New York’s New Unemployment Scene

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Networking during your natarajasana. Photo: Everett Bogue; Photo: iStockphoto

At 8:30 a.m. on a Monday morning, Todd Reinglass is leisurely strolling the loop surrounding Central Park’s Great Lawn with his yellow Labrador. He’s accompanied by two women and their attendant canines: Kim Wittig, a former co-worker who now works in biotech on Long Island, and Rachel von Roeschlaub, an artist who moved from Boston two months ago and is looking for galleries to showcase her work. “We got to be good friends through the dogs,” explains Todd, who's unemployed. The three are discussing how Kim is going to connect Todd with some guys she knows in health-care technology, and Todd is going to introduce Rachel to his art-broker friend. Ah, there's nothing like networking in the morning! And nowadays, people like Todd are taking it wherever they can get it.

During these early morning off-leash hours at Central Park, Todd finds himself casually striking up conversations with others who are unemployed. “Here, there’s no agenda,” Todd says. “It’s not like one of those networking happy hours that are so forced. You’re outside, enjoying the fresh air and you're relaxed — and that helps you put your best foot forward." It’s not uncommon to see business cards exchanged on a daily basis, with Cedar Hill and the bridal path around the Reservoir being particular hot spots.

At other places too, cash-strapped New Yorkers are realizing that finding their next paycheck may take more than updating their LinkedIn profile or hitting an industry happy hour. Instead, they’re meeting job contacts on the fly, in nontraditional settings, outside of their professional networks. Rather than forwarding around résumés, the unemployed are stumbling upon one another during their newly free, leisurely hours, or making random connections with professionals outside of their web of contacts, the type of folks they'd never otherwise meet, and they're doing so just by virtue of being out and about.

Andre Gutierrez, for one, has been working his abs and his job leads at the Equinox gym on Park Avenue and 33rd Street for the past two years, while also doing freelance work for various boutique advertising agencies. “The gym is busy now even after ten in the morning because so many people are out of work,” he observes. “I’ve exchanged tips on good recruiters and been given leads on prospective jobs.” A few weeks ago, it paid off: Andre started a new marketing position at brand advertising agency Walton Isaacson.

At her Pure Yoga class on the Upper East Side, Myra Scheer, a freelance beauty publicist who admits her client list has suffered from the economic downturn, says her workouts have become packed with more and more job seekers: “I’ve met editors, people in the nightclub business, comedians, executive assistants … and we talk before class or meet up after to come up with ways to help each other out.” Granted, after downward-dogging in your neighbor’s face, it’s easier to build a relationship.

The alterna-networking phenomenon is also apparent in less Spandex-heavy locales. At the FedEx Kinko’s on 20th Street and Sixth Avenue, Phillip Long is printing out his résumé in preparation for an interview at Borders. “I’ve met lots of job contacts at Kinko’s because I’ve noticed a lot of people that come here are business owners who need help with small projects,” he says, smoothing his lime-green tie. “You’ve got to be resourceful, you know what I’m saying? I mean, look around!” The guy’s got a point: By our count, one-third of the people in the store’s computer terminals were trying to find work.

And, of course, the nontraditional networkers are aplenty in coffeehouses. Try finding a seat in just about any Starbucks nowadays: The tables are staked out by the jobless, seeking free Wi-Fi and networking opportunities. At Tribeca's Pécan, Michael Ruehlman, who works at private-equity firm Pan Asia Solar, took a conference call while enjoying a latte — an environmental writer who overheard him invited him to a panel discussion on sustainability, which he attended (and where he made several other connections). “Coffeeshops tend to be places with a lot of crossover between those who already have jobs and those who are looking,” he says. “They give you the opportunity to plug in and work — and network." Sound obvious? It kind of is. Almost makes you wonder why even more people aren’t doing it.