Opportunity knocks: JVS helps job seekers launch, relaunch careers

In a meeting room in San Francisco’s Financial District, job-search skills instructor David Robins is writing on a whiteboard, his back temporarily turned from the small, attentive group in his classroom.

“Courtesy,” he writes, as another participant enters, notebook in hand, and takes a seat. “Confidentiality. A positive outlook.”

These are the ground rules for today’s strategy session, he explains. His eight-member audience is ethnically diverse — participants are black, white, Latino, Asian — and from different backgrounds. One man is looking for janitorial work. Another worked in high-tech for 30 years before being laid off. One woman is a career carpenter who wants to start her own business.

The thing they have in common: They’re all over 50, and they have all come to discuss the challenge of finding new jobs as older workers — a challenge that, for some, often can feel insurmountable.

In rooms just like this one, conversations about résumés, interviews and social networking are all taking place today — and every day — throughout the bustling offices of Jewish Vocational Service, a one-stop shop for those seeking support and services while they hunt for a job. For four decades, JVS has helped people of every background — Jewish and non-Jewish — get the training they need to launch, relaunch or reimagine their careers.

In one room, a woman in her 40s receives one-on-one guidance on updating her résumé to highlight her most impressive accomplishments. “See here, where you organized events for Fortune 500 companies? I would emphasize that over things like ‘self-motivated’ or ‘reliable,’ which are things everyone can put on their résumé,” says her counselor, while the woman takes notes.

In another room, a group of eight folks of varied ages and experience gets an hourlong crash course in the computer program Excel. In a larger classroom, a job counselor is giving a talk on “impactful interviewing.” In the meeting room next door, interns from the UCSF Medical Center — one of many prestigious health care institutions with which JVS partners — are holding their weekly check-in meeting, where participants share recent challenges and triumphs.

Out in the lobby, a long bank of computers, with a copy/fax machine nearby, serves as a drop-in business center. One man plays an improve-your-typing-speed game; another woman works on a cover letter. A master itinerary of workshops and events in the hallway (also accessible on the JVS website) alerts visitors to employer spotlight events, during which recruiters from tech companies like Google and Zynga, retail businesses like Macy’s and Nordstrom, and San Francisco city agencies give presentations about their organizations, hiring processes, and what they’re looking for in employees. (After a recent session, a representative from Google happily agreed to review résumés on the spot from would-be applicants.)

Craigslist and LinkedIn may be omnipresent tools in the modern-day world of job-hunting during a recession. But according to the thousands of job seekers who have found support, community — and, as is naturally the goal, employment — through JVS, what happens in these classrooms and hallways goes well beyond anything an Internet community could accomplish.

And it’s all free.

Jennifer Volk, technology access center coordinator, helps a client. photos/emma silvers

Established in 1973 to help Jewish college graduates who were having a tough time finding jobs, JVS has expanded over the course of its 40-year history to offer a wide range of services and support to job seekers regardless of their ethnic background, education or previous work experience. With a staff of about 70 and a volunteer base of up to 400 in an average year, the organization served more than 5,200 clients in 2012. JVS staff estimate that roughly 80 to 100 clients come through the office doors on an average day.

Lucinda Morgan, 51, worked as a receptionist in a San Francisco law office for more than a decade before she was laid off in 2007. “I didn’t cope with it well,” Morgan recalls. Unsure of how to find work, she soon lost her home and lived at a downtown homeless shelter for several months.

It was through a case manager that she found her way to JVS in 2009. Since then, she’s moved into a transitional group home for women and taken advantage of almost every kind of coaching JVS has to offer. “Workshops on networking, how to redo your résumé, how to write your ‘elevator pitch’ — this program has been such a gift,” says Morgan.

“I’ve never been good at asking for help … but being here has rebuilt my confidence in a way I never could have imagined. The fact that I feel comfortable asking someone for an informational interview, that I know how to talk about myself in a positive way — I never would have imagined that a few years ago,” she says.

Last August, after an extensive application and interviewing process, Morgan was one of 15 people selected from more than 100 applicants to take part in this year’s EXCEL (Excellence Through Community Engagement and Learning) program, which includes, after computer and “soft skills” training, a four-month paid administrative assistant internship at UCSF. The growing health care field is a major focus of JVS’ training; the organization has partnerships that allow job seekers to train as medical assistants, in-home nurses and more.

In November, Morgan began work at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine where, she says, “I think I’ve smiled more in the past two weeks than I did in the two months before that.”

Diane F., 25, graduated from UCLA three years ago with a joint degree in geography and environmental studies, and has had temporary placements at government organizations and nonprofits since then. But trying to break into the job market during a recession, she’s been having trouble finding a permanent position. Her roommate heard about JVS, so Diane looked it up. She’s been coming one or two times a week for a few months.

“I’ve been really trying to take advantage of the computer skills classes, in particular. But it turns out the area I really needed help in was maybe networking — I’m not good at talking myself up, and I feel like I’m bothering people when I reach out,” says Diane. “But I’m getting better.”

According to the executive director of JVS, Abby Snay, of all the organization’s strengths, perhaps the thing that makes it unique is its commitment to providing programming for people like Diane and Lucinda — and everyone in between, from high school students with special needs to transgender individuals to older workers. Since the recession began, the range of people using JVS’ services is wider than ever, and Snay, who has been with the organization since 1975, says JVS is working to keep up with their needs.

The unemployment rate in California is 10.2 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — a decline from the high of 12.4 percent in the winter of 2010, but still nearly twice what it was in 2001.

“I think there are very few people for whom the current economy is not challenging,” says Snay. “We’re seeing people who have been out of work for over three years, and the jobs they lost are not coming back … as well as young adults coming out of school who just aren’t sure of where to even begin to look.”

The strategy groups and one-on-one sessions allow JVS to cater to all sorts of people, she says — and they also help clients gain skills that job websites simply can’t provide.

“We hear from companies that 75 to 80 percent of job openings are never advertised,” says Snay. “I think people often feel like they’re keeping busy at home looking on a website, but we hear all the time that most people continue to find their jobs through their contacts, through who they know.”

In addition to everything else she does, Snay moderates JVS’ monthly informational interview panel — the next, on Tuesday, Jan. 8, will host employees from Gap, Microsoft and John Muir Health.

David Robins teaches a job skills class

Programs manager Beth Urfer says a goal for the new year is to reach more people and cater services to more nuanced unemployment situations.

“What we’re seeing a lot of are dislocated workers. People who are in the labor market because of the recession tend to be people who have a lot of work experience; a lot of them have achieved a high level of education, and honestly a lot of them are not interested in what’s most available, which might be entry-level positions,” says Urfer. “So part of the goal is to help people identify their transferable skills and get up-to-date on new ones, whether that means social media training or something else.”

The psychological aspect of being out of work shouldn’t be underestimated either, says Urfer, and JVS aims to provide informal support for that as well.

“We all identify ourselves by our vocation, by our work. It’s one of the main ways people describe who they are,” says Urfer. “So that’s a huge part of what JVS needs to be: a physical place where people can come together, whether it’s in the technology access center or in a strategy group or something else — not feeling isolated in this process is huge.”

While some workshops and events require preregistration, Urfer says there’s always something proactive clients can do — an online self-assessment test, a workshop — the first time they walk in the door.

For Ruby W., 61, the social aspect of coming to JVS has made a real difference. The San Francisco resident was a program manager at a nonprofit for nearly two decades before getting laid off about a year ago. She began coming to JVS in July, on the suggestion of a friend.

“Initially I was just taking advantage of the computer classes, because I felt really insecure about my skills there,” says Ruby. “But I realized really quickly how important it was to just keep coming here. Today, for example, it’s rainy and cold out … part of me wanted to just stay at home. But you get yourself out, you come here. You meet so many people, and you always leave motivated, or in a better mood, with so many new ideas.”

Ruby hasn’t found permanent work yet but has had a few temporary positions here and there. She says she feels “empowered” just knowing that, given the resources, she can and will attain new skills.

Throughout the office, the social element of the place is obvious. In the lobby, three clients exchange friendly banter, business cards and recommendations about  workshops. Judy Strebel, an out-of-work librarian who began using JVS’ services in October, says she’s mainly working on improving her interviewing skills; her goal is to get her foot in the door at the San Francisco Public Library.

“It’s tough as a librarian, because it’s all about the technology now — you have to be able to show that you’re up-to-date on everything,” she laments. “But I’ve learned so much even in the few months I’ve been coming here.”

In the technology access center, as in any other office, people make small talk over the copy machine and stop to chat. Jennifer Volk, the center’s coordinator, helps one woman troubleshoot an online job application. At least one volunteer is available at all times to answer client questions.

JVS clients (from left) Judy Strebel, Sally Burr and Gwen Ng share stories.

Steve Schaffer, one of several volunteers who regularly oversee the center, says serving as a point person for tech issues at JVS for the last 21⁄2 years has been incredibly rewarding.

“Technology, for a lot of job seekers, can be a real frustration, a stumbling block,” says Schaffer, who retired six years ago from IBM. “Especially for people who are just re-entering the workforce, who haven’t looked for a job in 20, 30 years — this isn’t like riding a bicycle. Just having someone to bounce questions off of, like ‘Do I copy and paste my résumé here, or send it as an attachment?’ can make a world of difference.”

Vince Caminiti, a job-search skills instructor, says he’s learned to wear a few different hats during his time with the organization.

“In the same day, I might work with someone who’s looking for a new job as a janitor and someone who’s been a medical physicist,” says Caminiti. “There’s truly an amazing diversity in terms of clientele, and I think that’s one of the things that makes us truly unique. We have to be job search diagnosticians.”

Caminiti says the job market seems to be getting better, but his No. 1 challenge remains the size of his caseloads.

The struggle “is always going to be getting it all done, with just the sheer number of people that need help right now,” he says. One of his main pieces of advice for job seekers? Don’t focus too narrowly on available job openings.

“A job opening is like a pinhole in the job market,” says Caminiti. “I try to shift the focus to networking — what can you do to start having relationships with companies, even if they don’t have openings? Sometimes it might feel like there’s no clear objective, but those relationships will often lead to something else.”

And once a client finds a job, Caminiti shifts the focus to networking — keeping an ear to the ground, staying in touch with potential future employers and coworkers. “Networking inverts the traditional job search,” he explains. “I encourage people to try to approach what they’re doing not as a job search, even, but as the first step in career management.”

Another challenge, according to JVS staff, is simply getting the word out that help is available — and that, despite the “Jewish” in its name, the resources are for everyone.

“It’s tricky, because we do get people who think ‘Oh, that’s just for Jewish people,’” says Urfer. “And we want people to know that we’re really available to everyone. At the same time, the Jewish roots of this organization are a great source of pride. Our mission and our values here are deeply, deeply rooted in Jewish tradition.”

While JVS staff members emphasize that they serve all Bay Area residents looking for work, some of the organization’s Jewish roots are plainly visible: For clients unable to come into the office who still want one-on-one coaching, local JCCs and other Jewish organizations often host events. The JVS Scholarship Program supports Jewish community members looking for vocational training, while the JVS’ Kohn Summer Internship program gives college students the chance to gain job experience in the Jewish community. (Kohn interns work nearly every summer at j.)

And some of the nonprofit’s biggest funders are Jewish: Among them, the San Francisco-based and East Bay Jewish federations, as well as their endowment funds, and the Walter and Elise Haas Fund.

For JVS client Sara P., an Israeli native who lives in Mountain View, the fact that JVS is a Jewish organization gives it an extra bit of familiarity.

Sara worked for a tech company in the South Bay for nearly a decade before leaving in 2004 to focus on raising her children. When she decided to go back to work last year, it was harder than she had expected.

“I feel like I’ve learned a lot by raising kids, but they’re not exactly skills that are valued by the corporate world,” Sara says. “Most companies, especially tech companies, want someone who’s very current, very up-to-date in their skill set … and I wasn’t there after eight years [of not working].”

Most of the JVS meetings she’s attended have been at South Bay JCCs, and while she’s glad the organization is open to everyone, “it does make me feel more at home” that it’s a Jewish organization, she says. “There’s a bit of instant comfort in that.”

The going’s still tough, says Sara. She’s been looking steadily for about a year now, and it’s easy to get discouraged. But having people to talk to who have been there makes all the difference.

Lucinda Morgan, for her part, says she’s taking it day by day, but she feels she has some wisdom to impart to job seekers.

“Let’s see,” she says, taking a moment to consider all she’s learned. “First of all, this will probably take longer than you think. And it’s hard. But you have to keep trying. Some days, just coming here can be an accomplishment.

“And, oh,” she adds with a smile. “Don’t sell yourself short.”


Jewish Vocational Service is located at 225 Bush St., Suite 400, S.F. For information, visit www.jvs.org or call (415) 391-3600.

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.