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Free Career Coaching for Unemployed College Grads

One couple has created an inspiring program that matches the young jobless with pro bono experts who help them launch careers  

By Wendy Schuman

"Find a need and fill it." That quote by Ruth Stafford Peale, the mother of positive thinking, was one of the 365 I unearthed for a daily inspirational newsletter I used to edit. When I lost my job three years ago, I never imagined I'd put it into practice: co-founding a program to help unemployed and underemployed young people launch their careers.  

Actually, my fulfilling new venture wouldn't have happened if I hadn't been laid off from a job I loved at age 63.

For more than a decade, I'd been a senior editor of, an award-winning website on religion and spirituality based in New York City. When Beliefnet was sold and moved to Virginia, I became a boomer cliché, unemployed for the first time in more than 40 years. I’d always found great meaning through work. Now what?

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Needing to help my elderly mom and my daughter Cory, who had just given birth to her first child, I wasn't ready to fling myself into a demanding full-time editor’s position. So I began freelance writing and decided to use some of my newly liberated time to volunteer. 

A Passion to Help Children

One of the issues I care most about is getting children off to a good start; I believe it's vital to their well-being and to our country's future. So when a free afterschool tutoring program opened in my New Jersey town, I signed up and began spending several hours a week helping low-income elementary and middle-school kids with language arts, social studies and, in some cases, emotional issues.

I loved the kids, but after two years I was ready for a change. I then took on a few other volunteer jobs, but nothing felt terribly meaningful.

An Idea for Helping Recent Grads

My husband, Ken, and I had often talked about how terrible we felt for the suffering, new generation of college grads heading into a tough economy with few job prospects, steep education debts and nowhere to turn for help. That led Ken, who’d recently retired from a varied career that included teaching, social work, government, real estate and life coaching, to an idea that we could pursue together.

Realizing that recent college grads could benefit from life and career coaching, but couldn't afford the standard $150 to $400 hourly fee, Ken wondered whether we could get coaches to take on one young person apiece and give them 12 free one-hour sessions.

The goals: to help these jobless men and women figure out what type of work would align with their values, skills and passions; provide practical advice on writing resumés, networking effectively, interviewing successfully and staying motivated when job hunting as well as to pass along life skills.

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Ken contacted the training program where he got his coaching certification, the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching, which sent out a call for volunteers in its newsletter. We were thrilled when 25 coaches from around the country responded. They, too, were concerned about young grads and agreed to coach them pro bono either by phone, Skype or in person.

Ken and I took on the responsibilities of matching the coaches with grads, making sure the sessions were proceeding well and evaluating the results. I also decided to find mentors who would give the young grads four additional free one-hour sessions after their initial 12 hours of coaching — professionals in their chosen field who might be able to open doors for them.

Launching the Coaching Program

In April 2012, Grad Life Choices was born.

Clients did not come running initially. 

But after our local YMCA sent an email blast to its members, on the assumption that some had kids who’d flown back to the nest, we got our first three recent grads. Facebook, Craigslist, client referrals and word of mouth have since brought us more.

At this point, 30 grads have finished the program or are currently receiving our coaching or mentoring.

How Younger and Older Job Seekers Differ

The coaches say they’ve found working with this generation quite different from advising older clients.

For one thing, they often need to teach the new grads job-hunting skills, since the young people frequently lack experience looking for employment. But the main distinction is a bigger one.

(MORE: Career Advice to My Daughter on Graduation Day)
"Most of my clients are normally people who had been executives and I help them broaden their minds to consider new avenues they might want to take," says Annette Cataldi, who runs Vive la Vie Coaching and Consulting in Grosse Point, Mich. With recent grads, Cataldi says, the work "involves focusing and narrowing down where to start and then coaching them on how to get into those positions.”

Convincing a Skeptic

Young people who approach us about the program can sometimes be suspicious, wondering whether something of value can really be free.

A case in point is Richard Chavez, who was 26 when he saw our Craigslist notice. "I was skeptical," he said. "I assumed it was some kind of scam.”

Richard had graduated from Kean University in 2009 with a major in journalism and communications and had been searching for a job for almost three years. To make ends meet, he was working part-time as a mailman and living at home with his parents.

Richard was quickly losing hope that he’d get started in any career, much less the one he wanted. He told us he was “desperate” and feared our program was bogus because con artists often pounce when people are desperate. 

When he contacted us, Richard asked bluntly: "What's in it for you?"  

We explained that we were concerned about his generation’s prospects for the future and had no hidden agenda.

Making a Coaching Match

Since Richard was interested in media, we paired him with Melissa Maher, a life coach in Oakland, Calif., and president of Live Well Coaching, who had previously worked for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. They agreed to hold coaching sessions by phone once a week.

"The first question she asked," Richard says, "was, 'What do you really want to do?’ and my response was, ‘I just want to get a job!’ But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I was applying for jobs that, if I had a choice, I wouldn’t want.”


Talking things out with Melissa, Richard says, gave him confidence and clarity. “When someone asks you questions for an hour, it makes you think,” he says. “Friends can't help in the same way. I couldn't trap a friend to listen to me for an hour."

Building Up Courage

The coaching sessions convinced Richard that he wanted to pursue a career as a copywriter and develop other interests. At the end of one of their calls, he also revealed a long-held secret desire to do stand-up comedy.

"I'd been thinking about that for years, but I was super nervous about talking in front of people,” he says. After expressing his stand-up passion, Richard felt he should act on it and began appearing at open mic nights in New York and New Jersey. “Going onstage made me feel like I could accomplish other things," he says.

With Melissa’s help, Richard polished his résumé, bolstered his interviewing and networking skills and landed a job as an account representative for O’Sullivan Communications, a public relations firm in West Caldwell, N.J., where he writes copy for a client that represents major airlines.

Richard loves his job and after eight months there, he's moving out of his parent's house and getting a place with two friends.  

Turning Part-Time Work Into Full-Time

Casey Larkin, a 2011 graduate of Boston University with a major in environmental analysis and policy, had moved back home to Middlebury, Conn., after a post-college internship with a Napa Valley winery. Although he wanted a full-time position that would put his environmental knowledge to use, he could only land part-time work as a marketing rep for Bright Currents, a solar energy startup in New Jersey.  

We matched Casey with a young, energetic coach with a marketing background, Alison Graddock, who works for the Coach Training Division of the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching.

The two hit it off right away. "It was good to have someone who would challenge me,” Casey says. “I wrote down my goals and we narrowed them down, prioritizing what was most important to me and how we could achieve them together. She gave me homework after each coaching session and I knew if I didn't do it, she'd give me a hard time.”

A year later, at 24, Casey was promoted to become the company's regional manager in Connecticut, a full-time, supervisory role.

Life Coaching, Not Just Career Coaching

Casey, who needed to live at home because his father was very ill, also received helpful advice from his coach on handling that situation. "Alison encouraged me to talk to other family members to help my mom, who was in the process of becoming my dad's full-time caretaker,” he says. “She also helped me with personal stuff – to de-clutter my life, even clean my room and get on top of what I needed to do. Now that coaching is over, my mother really misses her, too.”

Results From the Innovative Program

Not every participant completes the Grad Life Choices program. In a few cases, clients didn't call in for their scheduled meetings, so they were dropped.

Fortunately, more than half who signed up have found career-track jobs, mostly in their chosen fields.

Even the ones who haven't found work say they’ve benefited from the program by learning more about their values and strengths. After facing a lot of rejections, they've also been happy to receive encouragement and support from people who care about them.  

Growing the Original Idea

Ken and I now spend about seven to 10 hours a week on Grad Life Choices; it's fun working together to create something new. (Our last experience doing that was childrearing; this is a lot easier.)  

Recently we started a LinkedIn group for coaches of Millennials and have initiated bi-monthly teleconferences where coaches share ideas for advising this age group. We've also developed a partnership with Drew University's placement office to offer free coaching to the school's alumni.

With so many young people in need of help, we'd love to expand the number of clients while keeping this a volunteer effort.

To a '60s person like me, Grad Life Choices fulfills a long-held desire to make the world a better place. It has also given my retirement years more structure and purpose. I feel closer to my husband, too.

Ruth Peale's admonition to "find a need and fill it" turns out to have been pretty good advice.

Wendy Schuman has held editorial posts as and Parents Magazine. She is currently a freelance writer based in West Orange, NJ. Read More
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