Meet Ken Carlson and Bruce Thoms

Written by Linda Kirkpatrick on .

The unemployed and underemployed who look to Evergreen Christian Outreach (EChO) and Mountain Resource Center (MRC) for assistance with meeting their basic human needs are now getting help with finding jobs as well. A solution to this daunting task was designed and implemented by a two-man team – Ken Carlson and Bruce Thoms. The two were recognized earlier in 2014 as Volunteers of the Year.

Ken Carlson

Ken had gained a lot of practical experience working in steel mills and other industrial settings, even as a student ushering at a theatre in his hometown of Lansing, Illinois, (a suburb of Chicago).

Lured by the proximity to ski areas, Ken (and his wife, Jane) arrived in Evergreen in 1998 with a background in electrical engineering technology and years of employment with Westinghouse. He’d just sold his own business; and in looking for something to do in retirement, he became a certified business coach in addition to consulting on engineering-related issues.

As a plant manager dealing with engineers, Ken had seen a lot of real-life situations; he’d coached others for business success and presented his thoughts in front of audiences for years. He’d put together a Coaching Skills for Managers program and worked as part of a team professionally. His experience opening and closing down businesses made him sensitive to impacts on employees and local economies.

Among other things, he’d been involved with assessing the baggage-handling issues at Denver International Airport and had consulted on design and operation of huge wind turbines. Having relocated 13 times in 12 months while in the training program for Westinghouse, Ken was well acquainted with moving, meeting new people, and adapting. He’s proud to say he’s been in all 50 states and a resident of six of them.

Ken’s 10-year involvement with Toastmasters and presidency of that group as well as a number of professional organizations made him a proven leader. For five years he’d been a speaker for the Alzheimer’s Association, based on his first-hand experience with his dad.

An engineer’s methodical approach and attention to detail, combined with his coaching skills and leadership positions, made him a natural for organizing a jobs program in Evergreen when the call came.

Bruce Thoms

Also hailing from a Chicago suburb (Park Ridge, Illinois), Bruce Thoms, a former Naval officer, moved to Evergreen in 1992, bringing with him a background in personnel management, manufacturing sales, plant management and labor relations. He knew what it was like to be laid off late in his career after a company buyout, unable to find a job in his field for the better part of a year.

Having to redirect his focus, Bruce turned his interest toward outplacement, helping others find new employment. His job with the largest outplacement firm in the world put him in the business of helping others who were also being laid off – everyone from laborers to CEOs. “It was fulfilling to be able to help,” he recalls.

Retirement in 1998 enabled Bruce to become involved in charitable causes. For eight years he volunteered regularly with the USO at Denver International Airport – handing out food, organizing golf tournament fundraisers, waving flags and helping to navigate the disabled from one gate to another, among other things. Although Bruce has diverted his donated hours elsewhere, his wife, Pat, continues to help the USO.

Bruce’s extensive experience with all phases of employment at nearly every level – those applying for work, those gainfully employed, those needing to redefine their careers, and those who were unemployed – meshed well with Ken’s background when it came to assisting locals looking for jobs.

The Jobs Program

When Cathy Baim of EChO pitched the idea of a jobs program to the Pathfinders – a men’s group Ken and Bruce belonged to, perceived by some as a bunch of old retired guys sitting around telling stories – it piqued their interest. Together they took on the project. Bruce had kept copies of all the sample materials, handouts and letters from his outsourcing job and was delighted to find good use for them.

The program, now in its second year is a modification of a jobs program EChO had already subscribed to, originally designed for putting felons back to work. It’s a full-day workshop that seems to adapt to the audience each time it’s presented. “We really wanted one for hourly and one for salaried [employees],” Ken explains, “but we couldn’t predict what kind of audience we’d have [from one month to the next]”

“We’ve seen everyone from manual laborers to CEOs,” says Bruce, who points out that those utilizing the free services represent a very diversified group from high school dropouts to those pursuing PhDs. “They all find their biggest barriers are often themselves,” he adds, referencing the lack of confidence and diminished self-esteem that go hand in hand with being unemployed. “We fill them with hope.”

Each workshop starts with queries about backgrounds of individual participants. It goes far beyond writing résumés and how to interview. “Like it or not, you’ve got to be a salesperson,” Ken tells every group, “and a problem solver.”

The workshop involves role playing, open discussion periods, quizzes, and exploring the use of different tools to determine what might be the positive, marketable features about their lives. “We get them to work on specifics,” Ken says. Working with job candidates to quantify their experience is a large part of what they do.

According to Bruce and Ken, 70-80 percent of all jobs are filled by “who you know” or networking, so a significant amount of workshop time is devoted to the art of networking.

Ken admits that learning how to network can be a particular challenge for many who are not engaged in groups and organizations and for those who are introverts, but the two leaders persist in getting them to think outside the box. Interviewing and learning how to ask potential employers for advice are among the most beneficial skills they try to develop in each of the clients.

About 130 adults have gone through the jobs programs over the past two years, and results indicate it’s an effective approach to addressing unemployment locally. Together, Ken and Bruce lead the 10 workshops offered each year; and 23 trained coaches are paired with attendees who’ve attended the 8-hour workshop, attempting to match backgrounds as much as possible.

The two men also play a role in the semi-annual Job Fairs sponsored by EChO and Mountain Resource Center, which has recently joined forces with EChO on the efforts to get their clients back into the workforce. All clients seeking help through these agencies are strongly urged to go through the program to help put their lives back on track financially.

You might say Ken and Bruce have also helped elevate the reputation of the Pathfinders. Instead of being known as a group of retired men having coffee, the group has earned a name for themselves in addressing serious issues – things like holding Town Hall meetings twice a year and helping to organize a valuable jobs program for the unemployed in our mountain area. And it’s even attracting younger men who are still employed!