When Karen Krebs-Wellerstein lost her job in May, it came as a sudden shock. For more than six years, she had worked to raise funds from major donors for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
With her department already shrunk, she thought she was safe.
"I was very surprised," said the 55-year-old.
But she didn't waste time feeling sorry for herself. The first thing the next Monday morning, she picked up the phone and started making calls -- not to potential employers, but to colleagues in similar straits. Before long, she'd established a support group -- recently christened FIT: Friends in Transition -- one of many such groups created, locally and nationally, as a response to challenging times for job-seekers.
Even as data suggests that the recession is ending, unemployment is edging close to 10 percent for the first time in decades.
Local groups are responding with increased employment support services, career networking opportunities, and reduced fees for job-training courses.
Krebs-Wellerstein and her group meet each Thursday at Delancey Street Bagel on City Line Avenue, but they don't show up to complain.
"You're allowed to whine at your first meeting -- but that's it!" said Caroline Unger, a member of the group who formerly worked for the Jewish Family and Children's Service.
At FIT, the positive is accentuated. Each week, a different member of the group leads the meeting, introducing new members, discussing job-search issues encountered over the past week, setting goals for the upcoming week and pointing out openings members have seen that might be right for others in the group.
At a recent meeting, Bobbi Cohen presided over a group of eight (as many as 11 attend at various times). She talked about a personal job opportunity she suspects didn't work out and the progress that she'd made with a quartet of leads provided to her by her uncle's accountant.
While none of them yielded work yet, she said, "the overall lesson learned for me is that you never know" where an opportunity is going to come from.
The 57-year-old lost her job in February when Ceridian, the company she worked for shed a quarter of its staff. She had served as a human-resources product manager, and prior to that, spent nearly three decades in the travel industry. Now she's doing management consulting on her own -- primarily for nonprofit groups, she said -- and looking to make a career of it. She has put together an informational brochure about herself and her services, listing qualifications, contact information and accolades from past employers.
Much of FIT's success, say its members, lies in its personal nature, which allows participants to cope and assist one another.
For example, Krebs-Wellerstein observed that she wasn't familiar with the site LinkedIn -- which uses e-mail updates to connect professionals across a variety of fields -- and worried that not using it might be hurting her chances in the job market. Two members familiar with the site quickly spoke up, offering to help her navigate it.
A More Formal Structure
Many FIT members have worked for the Federation or other Jewish communal organizations, as Jewish nonprofits have been forced to succumb to recessionary pressures.
One particular Jewish agency has seen a surge in walk-ins as a result of the economic squeeze.
The career-strategies department at JEVS Human Services has seen more than 600 individuals over the course of the past six months, nearly 85 percent of whom identified as Jewish. That's according to career strategies director Penny Kardon, who noted that the current influx of people is about 100 more than during the corresponding period last year.
Kardon observed that she thought JEVS would be seeing even more clients, but that many of those in need might be turning to their synagogues and other groups for support and solace.
On a recent Friday morning, six people showed up at the JEVS offices on Walnut Street for the first of an eight-session series on job-search tips. Their ages ranged from early 20s to late middle-age, and they'd worked in fields as diverse as facilities management, social work and medical billing.
But they were all looking for the same thing -- a leg up.
The first session, led by co-facilitators Adam Shpall and Pamela Jacob, covered goal-setting; future installments will focus on networking, interviewing, salary negotiations and more.
The pair said that while JEVS has in the past relied on a sliding-fee scale for its services, these days -- thanks to grants and a $335,000 increase in funding from Federation -- the cost of many such services has been drastically reduced or dropped altogether. Shpall and Jacob's sessions on job-search help, formerly available only to JEVS clients, are now open to the general public.
Federation also supports JEVS workshops at local shuls.
One widely reported element of the recession's job crunch has been the struggle for older workers to find new employment -- a problem germane to many support groups, whose members are often in their 40s, 50s and 60s.
Kardon observed that many of JEVS new clients are older folks with higher degrees and who have had, until recently, stable work histories. Yet she also pointed out that such a person, having long been gainfully employed, "isn't necessarily your best interviewer or job-seeker."
Some FIT members have relied on JEVS for support services in addition to what they get from the independent group.
But others, like Bobbi Cohen, feel the agency (and similar services) might not have as much to offer more seasoned professionals like themselves.
"I feel like I have it under control," stated Cohen. "I've been around a while, and my résumé's in good shape."
For her part, Kardon said that independent support groups are definitely valuable for helping people cope, but she opined that they may not be doing as much to help their members, for instance, ace their next job interview. In such a scenario, she said, JEVS staffers might better coach clients on buzzwords for interviews, videotape a mock interview, and make sure the client understands the current job market in the region and their particular industry.
"That's not the same as sitting around in a group of peers saying, 'What's the matter, why don't they see my value?' " added Kardon.
On the Synagogue Front
Each Thursday night, Sharon Richman heads to Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley. But she's not there for worship -- she's there for work. Or at least the prospect of it.
Richman is one of the facilitators of SHARE, a job-support group that began at Congregation Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley. Under the moniker SHARE (Support, Help, Assistance, Resources=Employment), the group has expanded to include members of other Lower Merion area synagogues. It's also open to the unaffiliated.
Up to a dozen people show up to the weekly meetings, according to Richman; the mailing list goes out to more than 30 people.
Richman joined SHARE at a time of transition: She was in the process of closing her own business -- a knitting store in Cherry Hill, N.J., which she'd run for more than four years. She had also spent a number of years in the nonprofit world, including a stint at Federation.
"One thing the groups do is present an opportunity to share resources and ideas," said Richman, adding that because everyone uses e-mail, job openings and networking opportunities get passed around.
Even for those looking for employment, it's not all work and no play. Many said that their meetings had become social outlets as much as support groups.
Many FIT members volunteer with their extra time, especially at Jewish institutions. In fact, JEVS and many other employment groups emphasize volunteering as an integral part of finding work -- you never know who you might meet.
Such was the case for FIT member Nan Latona, 47, who, after volunteering with the Kaiserman JCC, accepted a part-time position as the organization's interim development director. She noted that a key component for her is "the do-good part."
Although the current members of FIT are still looking for full-time work, one former member did find a contract position.
Lynn Haakenson, who was Krebs-Wellerstein's administrative assistant, is back at Federation, and says she wouldn't have found the job without both FIT and JEVS. She credited the latter with helping her find a temporary position at the University of Pennsylvania until the Federation job opened up.
The members of FIT are confident that if one of them can find work, the rest will as well.
"It was a life-saver," Haakenson said of the group, adding that "in a situation that nobody wanted to be in, it wasn't as bad when we were there together."