Help Wanted Higher plane: Whether they jumped or were pushed, 5 million have grabbed for "Parachute," a laid-off priest's labor of love. It's no job offer, but believers swear the book's a good first step.

March 05, 1996|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

Even pastors get canned.

So, pastor Richard Nelson Bolles self-published a book in 1970 to help other ministers looking for work. He paid the first-class postage to mail his 162-sheet, spiral-bound, job manual. His California friends thought the title was a hoot, although no one knew what it meant then or now.

What color is your parachute? What color is what? Never mind. Mr. Bolles' "What Color is Your Parachute?" has sold more than 5 million copies (24,000 a month) and has been a chronic best seller for 25 years.

The 1996 "Parachute" is open in bookstores and career counseling centers throughout the country at a time when thousands of people have been laid off and "downsizing" and "corporate killers" have become stock vocabulary.

Thousands of job-hunting manuals are available, but none have had the pluck and endurance of "Parachute."

You bought one when you graduated from college, you bought another one when you turned 40 and were having a "crisis." You bought one for your friend, sister or father -- talented loved ones who were convinced they had no talent. All of you filled out Mr. Bolles' petals called "My Favorite Kind of Things" and "My Favorite People." It felt a little silly, but readers got the point.

"The book makes you think of ideas to get you off dead center -- such as just don't look at the want ads," says John Ryan of Severn. "I bought the book 15 years ago, and bought it again last year."

Mr. Ryan was one of the resume-toting herd at last year's Howard County Job Fair. The 49-year-old with the Hopkins master's degree in electrical engineering was trolling for a good-paying job. He had worked for a high-tech company in Columbia for 20 years until his job was eliminated in 1994.

A year later, he's still teaching part-time at Capitol College in Laurel and still looking for full-time work. But by consulting "Parachute," Mr. Ryan was able, at least, to discover he loves to teach. "The book forces you to think, 'What do I really want to do?' "

Not for everyone

Obviously, not every jobless person has a degree from Hopkins. Some people looking for work may not be able to read "Parachute," much less use it. "It's a decidedly upper-end book," says Emily Thayer, executive director of Genesis Jobs Inc.

At Genesis in Baltimore, career counselors help people get entry-level, non-professional jobs, such as parking lot attendant or file clerk. The volunteers see about 800 people a year. "Giving them the 'Parachute' book is about as useful as handing them the want ads," Ms. Thayer says.

She, too, remembers the joys of unemployment; feeling worthless; getting into a profound funk while looking at the want ads. Well-meaning friends made it worse by asking her the dreaded question, "Have you read 'What Color is Your Parachute?' "

Not to rip the book, but it's just a book, she says,. It is not a job offer. Twenty years ago, Rose Marie Coughlin turned to the good book. After 16 years of working at home, Mrs. Coughlin wanted to change jobs. But from motherhood to what? She spent her summer of '76 with "Parachute."

"I put this book on the same par as Dr. Spock's book," she says.

Mrs. Coughlin did the exercises from "Parachute" -- even hid from her family the autobiography she wrote, as the book suggests. As she says, women of her generation didn't jot down their "skills." The book gently pushed her. "I learned that I liked being a leader," she says. "You have to admit this to yourself -- it's not an awful thing."

Mrs. Coughlin has been leading Maryland New Directions for seven years. Since 1977, she's worked at the career counseling service that uses "Parachute" with all its clients. She recently bought a copy for her daughter-in-law and for her husband, a federal worker of 32 years who's on the brink of retirement.

"He's fascinated by the book," she says. "I tell him he really has the whole world open to him."

In its 25-year tenure, "Parachute" has flourished in periods of high national unemployment, but has also sold well in good economic times. Even when people feel secure in their jobs, they fret about their next job. So, "Parachute" will be in business as long as there's a job market.

'My ministry'

"It's a book of hope masquerading as a job-hunting manual," says Mr. Bolles, 68, a Harvard-educated Episcopal priest who lost his job at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral in 1968 in a pastoral downsizing. The Harvard theology major then self-published "Parachute" to help other ministers.

Mr. Bolles, who married a former career counselor who taught "Parachute" classes, spends four months of the year revising his book. When he's not adding new job tips to "Parachute," he's lecturing or directing his seminar.

"This is my ministry," he says.

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