridge, the executive director of the alumni association for Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. “It’s not everyone’s cup of tea.”
Recently, Northwestern shifted its focus from organizing alumni parties and social events to offering job counseling seminars instead, Ms. Stembridge said. In February and early March, it held networking events in New York City, Austin, Dallas and Minneapolis. It also offered a new, four-part Web series with classes such as “How Do I Develop Lasting Connections?”
Anxiety about economic uncertainty has forced many to adapt in ways they might not have imagined a few years ago.
Joseph Farren, a vice president for global public affairs for Waggener Edstrom Worldwide in Washington, recently joined Twitter. He also began reaching out to old high school friends through Facebook. He said he feels the pressure to network more than he used to. “People are doing things differently because they feel vulnerable,” he said.
It is not just individuals promoting the benefit of having as wide a network as possible. Large institutions do so as well, said Liz Lynch, the founder of the Center for Networking Excellence. Recently, Ms. Lynch said that she was hired by both Google and Boeing to instruct employees on how to network within their own companies. “That is as vital to keeping a job as finding a new one,” she said.
Attending a yoga retreat or reminiscing online about the senior prom is strictly beginner stuff for the most enterprising networkers. A few weeks ago, while Scott G. Cooney, a real estate developer in Missoula, Mont., was getting his monthly $14 haircut, he was approached by an engineer who wanted to switch firms. He took the man’s card but he didn’t hire him.
The most enterprising job seeker he has seen, however, was a woman who for three months last year attended local planning commission meetings, introducing herself to Mr. Cooney each time. She was working part time at a construction company but wanted full-time work. Mr. Cooney finally hired her as his outreach coordinator.
“It has gotten quite interesting,” he said.
So, too, for Robert Raciti, a senior vice president at GE Capital. Recently a colleague asked him if he could get a free ticket to a media conference for a friend, a prominent employment recruiter. Mr. Raciti happily obliged.
“I thought, ‘Why not?’ ” he said with a laugh. “He’s a job recruiter. It couldn’t hurt.”