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OVERLAND PARK, Kansas (Reuters) - Tom Skidmore has been out of work only since December. But when his former employer filed bankruptcy in January and his severance evaporated, Skidmore knew he didn't have much time. As the sole breadwinner for his family of five, he had to find work fast.
So he joined a job club.
Part networking opportunity, part therapy group, jobs clubs are rapidly emerging as hot spots for job hunters in America. The clubs, which are springing up in large U.S. cities as well as small towns, act as places to share fears over depleted savings accounts, polish resumes, practice 30-second personal pitches and hone survival strategies.
"When you are laid off it is very disorienting. It was a real shock to my system," said 43-year-old Skidmore, of Overland Park, Kansas. He had worked in the telecommunications industry for 11 years before being laid off.
Skidmore routinely visits four different clubs each week, and has come to view fellow attendees as a "new work family." Members help each other hunt down fresh job opportunities and cushion the blow of rejection letters.
Many veteran clubs from previous economic downturns have been overwhelmed a doubling or tripling in attendance the last six months, and new ones are forming rapidly to keep pace with the rising ranks of the unemployed.
"It's a really tough environment right now," said Fred Fosnacht who leads a weekly club at the Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Olathe, Kansas. "It's a very emotional roller coaster ride for a lot of people."
The roller coaster is expected to become more crowded.
The U.S. unemployment rate stands at 7.6 percent through January, the highest since September 1992, and will likely rise to 9 percent by the end of the year, according to the National Association for Business Economics. Some 598,000 jobs were lost in January alone, the biggest monthly loss in 34 years.
Jennie Brand, a sociologist at the University of California-Los Angeles, said job clubs could provide a critical connection for displaced workers with their communities.
"A lot of research has shown that social networks enhance job prospects," Brand said.
Gloria Sharp of Belton, Missouri, who lost her job in human resources in December, said attending helps generate leads and provides moral support in the bleak job market.
"It's not good out there," said Sharp, 53.
Some job clubs offer "mock interviews" and courses in Internet networking. Job hunters are coached to introduce themselves to prospective employers as being "in between dreams," or "in career transition." Some meetings include prayers; others feature games, snacks and upbeat songs.
One club in Austin, Texas, calls itself the Launch Pad Job Club" where futures take flight!"
The clubs operate independently, generally sponsored by churches, colleges or other community-oriented organizations.
The Scottsdale Job Network in Arizona is among many that has seen attendance jump dramatically in recent months. Job losses have been sweeping across the Phoenix region, where home foreclosures are among the highest in the nation.
"We had a wave of real estate people, then we had a wave of mortgage people and then banking people. Now we're getting a lot of sales and technical people as the layoffs roll out into the larger economy," founder Bill Austin said.
The Scottsdale jobless professionals wear name tags on their business suits as they swap job-hunting ideas over coffee and bagels at a local Jewish community center.
About 150 people attended a recent meeting and the group is growing so fast a larger facility may be needed, Austin said.
"It helps keep your spirit up and keeps you in contact with people in the professional world," said 50-year-old Don Yows of Scottsdale, who was laid off in December after working in technology for about 25 years.
In Cincinnati, attendance at the job club affiliated with Hyde Park Community United Methodist Church has climbed to 175 from 60 six months ago, said Bob Pautke, president of the Job Search Focus Group.
"It's about support. Without a group like this they might sit around at home and ask 'Why am I in this situation?' All that self-doubt," said Pautke. "Here they get support. They get hope, they get advice and they get charged up."
Pautke also said he's been contacted by more than a dozen churches around the region who want to start job clubs.
Back in Kansas, the Johnson County Community College in Overland Park has had such a surge in attendance it recently launched a second club, said coordinator Laura Johannesmeyer.
"Since the first of the year it has just exploded," she said.
Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in Phoenix and Andrea Hopkins in Cincinnati; editing by Philip Barbara