Damian Birkel Fulfills Promise to Help Job Seekers

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Professionals in Transition Celebrates 25th Anniversary

By Judie Holcomb-Pack

Twenty-five years ago on the bleak night of February 22, three men sat down to share their job loss stories and commiserate. Today, on any given Thursday evening, you will find 15 or more unemployed professionals honing their job search skills at the Red Cross on Coliseum Drive in Winston-Salem.

The story of how this organization began is really about keeping a promise. Damian Birkel lost his job four times over the course of his career. He remembers the longest stretch of unemployment – he had a wife, two kids, a house, two cars – and no job. At the lowest point in his life, he said a prayer: “Lord, if you get me through this, I promise I will never forget what it was like to be unemployed.”

Shortly thereafter, he was called for three job interviews and grabbed the most promising opportunity. As Birkel humorously related, “I went from pots and pans (as a cookware buyer) to mops, brooms and brushes (working for Fuller Brush Company), to a new area of ‘expertise,’ bras and panties (Bali, part of Hanesbrands).

In 1991, Birkel started thinking about the promise he had made and how he could create a support group for the unemployed. Birkel said, “I knew two things: 1. It would be a nonprofit; and 2. it would be free. Professionals in Transition (PIT) came to life.

The first evening when he opened the doors to that small meeting room, he had no idea who would show up, what would happen, or how the group would function. There was no agenda, just a desire to help others through the crisis of unemployment.

Over the next 25 years, PIT evolved from a support group format, to a concept that includes speakers with tips on how to network, negotiate salaries, or create a professional resume. Members who have been through the PIT process and who are now employed facilitate the meetings. Confidentiality is stressed, allowing members to freely share their emotional stories. A long-time tradition is the “Landing Party,” where a member brings refreshments to celebrate becoming reemployed. “It is so great to see how excited everyone gets when they walk into a meeting and see refreshments,” said Birkel. “They know someone has gotten a job and is now a PITA (Professionals in Transition Alumni).

Several years ago when Birkel attended his high school reunion, he happened to sit next to a friend who had been on the school literary magazine with him. Birkel told him about the research on unemployment he had done and that he would like to write a book about how similar the experience is to the grief process people go through when they lose a loved one. About a year later, he received a phone call from his friend who asked how his book was coming along. At that time Birkel hadn’t done anything with the material. His friend said, “If you can get me a book proposal in two weeks, I can put it in front of a publisher.” Birkel enlisted the help of another PIT member and developed a proposal in two weeks. He was shocked to receive a phone call from the publisher with an offer to publish the book!

“Career Bounceback” was published in 1997 and has since been updated, along with publishing a “Reemployment Toolbox Workbook.” According to Birkel, “I was in the right place at the right time and knew the right people. It was just another part of fulfilling the promise I had made years ago.”

According to Birkel, Professionals in Transition provides hope, emotional support, and job search education to the unemployed and underemployed. He hopes for the day when there is no more PIT because everyone is employed. But until then, he will stay true to his promise and support anyone looking for a job.

Damian Birkel is a national innovation, communications and networking expert and the founder of Professionals In Transition Support Group, Inc. For more information, visit www.jobsearching.org. Reach Damian Birkel at 336-757-1099 or damian.birkel@nulltriad.rr.com. “Career Bounceback! Surfing the Emotional Wave” by J. Damian Birkel and Stacey J. Miller is available at amazon.com.

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