Gail Wallis Hague was explaining the basics of resumes to a roomful of women looking for work when one of them nervously raised her hand with a question.
"What if you don't have much to put on there?" she asked.
Ms. Hague, who has spent decades as an instructor with PA Women Work, didn't hesitate.
"Nobody has three kids under 3 years old and doesn't know how to do anything," she said. "We just have to figure it out, put it on paper."
For decades, Ms. Hague and PA Women Work have been working to move people -- primarily women -- from unemployment to a career path. Through the New Choices class, participants learn interviewing skills, computer skills and get real-time assistance with their job search.
"These women are not here because life has been a piece of cake," said Ms. Hague. "They've been through a lot."
The program originated with the Displaced Homemakers Network that emerged when the divorce rate started to rise in the 1960s and 1970s. It incorporated as PA Women's Work, funded exclusively by the state, in the 1990s. As state funding has been cut in recent years, corporations and other nonprofits have stepped in with assistance to keep the program running.
PA Women Work has 13 chapters statewide and runs classes locally in Bethel Park, Homewood, Downtown, Shaler and Beaver.
At a Homewood class earlier this month, LaShelle Ford was listening intently to Ms. Hague's tips. "I want to get back into a career path instead of just going from job to job," she said.
In the late 1990s, Ms. Ford, 39, thought she had set herself up for career success. She'd gotten her commercial driver's license through the Job Corps program, gotten a job with a major cargo company and arranged child care for her 2-year-old daughter during the day.
Then she started having to work every other Saturday, and then every Saturday, and then start shifts at 5 a.m., leaving her unable to use traditional day-care centers. Unable to find reliable child care for those hours, she quit driving and started working in child care herself.
Since then, she's worked in numerous child care jobs, often in the infant or early toddler rooms, where she says she's often burned out after a year or so.
With her youngest child now 13, she no longer feels limited to working in child care and she dreams of an office job. But many of the jobs she would be interested in require minimum typing speeds or knowledge of Microsoft Excel -- not something that's mastered in years of working at day care centers.
When her neighbor told her about New Choices, she signed up.
"I'm learning to take more initiative myself," she said. "Before, if I thought I couldn't get the job, instead of trying, I would just give up."
Across the table, Roberta Duff has a steady work history and several degrees. But finding a job after moving back to Penn Hills from Albuquerque, N.M., has been more difficult than she expected. For many years in New Mexico, Ms. Duff, 49, worked in human resources for the federal government, earning a master's degree in organizational leadership and starting a Ph.D. program.
Since moving back to live with and help care for her aging mother, she hasn't even been able to secure a temp job. She's hoping that she'll be able to get her typing speed up through the New Choices computer class, and also that the career counseling will help her explore other lines of work.
Through one class's emphasis on her core values, she's focusing on principles such a family and spirituality, and realizing how much she enjoys working with people.
"There's no reason why I couldn't re-invent myself," she said. "Moving up the career ladder, I forgot some of those things."
Anya Sostek: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1308.