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Finding Work in a Bear Market

Two new programs at Jewish Vocational Service help job-seekers cope with a sluggish economy.

by Michael Aushenker

April 12, 2001 | 8:00 pm

It was a rough transition for Debbie Murphy. She had just emerged from a difficult divorce after being trapped for two decades in an abusive marriage. Two years ago, she found herself on her own for the first time, unemployed and unequipped.

"Even though I had a bachelor's degree and a certificate in computer graphics," Murphy recalled, "my husband had never allowed me to work professionally, and I didn't know the first thing about how to use my skills in the marketplace."

Then Murphy heard about WoMentoring, a program created by Jewish Vocational Service (JVS). The outreach organization matched up Murphy with mentor figure Kristen Silverman, a Woodland Hills-based graphic designer at G&G Print Shop. Working closely with Silverman helped Murphy regain her confidence.

"She is truly an inspiration," Murphy said. "She has a tireless energy that she gives in abundance. I cannot begin to express how much she has helped me because of her altruistic and loving nature."

Thanks to WoMentoring, Murphy was among the 19 women who graduated and landed jobs in their respective fields. She went on to work as a graphic designer for Computer Associates, a Fortune 500 company. She says she owes much of her success to Silverman, and the pair bonded so well that they are starting a Web site-design company together.

A beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, JVS is committed to assisting people of all races and faiths in finding work or redirecting their careers. JVS also works the other side of the fence, helping businesses find qualified employees. With offices in West Hollywood, the San Fernando Valley, and at the Federation's 6505 Wilshire headquarters, the nonprofit, nonsectarian outreach organization serves more than 7,000 Angelenos each year.

The timing of JVS's WoMentoring and Winning New Jobs programs couldn't have arrived at a better time. Dramatic changes have added new work-related stresses and fears that were invisible a scant three years ago. Dot-coms and start-ups are crashing and burning. Brick-and-mortars are laying off employees by the thousands. The Dow Jones industrial average recently plummeted below 10,000 points in its biggest one-week drop in 11 years. The Standard & Poor 500 Index is down 25 percent from its peak last March.

"We are flattening," said Claudia Finkel, JVS's vice president of programs. "It's hitting a lot of industries that thought it would never happen to them."

Now that the e-bubble has e-burst, people working for Internet start-ups must update their skills in order to rejoin the corporate world. Also, as Vivian Seigel, CEO and executive vice president of JVS, noted, Congress jettisoned the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's ergonomics rules a few weeks ago, sending a chill throughout the corporate world. With the prospect of two major entertainment strikes looming large this summer, JVS is bracing itself to meet new demand.

Career counselor Bobbi Yanke was instrumental in developing the WoMentoring program and its training infrastructure. She now runs two Valley WoMentoring programs (10 pairs of participants each), including a group focused on small businesses. The professional focus this year includes public relations and journalism; psychology; medical research; television writing; and sales.

"The rewarding aspect has been to watch these women grow and develop and to really take control of their lives," said Yanke, who added that WoMentoring is mutually beneficial. "The mentors help the mentees really become motivated. It's a cyclical kind of thing. As mentees get inspired, mentors get more inspired."

Silverman attests to this aspect. Her pairing with Murphy was as therapeutic and confidence-building for Silverman as it was for Murphy. "Even people in creative arts have told me that I'm too scattered," Silverman said, "that I have to pick a field." Neither Silverman nor Murphy believed it, she said. "Everything feeds everything else."

Silverman has seen a substantial evolution in Murphy across the year of their exchange.

"In the beginning, she was just really disempowered. She had little notion of being able to support herself, let alone do it as an artist. At the end, we were like, 'We're going to be rich!'" Silverman said with a laugh.

They bonded strongly over their shared creative passions and their interest in meditation. In fact, they developed personal mantras to help Murphy gain her confidence, even naming their new graphic design venture CyberShakti (shakti is a Hindu word for the feminine creative force of the universe).

Silverman believed that WoMentoring could use some fine-tuning at the administrative end. She has suggested including a checklist of areas of interest -- social skills, interpersonal skills, motivation, confidence issues -- on the mentor's application, to target which areas of growth could be addressed. She even envisioned the concept of a mentee being assisted in different areas by various mentors selected on the basis of this checklist.

"What worked for us," she said, speaking of her relationship with Murphy, "was that we started with the interpersonal stuff. Once you get the interpersonal stuff straight, all the professional stuff works out."

But Silverman's criticisms do not diminish her affection for the program, which she ultimately found very rewarding and would like to participate in again. "It was very worthwhile," she said.

A program that opened in September 2000, "Winning New Jobs," is another way JVS hopes to help fight unemployment. Many unemployed need to brush up not only on their job skills but on the tools to face the mental health issues that come with the search process. The monthly, five-day "Winning New Jobs" specifically focuses on the psychological aspects of job-seeking, reinforcing positive thinking. After all, even for an employed person, it can be disconcerting to wake up one morning and suddenly realize that age-old corporate bellwethers -- such as the 103-year-old Oldsmobile, or Montgomery Ward -- have gone the way of the dodo bird.

"'Winning New Jobs' empowers people to refocus their identities and to realize what they are capable of accomplishing in the workplace," said JVS rehabilitation counselor Brian Ebenkamp. He achieves this through a variety of exercises that allow participants to role-play, assuming both the applicant's and hiring executive's perspective. From day one to five days later in this intensive program, Ebenkamp sees a difference.

"It's like day and night," he said. "They come in thinking they know a lot, but after the workshop they gain a different perspective and the skills to be more effective."

One thing may be certain in this uncertain world, say JVS's administrators: celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, JVS intends to adapt constantly to the current needs of the marketplace.

"I definitely believe in the WoMentoring program," said mentee Murphy. "It has changed my life for the better in ways that I could never have imagined. I will definitely serve as a mentor someday."

Jewish Vocational Service will hold its Strictly Business L.A. Awards Luncheon on Wed., May 16, 11:30 a.m., at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. S. David Freeman, general manager of Los Angeles Department of Water & Power, will be the keynote speaker. Kaiser Permanente and three JVS employees will be honored. For reservations, call (323) 761-8888, ext. 8895. For more information on Jewish Vocational Service, call (323) 761-8888 or (818) 464-3222 or visit www.jvsla.org.

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