Screenshot from a JVS Job Search Accelerator training session in April. (Photo/Courtesy JVS)
Screenshot from a JVS Job Search Accelerator training session in April. (Photo/Courtesy JVS)

Jewish Vocational Service in high demand as pandemic unemployment skyrockets

Directly downstream of the public health crisis created by the Covid-19 pandemic is an employment crisis — in the Bay Area, and around the country — that has resulted in layoffs and hiring freezes.

JVS, the San Francisco-based job training and placement nonprofit also known as Jewish Vocational Service, is feeling the effects. In a recent Zoom call with J., CEO Lisa Countryman-Quiroz described huge demand for the agency’s services, coupled with a contracted job market that has curtailed the number of entry-level jobs and paid training opportunities available to clients.

Her promotion to head the organization, which receives support from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, came earlier this year after the departure of Abby Snay, who led JVS for close to four decades.

When Countryman-Quiroz took over in January, she did so amid historically low unemployment in the region. For more than two years, jobless rates had been hovering at or below 3 percent in the San Francisco-Oakland metropolitan area, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

At the time, 10 months ago, about 70,000 people were out of work in the Bay Area. By April, that figure would explode to more than 323,000.

JVS helps Bay Area job seekers of all religions and ethnic backgrounds. In a normal year, it assists about 2,300 people. This year, JVS has taken on 700 more clients than it anticipated. Many are laid-off workers.

“When we first launched remote trainings on how to interview on Zoom, our website crashed,” Countryman-Quiroz said. “Our data analytics training saw over 400 people apply” for only 20 available spots.

Like other social-service organizations, from after-school programs to food banks, the pandemic has fundamentally transformed the way JVS does business. For one thing, its San Francisco office in the Financial District, where dozens of job seekers used to gather every day for classroom trainings, is closed. So everything must be done online.

When we first launched remote trainings on how to interview on Zoom, our website crashed.

Early in the pandemic, JVS launched its first-ever emergency fund, designed in part to make emergency cash grants and purchase technology for clients. It has raised more than $1.1 million, granting around $329,000 in small amounts to pay for things such as utilities, food and shelter. The rest of the money is being used to buy electronic equipment like laptops and Wi-Fi routers, and to implement new, online training programs.

Last year, JVS received a well-timed donation of 50 laptops from S.F.-based Twitter, all quickly deployed to clients who needed them for job training and Zoom interviews. JVS is appealing to tech companies and other corporate partners, and to the community more broadly, asking for donations of high-quality used laptops.

“We have to be responsive to the digital divide,” Countryman-Quiroz said.

The agency’s three main programs are a job-search accelerator (a two-week job-hunting seminar), vocational training programs (mainly for high school students) and Career Pathways, which trains people for entry-level positions in an array of fields, from automotive technology to health care.

JVS does not aim to place clients in service-sector or minimum-wage jobs. Rather, it prioritizes “middle-skill, middle-wage” jobs that will reliably pay between $40,000 and $80,000 per year. Increasingly those jobs are found in the technology sector — jobs like data analyst or Salesforce administrator.

About 70 percent of JVS clients are people of color, according to the agency, and many have been experiencing tremendous precarity and poverty exacerbated by the pandemic. According to three client surveys conducted between March and August, 70 percent of JVS clients reported food or housing insecurity, and around half who applied for unemployment insurance had not been able to secure it.

“I spend more money eating once a day and paying for housing than I make at my job,” one survey respondent said. Another wrote: “Landlord made it clear, no rent control in Daly City, she raised it 20 percent due to pandemic.”

In recent months, some job sectors have begun rebounding, though most still lag significantly behind 2019 levels. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the trade, transportation and utilities sector in the Bay Area saw total employment increase by about 8 percent between April and September. The health and education sector improved moderately. And leisure and hospitality saw an increase of 38 percent, or approximately 50,000 jobs over that span.

Lisa Countryman-Quiroz, CEO of Jewish Vocational Service. (Photo/Courtesy JVS)
Lisa Countryman-Quiroz, CEO of Jewish Vocational Service. (Photo/Courtesy JVS)

But while the overall unemployment rate has improved, many companies remain stuck in a hiring freeze. That affects everything JVS does — the skills it teaches, the programs it offers and, perhaps most importantly, the number of people it can help, especially in its Career Pathways program. In normal circumstances, trainees meet in-person for classes over six weeks to four months. In nearly all cases, the program culminates in paid work experience via an internship, fellowship or apprenticeship.

“We can train thousands and thousands of people every year,” Countryman-Quiroz said. “But we wouldn’t be serving them if we weren’t making that connection to the employer.”

Even before the pandemic, some of the job-seeking programs were as highly selective as top colleges, in terms of admittance rates.

For a program to train medical administrators — a partnership with UCSF called Excel — JVS typically received applications from around 200 people, for just 20 slots. A high percentage of graduates of the program go on to secure positions at UCSF.

In the face of challenges presented by the pandemic, there have been success stories, too.

Monica Rivera lost her job at a Bay Area auto repair shop when the company went out of business. She enrolled in a 14-week JVS training program to become a dental assistant, but just before she was about to begin a paid internship, the pandemic hit.

With help from a JVS emergency cash grant, she was able to hold out for a couple more weeks without work. Ultimately she was able to secure an interview, and a job, at SmileSF, a dental office in Cow Hollow. She plans to take the licensing exam to become a registered dental assistant.

“This was a turning point for me,” she said.

As fully remote, online job-training sessions continue — upcoming workshops include “Rapid Resume Reboot,” “LinkedIn Basics” and “Interviewing in the Zoom Age” — JVS knows that, in today’s economy, it’s going to take longer to place clients in entry-level roles in their chosen careers.

The key, Countryman-Quiroz said, is to “continue to support people” while they wait. In other words, to help them “stay focused on their job search, and not get demoralized.”

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.