When Gerry Crispin was still a graduate student in his early 20s, he was given an assignment that some might consider rather morbid, especially for a young man in the prime of life. He was told to write his own obituary. Today, more than 30 years later, he says that exercise marked a defining point in his life and set him on the course of his life’s work.
"When you’re 22 or 23 and you have to think about how you want people to remember you when you die, it sets your priorities. I kept what I wrote in my wallet and at every step in my life, I made decisions relative to what I had decided was important. The two most critical points to me were family, and making a difference in people’s lives."
Crispin is making a difference in people’s lives today by helping them articulate what their priorities are, and using that information to lead them to discover their own passions and life’s work. Recruiter.com lists Crispin among the "100 most influential people in the staffing industry." He and his business partner, Mark Mehler, are human resource professionals well known for CareerXroads, their annual guide to job and resume websites, and have been involved for almost three decades in just about every angle of the employment industry, from career planning to recruiting, executive search, recruitment advertising, and human resource management.
When Hurricane Katrina hit and most of the nation was watching the devastation unfold on TV, Crispin’s mind was already leaping ahead to the next step. The most immediate priorities obviously were getting people to safety and meeting the most basic human needs: shelter, food, clothing and safe drinking water. But the human resource professional in Crispin was already thinking about what needed to be done for the thousands of people who were out of work, their jobs swept away by the torrents of water.
So on September 14 Gerry Crispin and fellow volunteer David Jackson, a senior recruiter from a group of companies in St. Louis, hopped in a Winnebago and headed south for a tour of the Gulf States that would take them on a seven day odyssey through Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri. Their journey would cover 2,300 miles, propelled by 300 gallons of gas paid for with the help of Hotjobs.com. Their mission was to help people find jobs.
"I felt compelled to go and see what I could do," says Crispin. "You have to picture David behind the wheel of this Winnebago and me calling up the mayor’s office of the next town we were approaching. After my introduction, which included my direction and speed, ‘I’m traveling toward you at 60 miles per hour’ I would say, and then they’d hear a pregnant pause and the creaking sound of this Winnebago whistling down the road." Crispin says he would tell them he wanted to learn more about how the folks who had been evacuated from Katrina were being helped to find jobs. He asked for meetings with the people who were making that happen.
"It was too compelling," recalls Crispin, chuckling. "And so they all called back. They were probably thinking, who is this guy? We’d better find out before we need a SWAT team or something." What Crispin discovered was that while city leaders were willing to meet with him and were often doing great things to help people get jobs in their communities, they were unwilling to take real steps toward moving people into new jobs into other parts of the country. "I found that most people weren’t ready to get a job. And while city leaders wanted to see their citizens employed, there were few incentives to help people leave their community."
Crispin believes that even now, people are reluctant to face the reality that they may have to relocate if they want to find new employment. Even cities that opened their arms to the people of Katrina are facing shortages of housing and jobs to sustain them on a long-term basis.
Crispin foresees that many of Katrina’s jobless will give up on the Gulf Coast area and start migrating to other areas of the country, including the northeast and mid-Atlantic. "We’re going to see thousands of people coming to New Jersey in the next two to four months, starting in January when their money begins to run out," he predicts. "They’ll be coming from places like Jackson, Birmingham, and Shreveport, smaller cites that will not support a huge influx of new workers, physical therapists, accountants, and teachers and the like. Are we going to help them integrate into our communities and engage them in a way that will help them find jobs? Or are we going to have them line up at our employment offices and offer no support?"
Crispin has reached out to a number of recruiters to prepare volunteers who are willing to put time, energy and effort into helping Katrina’s jobless who move to New Jersey. "They’ve got to know that we’re here," he emphasizes. "We’re trying to develop a communication channel. We’re talking to newspapers about what we can do with them, we’re using classified channels. I will start to move mountains to find out if we can be helpful."
Crispin’s mother grew up on Long Island, the daughter of an Italian immigrant who had come to the United States as a teenager with a note pinned to his chest with instructions to send him to Brooklyn. "You often wonder how bad it must have been for his family to send their young son so far away." His grandfather ended up doing very well for himself, establishing a booming hairdressing business in Huntington, and building the family home where Crispin’s mother still lives today. He says it’s still part of his weekly ritual to go out every Monday to cook dinner for her. He counts a very large extended family in Long Island with whom he remains very close, more than 100 relatives in and around the Huntington area and Glen Cove on the North Shore.
Crispin’s father’s family originated from Cornwall, and settled in Grass Valley, California. His father was a highly decorated veteran of World War II and Korea, who died just this year at the age of 84. He was involved in communications work for the U.S. Army, was sent to North Africa in 1942, fought through Sicily, and was awarded the Silver Star and Bronze medal.
Crispin grew up as an army brat, attending 15 different schools in the United States and Europe before college. "I really had no choice and I didn’t know any different kind of life. I was shyer than most, probably because I never started a single year of school at the beginning of school until I went to college."
His younger sister by three years, Terry, who lives in Chicago, is married to Joe Shaker, son of the founder of Shaker Advertising, the fourth largest recruitment advertising firm in the United States. That family tie would later become important when Crispin went to work for his brother-in-law to set up the east coast network of the company.
Born in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, Crispin went to Huntington High School. "As was so typical of people of that era, I was pretty clueless about what would be a good career and I was talked into going into engineering." He enrolled at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, graduating in 1969 with a bachelor’s degree in engineering. He confesses that in terms of hijinks and mischief he was way up there on the dean’s list. "It was not the good dean’s list. I managed to scrape by in four years and discovered that what I wanted to do was to find out more about how people related in organizations."
That led him to continue his graduate work at Stevens. By 1975 he had earned a masters and was going for his doctorate, but with a wife and one child already, he discovered that he had a need to make some money. So he left his studies just short of his Ph.D. with what is known as an "A.B.D.", All But Dissertation.
It was around this time, however, that he wrote that obituary exercise and also discovered his life’s calling. While teaching as a graduate assistant, he found work as the director of career planning and placement at Stevens. "I felt compelled by this whole issue of how people make choices about their lives – if they drive their choices or let their choices drive them. Thinking about this has always been a passion of mine. People do have free choice but they don’t realize it and not enough of them take it. If you’re following a path just because it’s in front of you and not necessarily because you’ve chosen to take it, that’s a serious error but that’s what most people do."
During his graduate studies Crispin had worked two jobs to make ends meet, and in addition to the teaching and counseling, he worked the night shift as an orderly in an emergency room. The night supervisor of nurses caught his eye, and so he asked her out on a date. They both got off work at seven in the morning. "At that hour you go out for coffee or take a subway to Greenwich Village and walk around," he laughs. "I proposed on our second date." He and Diane were married six weeks later on Thanksgiving Day, his only day off. They recently celebrated their 34th anniversary.
Their son Gerry, born in 1974, works at Fort Dix for a defense contractor and is in the National Guard. His son, Brendon, Crispin’s only grandchild, is in kindergarten. Daughter Jaime, married this year, is studying art therapy in Boston.
After leaving graduate school, Crispin embarked upon a successful 10-year career in the human resources department of Johnson and Johnson in New Brunswick, then moved on to work for a boutique executive search firm for a year before joining his brother-in-law in the Shaker family’s company, building Shaker Advertising’s east coast arm.
By 1996 Crispin was already predicting how the Internet would change the way people would look for jobs. In that same year that he began making presentations about human resources and the Internet. Career Xroads was born out of the vision that the Internet would revolutionize the way people would find out about opportunities, network, connect, and eventually, get hired. Crispin consults with many of the world’s largest and most competitive companies to help them improve their hiring process and staffing strategies.
"My core passion," says Crispin, "is all about how people find jobs and how jobs find them." In part because of his work with Katrina’s jobless and the work of others like him, the U.S. Department of Labor has established a program for states in the affected areas to hire 100 additional job developers to help people find employment.
Crispin pulls up an early memory from his career in job placement. It was 1972. The country was in the throes of a recession and companies were laying off good people right and left. "An alumnus from Stevens had come in to see a counselor. He was clearly distraught. He had worked at Rockwell International for 19 years. He was 40 years old and he had just been laid off. In those days to be laid off was embarrassing. Back then you also had to work 20 years for a pension and they had cut him off just one year short. And he had a kid."
As sad as that was, Crispin relates, that was only half the story. "I asked this man what did you do at Rockwell? And he said `I worked on a small part of the electrical system of the left wing of a fighter airplane.’ Not the right wing. Just the left wing. And listening to this man, I had an epiphany. I understood how narrowly we focus our identity on the job that we do. And I also understood that the people at Rockwell were not empowered. They were not taking responsibility for their own careers."
Crispin says that to this day, the image of that man still haunts him and drives him to help people, to empower them, and to help them take responsibility for their lives and their careers. He has challenged New Jersey employers to hire Katrina’s jobless and to help them embark upon new lives in new places. He’s exhorted employers who want to hire people from the Gulf Coast to post their jobs on such sites as www.monster.com and www.hotjobs.com. "If I’m going to change the world, I can’t do it all by myself but I can line up other people who are willing to help."
He’s also vowed to personally roll up his sleeves and help out when the wave of humanity he’s predicting starts rolling into New Jersey come the first of the year. "I have a responsibility to help those people make better choices about where they are and where they might be going. And when they find out where they’re going and get there, they have a responsibility to help the next people along." It’s all about "paying it forward", creating good karma. It’s the belief that drives Crispin’s work and his life. And some day a long time from now, that’s how Crispin hopes he will be remembered.