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Center For Women Helps Job Hunters Polish Skills

By Ann Belser Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Eileen Andrews spent her best working years at home with her two children. Employed outside the home on and off, but always part-time, she also spent years supporting her church by helping in the office and putting on programs without remuneration.

When her husband of 25 years left, she didn't know how to pay bills that had all been shifted to online payment systems. She didn't have a way to earn a living. She didn't even know if she had marketable skills.

In short, she said, she was a mess.

Luckily, her sister was adept at using Google. The Center for Women popped up high in an online search for places to get help.

Ms. Andrews, 46, of Penn Hills, called for an appointment last November. When she got to the center's office in Squirrel Hill, Becky Abrams, the executive director, and Lindsey Miller, who runs the center's mentorship and intern programs, were waiting for her at the door.

What they gave her, she said, was a chance to regroup.

She learned about her home finances, how to interview for a job and leveraging her personal network into a professional network.

She also worked as an intern at the center, not so much learning how to be an administrative assistant, but rather finding out that she already had the skills she needed.

"I hadn't built a career," she said. "I'm so far behind because I was home for so many years."

She is still working part-time -- three part-time jobs -- and helping at her church. She's been an Avon representative for seven years; now she is an administrative assistant for the Avon district manager. She works part-time for a basement waterproofing company, and she works part-time at a Chick-fil-A restaurant.

The years following the economic meltdown of 2008 have not been good for people entering the job market. In August, according to the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., there were two job seekers for every position.

In November, when Ms. Andrews entered the job market looking for full-time work, the ratio was 2.7 job seekers for every opening. What she needed was an actual work history with current skills.

That's also what Melissa Tai needed.

Ms. Tai, 42, of O'Hara, had her own business painting murals and doing faux finishes on walls. She stopped offering the services when her daughter, now 6, was born.

Now with her daughter in first grade and her 3-year-old son in day care two days a week, Ms. Tai found restarting her business harder than she expected.

She had been a marketing major, but back when she was in school there weren't any social media tools such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

After a period of foundering, she, too, called the Center for Women. It set her up with two internships -- one painting scenery for City Theater and another where she learned about social media in marketing.

The internships, she said, made her get out of the house and develop the discipline she needed when, with two kids, there were so many other pressing demands.

Now her business is up and running again.

The Center for Women opened Aug. 1, 2013. Since then, 293 women have come through the doors. By the center's tally, 118 have attended workshops, 24 have been matched with a mentor, 18 participated in the internship program, 28 have met with a lawyer for a consultation and 19 have found jobs.

The center was founded by the Pittsburgh chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women with a 3-year initial grant of $250,000 from the Jewish Women's Foundation of Greater Pittsburgh.

Additional money has come from the PNC Charitable Trust, the Fine Foundation and individual donors, who all contribute to the center's $220,000 annual budget, which funds one full-time and three part-time employees.

Ms. Abrams said the council decided to start the center because women in transition in the workforce have needs, such as financial fitness and networking help, that are not addressed by other social service agencies.

"They are falling through the cracks," she said.

The women showing up all need support. Sixty-five percent of those who have come so far either lost their job or are changing jobs; 15 percent are recently divorced or separated; another 15 percent are considering leaving their marriages; and 5 percent are widowed.

Those coming back into the job market see unemployment rates going down, but it's not that simple.

The declining jobless rate is more because people aren't trying to get jobs than because of employers adding jobs.

In September, for instance, employers nationally added 248,000 jobs, but the number of people who were not in the labor force grew by 315,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Sarah Burke said she held it together through her first meeting at the Center for Women in January. "Immediately when I walked out, I burst into tears."

She started crying, she said, because she finally felt supported.

Ms. Burke, 30, of Friendship, had moved to Pittsburgh with her husband but without a job. Her search for a job in communications seemed like just sending applications into a black hole. By the time she found the Center for Women, she had no money and was sinking into debt.

"I found them at the most stressful time in my life," she said. "The second I walked in the door, they were trying to help me get that job."

At the center, Ms. Burke and Ms. Miller knew that a powerful way to help women access the labor market and build a network would be to get them into jobs as interns.

Often, once in an organization, they can prove their skills.

But internships, by law, have to be either paid or give college credit. Most women returning to the labor force after an absence are not enrolled in school.

So the center has found ways to work with nonprofits. The internships are really volunteer positions, but they are tailored to help the women develop skills needed in the workforce.

Ms. Andrews worked at the center as a program manager and put together a workbook for the mentor program.

Ms. Burke volunteered for 10 to 15 hours a week at Lawrenceville United, a neighborhood advocacy group. She helped with the organization's social media and redesigned its annual report and electronic newsletter.

When a job opened up as the communications manager for the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp., an economic development corporation, she had professional connections with the people on the board so she was relaxed for the interview.

She got that job in June and remains in touch with her mentor, who was introduced to her through the Center for Women.

"The way they rallied around me and became my support system was amazing."

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