It was John Oliverio's first Pittsburgh Young Professionals event. He walked into a salsa bar and walked out with the anchor to his life in the city.
Twelve years later, the 44-year-old human resources director is still a professional, still in Pittsburgh and still young -- at least at heart. "That's why I'm still involved in this group," Mr. Oliverio said. "It has given so much to me and now I'm giving it back."
This month, the 350-member organization is celebrating 25 years of existence. Its main mission has remained the same: helping locals at the beginning of their careers "develop socially, professionally and civically."
But the group's quarter-of-a-century mark comes at a time when its board of directors is attempting to transform its image.
"When I started out, we did a lot of community service," said Mr. Oliverio, who serves as vice president. "We planted flowers at the Fort Pitt tunnels and remodeled the basement of Hosanna House, those type of things."
That type of community involvement was the original intent of Pittsburgh Young Professionals, which formed from a group of friends who moved to the city in 1988. But after the economy took its downturn, turnout to service-focused events declined.
Pittsburgh Young Professionals president Aaron Plitt, a trader at Tube City IMS in Glassport, said young professionals were feeling the pressure of corporate and personal financial trouble.
"I saw a real opportunity for the professional development aspect to be our future," Mr. Plitt said. "We need to give young people the skills to succeed in their careers and make them want to stay here in Pittsburgh."
The 2013 calendar has been an attempt to do just that. Monthly events trend toward networking social hours, resume workshops and entrepreneur how-to programs.
At a happy hour last week, the outdoor patio of Easy Street bar Downtown was crammed with members who had just left the offices of nearly every type of industry in town: technology, advertising, finance, sales and law, just to start.
Chris Faith, a sales representative for the Baltimore-based Lupin Pharmaceuticals, said it was the perfect atmosphere to be career-focused.
"There's some people here from Giant Eagle," Mr. Faith, 29, said. "I have a love-hate relationship with Giant Eagle because they decide whether to stock my products or not. I definitely have to go make friends with those guys."
Others were focused on jobs of the future, such as graphic designer Jackie McClellan, 24, who works for 4C Technologies in Wilkinsburg. "I've been to a few of these happy hours and I hand out a lot of business cards," she said. "It's good for looking for freelance opportunities."
Attendance at these smaller events is on the rise, but for larger events, Pittsburgh Young Professionals still faces tough competition, like 40 Under 40, an event sponsored by Pittsburgh Magazine and the Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project that recognizes young locals committed to improving the region, or the Mattress Factory art museum's Urban Garden Party.
Mr. Oliverio said his group's annual "signature event," the Esprit de Corps, used to draw crowds of up to 1,000. It has been replaced by a similar event, the Silver Soiree, which includes dancing, dinner, live entertainment and an auction. But for the past few years, attendance has held steady at about 150.
The situation parallels competition with other young professional groups for membership.
A few prominent Pittsburgh companies including Downtown-based PNC Financial Services and O'Hara grocer Giant Eagle have their own social groups for exclusively young employees. The Pittsburgh Young Professionals board has organized collaborative events with these company-specific groups, such as the June happy hour.
But stronger competition for members and sponsors lies with broader but similarly focused groups, such as the Urban League of Young Professionals. The 11-year-old group is funded by corporations, including UPMC, Comcast and Fifth Third Bank.
"These companies want access to the diverse talent in the city of Pittsburgh," said Marisa Bartley, the group's president. "And they want to get their own employees involved in the community, because it leads to higher retention."
Mr. Plitt and Mr. Oliverio said they are confident that Pittsburgh Young Professionals will continue to thrive and hope that its 25-year history will continue to attract members.
"I know that if I hadn't met my best friends in that salsa bar in 2001, I wouldn't be at the job I have or even in Pittsburgh today," Mr. Oliverio said. "It's worth it."
Jessica Contrera: email@example.com or 412-263-1458.