Answering the Call: Virtual Volunteering to Help Job Seekers

April 14, 2020

Reviews how a corps of volunteer career coaches have helped older and mid-career workers in New Jersey.

On April 9, 2020, as part of its extensive coverage of how the world is responding to the global COVID-19 pandemic, the New York Times ran two articles highlighting the power of volunteering. One was called “The Science of Helping Out” dealing with resilience — “our ability to bounce back from adversity” — noting that helping others can have a big impact on our personal well-being. The other, entitled “These Groups are Giving Out Unemployment Advice. Their Expertise? Personal Experience,” was about the rising number of online groups led by jobless workers trying to help each other navigate the morass of newly expanded unemployment insurance regulations — stepping up to fill a need that the under-resourced, incredibly over-burdened public workforce system, with its embarrassingly antiquated technology (in New Jersey’s case, 40-plus year old COBOL-based systems), cannot meet.  

Since late 2015, roughly 350 volunteer coaches have played a vital role in the Rutgers University Heldrich Center for Workforce Development’s New Start Career Network (NSCN), a primarily privately funded initiative that has provided free assistance to over 5,200 mid-career and older (age 45+) long-term unemployed New Jersey job seekers.* NSCN’s coaches have already contributed over 40,000 hours of their time to help NSCN’s job seekers.

When the Heldrich Center designed the program, New Jersey had over 125,000 long-term unemployed individuals — 4 in 10 unemployed job seekers, which was one of the highest rates of long-term unemployment in the nation. Given the scale of the problem, we did not want to provide help in a small “bootcamp” model that might serve groups of 20 to 25 job seekers at a time, maybe reaching a couple of hundred individuals per year. We opted to deploy robust online services, including job search tools and webinars on a broad range of issues. While high-quality online resources enable many to conduct a successful, contemporary job search, others need more help. For those suffering from a lack of self-esteem and confidence, anxiety, stress, or depression that can come with long-term unemployment, NSCN offers individual and small group coaching delivered by trained volunteer career coaches.

Our first call for volunteers in the summer of 2015 was straightforward: helping struggling older job seekers would be challenging, but rewarding. We were gratified by the willingness of so many talented people who stepped up to the challenge. As one early volunteer career coach explained when then U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez visited the program in February 2016, “I was so excited by the New Start Career Network. When I saw the link initially, I literally drove here. I stopped by with no appointment, no announcement, came around the corner on two wheels, and I am just delighted that this program is in place.” Another of our initial volunteers went on to become indispensable to nurturing the NSCN volunteer network and vastly expanding our online offerings for job seekers — my colleague and NSCN’s associate director Michele Martin. 

NSCN’s volunteer career coaches come from a range of backgrounds, including human resources, industry, education, coaching, and counseling. Many had themselves experienced long-term unemployment or knew family members or friends who had. NSCN volunteer career coaches attend a training session that helps them better understand the challenges older, long-term unemployed job seekers face, how the program works, and how coaching helps support and motivate job seekers and improves their executive functioning and job search skills.

Respondents to a 2018 NSCN member survey reported that the program improved their emotional well-being, confidence, and motivation; 86% said they would recommend NSCN to a friend. Eighty-seven percent said that individual coaching was helpful. As one job seeker put it, “Meeting with my career coach was an uplifting experience. Searching for a job is a lonely and demoralizing process and having someone listen to my frustrations and offer advice was a lifesaver in many ways.” Ninety-two percent of survey respondents who participated in small group coaching found it helpful; our volunteers have offered virtual groups focusing on being resilient, keeping positive during a job search, and pursuing entrepreneurship. There are also virtual men’s and women’s groups and a continuing virtual support group for those who have completed individual coaching and want additional assistance. 

Among the comments we hear from coaches about their experience, many mention the satisfaction of “paying it forward” and seeing the “Aha!” moments when job seekers make progress or get a job. Others say they enjoy the camaraderie with their fellow volunteers and are proud to be part of a pioneering volunteerism initiative. 

In 2018, in recognition of their extraordinary and compassionate efforts to help older, long-term unemployed New Jerseyans, the NSCN volunteer career coaches were honored with a New Jersey State Governor’s Jefferson Award. The Jefferson Awards, established in 1972 as the official recognition program of the United States Senate, are considered America’s highest honor for public service and volunteerism.

NSCN was always primarily a virtual program and has further adapted to the current need for social distancing by conducting its first entirely virtual orientation for our new volunteers. They have bravely joined the program at a time in which the nation is facing a record-shattering nearly 17 million new jobless claims — more than a half million in New Jersey, due to the coronavirus recession. We are making the resources of NSCN available to more job seekers who will need help both in New Jersey and in the region when it will be time to rebuild the economy. The need for support is unprecedented; addressing it would be unimaginable without the help of volunteers like ours. 


* Major funding for the New Start Career Network was contributed by the Philip and Tammy Murphy Family Foundation. Additional support has been provided by New Jersey Resources, The Fund for New Jersey, the Corporation for National and Community Service/New Jersey Volunteer Generation Fund, the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, and Rutgers Career Services-New Brunswick.