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JFCS Career Development Center: A Legacy in the Making

A Steel City Legacy 

At its beginning in 1984, JFCS Career Development Center was created as a response to the collapse of the steel industry. Started as a joint project with the Jewish Federation, the Career Development Center aimed to help hundreds of people in the Jewish community who were recently unemployed.

“We had around 350 clients in the first half of a year that came through the program,” Linda Ehrenreich, the founding department director said. “We expanded our services very quickly to include not just Jewish unemployed but anyone unemployed.”

Adapting to Needs

Over the years, the department, like Pittsburgh’s workforce landscape, has seen a lot of changes. The addition of new programs, changing clients needs, and growing staff size have expanded the department into areas far beyond simple job search.

Ehrenreich was a major force in growing the Career Development Center until she moved into the Chief Operating Officer position in 2014. At that time, Sarah Welch took over as Director and immediately set out to continue working towards the vision for the department. 

“I saw in Sarah someone who shared the vision. She was able to make more and more contacts in the community and support a growing staff with diverse functions and programs,” Ehrenreich explained. “She came in with the tools to do the job… she can handle anything that was thrown at her.”

Welch was able to continue expanding the department, with programs addressing neurodiversity, immigrant workforce needs, GED preparation, youth programs, and more. JFCS President and CEO Dr. Jordan Golin said, “Since Sarah started, we have a much larger staff now than we did; the budget for the department has grown significantly. And the number and variety of programs being offered has also grown and evolved.”

Supportive Team of Experts

Welch said that many of the current staff members were already part of the team when she started, and that continuity has been helpful in continuing and expanding the services offered. “The core of the Career Development Center is what Linda had built,” Sarah explained, “and we stayed close to that model of providing really solid support on an individual basis. 

She expressed that one of the biggest changes she has seen over the past seven years is that the program is serving more people and a wider variety of people on the continuum of their job search. 

“Sarah recognized needs in the community that weren’t currently being met that were appropriate for the Career Development Center to get involved in,” Golin explained. “She created relationships that facilitated getting new programs started and was successful in getting funding for those programs.”

New Community Initiatives

One of those needs was in the area of neurodiversity in the workforce. “We saw a lot of young adults graduating and not getting employment because of invisible disabilities,” Welch said. This led her to develop programming based in the current career development services but specializing in helping people with mental health challenges and autism.

Now, in addition to the EmployAble program, which helps individuals with autism and mental health challenges navigate the job search process, the department also works with Argo AI to implement best practices for hiring and working with neurodiverse employees. Welch hopes to see the program expand to other companies in the area as well, as neurodiversity is an important aspect of creating a better and more inclusive workforce in the region.

The Career Development Center also expanded its services to include more work with immigrants. Previously, JFCS Refugee and Immigrant Services department had done most of the employment work, focusing on newer refugees. 

JFCS Career Development Center worked to hire staff with an understanding of the immigrant experience to build up the team and better serve those communities. This led to the development of the Immigrant Workforce Program, in partnership with Literacy Pittsburgh, which helps immigrants build skills and an understanding of the local workforce to obtain better jobs. 

Welch also started a new way of thinking about advocacy at JFCS, taking yearly trips to Washington, DC, to meet with Congressmen to talk about important issues in workforce and employment. “Sarah’s passion for advocacy has spurred the agency to think through other ways in which we can not only provide direct services for clients, but also consider the broader context of the challenges that our clients are experiencing,” explained Golin.

COVID-19 Changes to Services

The pandemic brought new challenges to the department, with increased unemployment throughout the region and new restrictions on in-person services. “This team rose to the occasion,” Welch said. “When the stay at home orders were issued, we didn’t know what it meant for our clients. We really had to do a lot of legwork to shift and move as regulations changed. But we created important ways to support our clients–we didn’t miss a meeting. We didn’t shut down at all.”

Within a week, the Career Development Center staff transitioned all of their workshops and presentations into a virtual format and began meeting with clients via phone and video call. In addition to supporting clients through an already stressful job search process, they also helped clients navigate virtual interviews, new technology, and remote work. 

“I’m lucky enough to work with a team of professionals who are all bringing something to the table,” Welch expressed. “They all have their own styles, own skill sets–and they advocate and help their clients figure out different pathways… I’m really proud of this team.”

The Next Chapter

Seven years into her time as Director of JFCS Career Development Center, Sarah’s expertise is taking her to a new position with the Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies (NJHSA). “I am super excited for this opportunity with NJHSA, but JFCS always has my heart,” said Welch. “I have the experiences, skills, and training to be able to share with other Jewish agencies, but I’ll also be able to have the opportunity to learn from other agencies across the nation and bring that back to Pittsburgh.” She hopes to see Jewish vocational services idea sharing and coming together to collaborate more often.

As for the future of JFCS Career Development Center, she has hopes for the team to be able to expand their reach, build on their reputation, and help JFCS have more seats at more tables. She said, “We are recognized as a workforce development organization that provides crucial services and provides them well. I’m proud that we have a good reputation and that we are able to serve our community.”

Golin said, “As COVID hopefully begins to wind down, employment is at the top of the list with regards to community priorities, and so CDC has a very relevant role to play in helping the community recover from the pandemic, helping companies recover, helping individuals look for opportunities to become more financially self-sufficient, and to do it in some creative ways.”

Ehrenreich also expressed the importance of the department going forward, saying, “The Career Development Center is an incredibly valuable resource in the community. Sarah has continued to successfully get the word out, but it’s still undervalued in some ways. The model is a very successful model, and the department will continue to flourish.”

Golin is grateful for all of Welch’s work through the past seven years, saying, “I just want to thank Sarah for giving us so many years of service and growing the Career Development Center and enhancing its opportunities in the community.”

Welch also had a final message for her coworkers before leaving the agency: “Thank you for providing me with the freedom to try new things. Sometimes they fail and sometimes they succeed, but it’s been great to have a team and leadership that has been willing to say, ‘Let’s try it and see what happens!’ It has allowed us to be innovative and push the limits. And funders, city leaders, and community leaders recognize that our services are valuable, creative, and innovative.”