Total Career Makeover contest winners chosen in La Jolla

By Ashley Mackin

Gaston Farinas, who regularly swims at La Jolla Cove, is one of two winners in the San Diego Total Career Makeover contest. The second winner is Lamia Merabet of San Diego, who often applied for jobs at UC San Diego. They were recognized at an April 8 seminar at La Jolla Presbyterian Church.

During the contest, launched in January, San Diegans having difficulty gaining employment applied for a makeover that included new clothes to wear to job interviews and individual training on how to land a job.

Abby Kohut, a corporate recruiter of almost 20 years, said she created the contest in 2011 and hosts them in cities across the United States.

To find local makeover applicants, she partnered with The Boardroom San Diego, a job-search resource, support and networking group for those experiencing a job loss and/or career change. The Boardroom meets 8 a.m. Tuesdays at La Jolla Presbyterian Church.

“I’ve hired 10,000 people in my career,” Kohut said. “But you know what a recruiter will tell you after you don’t get a job and call to ask ‘why didn’t I get the job?’ Nothing. So for 18 years, I’ve been telling people nothing. I knew why people weren’t getting jobs and I wanted to tell them (why).”

She started the contest in New Jersey with the intent of giving participants tools to improve upon the specific things that were preventing them from getting a job. The first two winners landed careers one month and two months after their makeovers, respectively.

Those from San Diego hoping for a career makeover submitted statements and photos online. The judges were those who participated in career makeover contests in other cities, as well as those who support The Boardroom San Diego. The winners receive personal coaching in how to handle phone and in-person interviews, a copy of Kohut’s book “Absolutely Abby’s 101 Job Search Secrets” and access to five teleseminars. They also receive a physical makeover that was unveiled at the La Jolla event. It included hairstyling and attire to wear at job interviews, along with tips on how to dress professionally.

After announcing the winners and showing their “before” photos, Kohut brought them out post-makeover and introduced stylist Melissa Murray. Hoping to help all those in attendance, Murray explained what she did to the winners’ looks and why.

After the makeover unveiling, Kohut proceeded to offer job-search advice to all in attendance. Farinas and Merabet will receive individualized attention to address the specific behaviors that might be hindering them in their job searches.

For Merabet, who reported having five multiple-round interviews at UCSD in the clinical trial science and medical writing fields, the training will focus on a change in confidence.

Despite have a master’s degree in pharmacology, a MBA in health care administration and experience in clinical research, she’s had no luck landing a job in three years. Merabet said she took a part-time job in Orange County, and the three-hour commute that came with it.

Yet even with her credentials, she reports feeling “awkward and obsessed” with her appearance and Algerian accent. Kohut said she hopes to help Merabet “become comfortable in her own skin.”

For Farinas, who spent much of his career working in telecommunications management, the focus will be on “getting his mojo back,” Kohut said.

Last year, Farinas lost his job due to corporate reorganization. He said he needs to learn how to present himself at interviews.

“I have focused on family, spirituality and community relations,” he said in his contest entry. “I feel I am a stronger person that can bring even more to a company. My will and determination to succeed and build bridges over barriers has been amplified. It is now my turn to land my dream job.”

■ The Boardroom San Diego meets 8 a.m. Tuesdays at the La Jolla Presbyterian Church, 7715 Draper Ave. Find more details about each weekly speaker at