JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – Debra Balog, Johnstown Area Regional Industries’ first workforce development director, is retiring in December.

For 21 years, Balog has played a major role in helping Johnstown’s businesses find people to fill jobs and upscale workers’ skills to meet the area’s workforce demands and earn a wage that allows them to have a better quality of life.

“The most rewarding part of my job is seeing individuals get retrained, re-employed and back on their feet,” Balog said.

“Over the years, what has really touched my heart is when an individual who, maybe 15 or 20 years ago, was unemployed and looking for work – they keep in touch with me, and they’ll say, ‘Hey, I got promoted,’ or ‘Hey, I have a family,’ or ‘You know what, I got a company truck, and I’m now a supervisor.’ ”

Balog’s final day employed by JARI will be Dec. 16.

JARI is a nonprofit economic development organization that has been a partner of the business community in Cambria and Somerset counties since 1974.

The organization’s workforce development division began more than 20 years ago, spurred by the vision of the late U.S. Rep. John P. Murtha, who wanted JARI to help companies expand by bridging their needs with skills of the area’s population.

JARI President and CEO Linda Thomson said Balog has built a strong workforce development program over her career.

“Firstly, Debi has been a fierce advocate for Somerset and Cambria employers when it comes to recruitment and training of employees,” Thomson said.

“Her knowledge of funding sources and partnering opportunities, along with her collaborative approach to all things workforce development, have helped companies of all sizes and in all sectors of the economy.”

Prior to working for JARI, Balog was employed by AmeriServ Financial for 19 years, holding a number of positions, including training manager.

“In 2001, JARI put an opportunity out there for a workforce director to actually develop and implement a workforce development program for JARI,” Balog said.

“It was of interest to me. I had been at the bank for 19 years, and I had some people come up to me and say, ‘This is something you might like to do,’ so I applied, and I’ve been there 21 years.”

Over the past two decades, JARI’s workforce development efforts – especially JARI industry partnerships – have grown significantly, she said.

Membership in JARI’s industry partnerships stands at more than 300 business leaders from 250 area companies, according to JARI’s website. The partnerships include private businesses as well as public partners and social service agencies, including PA CareerLink.

The annual Cambria County Job Fair that draws hundreds of job seekers each year came out of that partnership, she said. The annual Youth Professional Development Conference also developed through the input of the industry partnerships.

Most recently, the industry partners have developed a formal partnership with the Johnstown Housing Authority.

An employment and training opportunity resource fair held in August at the housing authority drew more than 120 residents, she said.

“Our hope is to continue to reach out to individuals who wouldn’t necessarily come to us,” she said.

“We are getting out there, boots-on-the-ground, the old-fashioned way, putting fliers out there.

“There’s a significant number of residents who are capable of getting employment and want to get retrained,” she said.

“That’s the nice part about it. They want to make their lives better – we’ve talked to them. It’s just that they don’t necessarily have the resources to get to CareerLink or come to JARI.”

Those resources include transportation, child care, and in some cases, computers.

As with many of Balog’s projects over the years, she is working closely with PA CareerLink Cambria and Somerset counties site administrator Jeff Dick on the partnership with the housing authority.

PA CareerLink provides career services to employers and potential employees and is operated under the direction of the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.

“She has helped so many people with employment barriers to get into family-sustaining-wage jobs,” Dick said.

“So many events we’ve done with Debi over the years have been successful because she makes it a community project, not an individual person or agency looking out for themselves. The compassion and her heart to help people are amazing.”

After her retirement, Balog said she will work part time at Pennsylvania Highlands Community College’s workforce education department.

In her role at Penn Highlands, Balog will help the college develop relationships with local businesses and provide training services, said Trish Corle, Penn Highlands vice president of student services.

“Her years of experience and expertise and her knowledge of the communities we serve will be invaluable to us and will continue to serve the population of the community as well,” Corle said.

“It’s great when folks like Debi, who have served so many years in the community, decide they want to retire from that position, but they still want to be involved in some way. I think we are just blessed and lucky enough to get to her first and have her agree to be a part of the Penn Highlands team.”

Russ O'Reilly is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @RussellOReilly.

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