On Mar. 22, a 61-year-old American named Paul Nawrocki rode his 1999 Mercury Villager to the Beacon, N.Y., metro station and boarded a train to Manhattan for his first day of work as director of operations for Fantasma Toys at 421 Seventh Ave. Prior to that day, he had endured 25 months of joblessness (including a few weeks of underemployment with the U.S. Census Bureau) and the possibility of losing his house in the face of staggering health-care costs for his wife, Louise, who needed hip replacements and has diabetes and uterine cancer.
His confoundingly long stint of unemployment and the bleakness of his personal finances aren't terribly novel. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of long-term (more than 27 weeks) unemployed Americans rose 78% from March 2009 to March 2010. As of the third quarter of 2009, foreclosures had risen nearly 23% over figures from the same period the previous year, and in the first quarter of 2010, one in every 138 U.S. housing units received a foreclosure filing, according to RealtyTrac, an online marketplace for foreclosured properties.
What distinguishes Nawrocki's story is that he shared it with the world—in a way refreshingly devoid of anger or political partisanship. In November 2008 he donned a sandwich board advertisement that said "Almost Homeless"—and explained he was an experienced operations director looking for a job with benefits—and walked around Grand Central Station and Rockefeller Center. At age 59, he'd had no luck finding another job after his February 2008 layoff from a position he'd held for four and a half years as director of operations at Sababa Group, a toy company that filed for Chapter 11. Despite sending out some 8,000 résumés and registering with numerous agencies and headhunters, he'd hardly had a nibble, and he feared any job similar to his former one would go to someone younger who'd accept a lower salary. By advertising himself in a conspicuously original way, he hoped an employer in need of a director of operations with his degree of experience would spot him or hear about him and offer a lead or an interview.
Into Magic Tricks
It worked. Thousands of news outlets, from CNN to Moldova.org, reported his story. Nawrocki and his predicament came to embody the U.S. financial crisis, which was just beginning to take shape. Businessweek.com followed his job search in an article and a series of videotapes made of counseling sessions between Nawrocki and career coach Lauren Zander, who gave her services pro bono. Eventually, the CEO of Fantasma, a company specializing in magic tricks and props for children and professional performers, heard about Nawrocki's bid for work via sandwich board and hired him.
With Nawrocki gainfully employed once again, we asked him to reflect on his odyssey and tell readers which techniques helped most in his job search. Speaking to Businessweek.com a month into his new job, Nawrocki said he'd like first to clear up a couple of misconceptions. The sandwich board, he explains, was never meant as a quest for celebrity. It simply represented an optimistic action born of desperation. "I had a tremendous amount of experience and had gotten rave reviews from everyone I worked for at Sababa, but I wasn't getting interviews. I didn't lie down and give up. I got a sandwich board." Nawrocki found the media attention "exhilarating" and was touched by how many New Yorkers approached him on the street to offer moral support.
Unfortunately, a year after he'd worn the sandwich board, the attention and leads he received hadn't turned into a suitable job offer. That's where Lauren Zander and the second misconception about his story come in. To some viewers, the career coach's approach to attitude adjustment came off as Judge Judy-style browbeating. Nawrocki, however, believes Zander ultimately "revitalized" him, ramping up what he already considered to be his basically positive attitude. "She asked me, and I said the economy and my age were the biggest things working against me. I learned from Lauren that you cannot think about things beyond your control."
Feeling Like the Whole Economy
Zander, for her part, says that Nawrocki needed a big push to overcome his feelings of being a has-been. "My first impression was that he was a very good-hearted [but] broken-spirited man," recalls Zander, co-founder of the Handel Group, a Manhattan corporate consulting, executive coaching, and life coaching firm. "Paul felt that a company would hire a 25-year-old and pay him $30,000 and forget the man who really deserves $180,000. He was collecting information about the employment rate, literally scouring the world for bad news. We focused on, 'You are just one man getting a job.' Then he got it and understood, 'I am one man. I am not the whole economy.'"
Not to ignore the exterior, Zander arranged for hair stylist Michel Obadia of Manhattan's Pierre Michel salon to donate his services by updating Nawrocki's semi-comb-over—a change that, along with the offing of his mustache, transformed his look from metro cop to metrosexual. "I thought I looked fine and neat and professional the way I was. I would have never thought of a haircut, but when I did it, I got so much positive feedback," Nawrocki says.
Zander also compelled him to eat more fruits and vegetables, exercise, wake up early, dress presentably, and make one "bold move" every single day, all uplifting to his morale, according to Nawrocki. (Of course, as bold moves go, wearing the sandwich board was a hard act to follow. Zander suggested such actions as writing a cover letter to Martha Stewart to ask for a job.)
Fan of Houdini
Most helpful to his success at job-hunting was simple yet unrelenting networking. To increase his chance of receiving useful leads, he made it his goal to contact 10 people a day and set up at least two in-person meetings a week, either to have coffee with someone who might help his job search or to attend a networking event, such as an unemployed-professionals' support group held at Orange County Community College in Middletown, N.Y., where executive recruiter Jay Lang would offer feedback on résumés. "Jay would look at résumés and point out that employers don't care what we've done; it's what we can do for them," says Nawrocki. "Jay's counseling was nuts and bolts, and Lauren's was more spiritual, so the two together were good."
The only form of networking Nawrocki didn't find particularly helpful was going to job fairs. "I think they're good for people looking for their first job but not for someone like me," he says.
He finally grabbed the brass ring this year after attending the Toy Fair in New York City's Javits Center to network. He ran into Jeffrey Kennis, an old business associate who knew that Fantasma CEO Roger Dreyer was in need of an operations director and referred Nawrocki. "Roger was a fan of Houdini and thought he'd like someone who used a Houdini-like stunt like the sandwich board, and he wanted someone like that at his company," Nawrocki says.
Walking on Walls
He accepted the job at Fantasma on a Thursday and started the following Monday. Now he spends his days keeping tabs on the company, which has a retail shop in Manhattan and sells such products as the Bicycle Black Ghost Deck of cards ($8.99) and Grand Illusions with Ed Alonzo magic set ($59.99).
Fantasma pays Nawrocki a salary significantly lower than the one he got at Sababa, but it's enough to cover his expenses and begin working his way out of the debts his family accrued during his joblessness. "It's a small company, and we all wear many hats," Nawrocki says. "I've had the opportunity to do some product development work, which is exciting. We're working on a toy spider that has articulated legs and can walk on walls."
Louise Nawrocki is virtually cancer-free now, and her health has improved enough to make it possible for her to return to her earlier vocation, acting in theater productions. The Nawrockis will become eligible for Fantasma's health-care plan in June and in the interim are using a policy from Healthy NY. "It's not the greatest," says Nawrocki. "Maybe it's 'Healthy' NY because it works best if you're already healthy."
Asked for advice for others who return to work after long periods of joblessness, he said his only suggestion is to do the obvious: Adjust sleep and meal schedules to accommodate whatever schedule the job entails. Was it hard to go back to a full-time job after two years? "For a couple of days," Nawrocki says. "By the third day, it was as though I'd never stopped working."