Leveraging the resources of businesses and organizations to develop the workforce is an important approach to imparting social capital to surrounding communities. At the workshop, three presenters described programs in the Chicago area that use workforce development initiatives to improve individual health and well-being and strengthen communities. Though not explicitly intended to do so, these three presentations form a forceful response to Spriggs’ call for reinvestment in human capital. Workforce development can prepare people for good jobs while giving them the tools, skills, and knowledge they need to remain healthy and build healthy communities.
The workforce of the United States will soon be dominated by millennials, noted Lisa Hampton, Midwest public affairs and programs manager for LeadersUp. By the year 2020, half of the workforce will consist of millennials, and 17 million baby boomers will retire by the year 2030.
The millennials have different expectations about work, said Hampton, which creates a different environment for employers looking for talent. For example, millennials tend to stay for shorter periods at their jobs, and the cost to replace every millennial who leaves a company is $15,000 to $20,000.
Many millennials are also disengaged from the workplace. One out of seven, or 5.5 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 24, were out of school and not working as of 2013. The cost of these disconnected
young people to taxpayers over their lifetime has been estimated at $1.6 trillion, Hampton said.
She referred to these young disconnected people as “opportunity youth,” given the potential for workforce development to change their lives. Many have rich educational backgrounds, with both high school and college degrees, but their disengagement from the workforce makes it difficult for them to build an economic foundation for adult independence.
In Illinois, this disengagement takes the form of an 8.45 percent unemployment rate among young people, compared with a national unemployment rate of 7.2 percent, according to Hampton. The number of unemployed and out-of-school 18- to 24-year-olds in Chicago is 150,000. Among African American residents of Chicago, 25 percent are unemployed, and Chicago has the highest black unemployment rate of the nation’s five most populous cities.
Meanwhile, employers are engaged in a war for talent. Fifty-three percent of employers see recruiting and retaining great talent as a major challenge, Hampton said. Fifty-four percent say the talent shortage has a high to medium impact on their ability to meet their clients’ needs.
Starbucks has launched a major initiative in Chicago to connect young people to work. In this initiative, LeadersUp, which was established by Starbucks in 2013, is acting as a “chiropractor,” said Hampton. “We try to align workforce development employers and youth talent. We don’t try to displace individual organizations or what’s going on in communities. We come to communities and help them identify where their talent is, where we can bring in the employer, and how those entities can work together.” The goal is to get young people on a long-term career pathway. “That’s the conversation we are having with employers,” she explained.
In expanding its operations in Chicago, Starbucks does not necessarily know where to find young people, said Hampton. Nor do young people know how to find work. “There is clearly a disconnect,” she said, adding that “Employers are saying that they can’t find individuals, . . . and young people do not see themselves as potential employees for one of these companies.”
To fill this gap, LeadersUp serves as a workforce intermediary. It tries to help millennials understand the benefits of staying in their jobs and taking advantage of such programs as profit sharing and tuition reimbursement. In this way, it also seeks to develop the buying power of millennials, Hampton noted. The African American and Latino communities have a combined annual purchasing power of more than $1.4 trillion, and the development of opportunity youth adds to that buying power. “It’s hard to buy a $5 Starbucks coffee if you don’t have a job. If I’m an employer, . . . I need people, particularly of this population of 18- to 24-year-olds, to be working, because of the buying power that they bring to the table,” she said.
The public–private partnership between LeadersUp and Starbucks bridges the divide between the untapped potential of young people and
the business challenge of finding and keeping the best talent. The model is to build a pipeline of skilled talent, bring on board the next generation of workers, and retain and accelerate millennial leadership. As of the workshop, 32 employers had been engaged in Chicago, Columbus, and Los Angeles; 1,000 hires had been made; and the retention rate was 85 percent.
The organization has an intensive recruiting process, along with 2 days of empowerment instruction at the beginning of training. Trainees do site visits to see what worksites look like and to become more culturally competent in the workplace. One thing LeadersUp has found is that young people with a high school diploma or GED, even if they have not gone to college, can be very productive if they know how to work. “Even though someone has come from college, they don’t necessarily know how to work,” Hampton said.
LeadersUp also talks with employers about mentorship programs that can help new employees be more comfortable and aspire to advance in a company. Minority employees may have the feeling that “I don’t see anyone who looks like me,” said Hampton. Mentoring and other forms of professional development and encouragement can provide young people of color with the same opportunities other employees have.
Having employers at the table from the beginning is critical, said Hampton, both so they can specify their needs and so they can recognize where the talent is. When employers are asked what they want in employees, 8 of the top 10 things they cite are soft skills like communication, team work, taking initiative, and seeking guidance. Both employers and millennial employees are also interested in promotion within an organization. “It’s a different idea around how you promote and explain to young people what their opportunity is within an organization,” she said.
As an example, Hampton cited the organization’s work with a café food group in Columbus that makes sandwiches for Starbucks. All of the youth hired for entry-level positions in the firm came through the LeadersUp model. Furthermore, the interview-to-hire ratio for LeadersUp trainees has been just three to one, which is much less than average. “When we work with opportunity youth, we focus a lot on training. We focus on getting them to understand, ‘Is this a good match?’ Once again, we are not just training to train, we are training with the understanding that these are clear pathways,” she explained.
LeadersUp follows the experiences of young people, once they have been hired, to learn about problems they are encountering and work on solutions. For example, when new hires had trouble reaching their jobs in Columbus because of winter weather, the company hired a shuttle to take them from the bus stop to the plant.
Follow-up also has revealed that young people who come through the program are being promoted at a faster rate than other hires, partly because
the program teaches employees how to be visible, open, and available for promotion. “We want [employees] to understand ‘You already possess these skills. You don’t think that you have them, but you do,’” she said. In addition, many millennials are committed to going back to school if that can advance their careers; so, employers need to have a pathway for that, such as tuition reimbursement. For example, some of her placements into advanced manufacturing companies are going back to college in that area to add to their skill sets, she said, adding that “Education is a huge part of the conversation we have with employers.”
LeadersUp is trying to produce what Hampton called an inclusive economy. By driving innovation, diversity expands the competitive advantage of companies, which creates a competitive economy, she explained. At the same time, opportunity youth gain improved quality of life through such factors as increased independence, better physical health and social relationships, and access to healthier living environments, while the home communities of opportunity youth become safer and more economically vibrant.
Sometimes, achieving these goals requires social innovations. For example, in Los Angeles Starbucks was having difficulty finding young people to hire because many had previous contact with law enforcement. Hampton said that “Starbucks managers were saying, ‘We see these great kids and we want to hire them, but our Starbucks policy doesn’t allow us to.’” To resolve the problem, the policy on background checks was changed so that young people with a criminal history can be hired so long as they have a letter of recommendation from a workforce development provider or a previous workplace supervisor.
Hampton concluded with a call to action to address systemic unemployment challenges:
- Educate yourself and your colleagues, neighbors, and friends by getting the facts about the systemic unemployment challenges our communities are facing and the opportunities we have to address them.
- Leverage your voice, skills, and services to partner with LeadersUp and organizations that are addressing this challenge.
- Advocate for companies to diversify recruitment strategies to include opportunity youth. Mentor and expose opportunity youth to career pathways.
“The young people that we work with in Los Angeles and Chicago are very committed and interested in getting connected to work,” she concluded. “It’s just about access. It’s about being able to find employers and partnerships that are willing to give them opportunity,” she concluded.
Sweet Beginnings is a transitional jobs program for formerly incarcerated individuals that produces honey and honey-based personal care products sold under the label of beelove™. It began, said its chief executive officer Brenda Palms Barber, who is also executive director of the North Lawndale Employment Network in the greater Chicago area, when a friend of hers asked, “Have you ever thought about beekeeping as a job for people coming out prison?” Palms Barber had been struggling with the typical responses of companies to former prisoners who had gone through her workforce development program: “Come back next week,” or “We just filled that job.” Said Palms Barber, “I began to understand what it felt like to have doors closed over and over and over again. I thought, ‘I need to be responsive in a different way.’”
She sat down with some beekeepers and asked, “What does it require to be a beekeeper?” Their response was “It requires story-telling, passing on how to keep bees through word of mouth.” In essence, it was a mentoring relationship between a beekeeper and apprentices. “I thought ‘Ah, that makes sense!’ No matter what your academic attainment was—because some folks come out of prison with a GED, some have less than that, and others have college educations—it doesn’t matter in beekeeping. They can learn something wonderful by being still and listening and working with bees,” she explained.
Learning about beekeeping was fascinating, she said. The colony works as a whole, and every bee has a role to play. It takes 50 bees to produce one teaspoon of honey, she said, adding that “It’s amazing! You start to have such appreciation for how they communicate and how that community works together. I thought, ‘What a beautiful analogy for how we could work around reintegrating people into the workplace.’”
Palms Barber also found herself becoming what she called “an accidental environmentalist.” About the time she started the company, colony collapse disorder began to decimate bee populations. She learned about the importance of bees in ecosystems. She learned that urban honey is cleaner than rural honey because fewer pesticides are in urban areas than in rural environments, adding that “I learned that a third of the food that we consume has been pollinated by honeybees. Without the honeybee, eventually, we wouldn’t be able to eat the foods, the fruits and vegetables, that require pollination.”
She also learned more about healthy products and the choices people make. To be accepted at stores, the honey and skin products they made had to be clean, pure, and raw. “These conversations are brand new for many of the women we work with,” said Palms Barber. “So maybe we can add health care advocate to the list.” The experience has demonstrated that
“We can in fact be impactful about introducing health and lifestyle issues, particularly in an urban environment and broadening our community in that way,” she explained.
Beelove products are sold in a variety of stores, including high-end stores like Whole Foods. When ex-offenders go into the stores to do demonstrations, the stores get to know them, and they get to know the stores. “Many of them have never stepped foot in a Whole Foods or Mariano’s, because they shop in the neighborhood, if they can, where the food hasn’t been rotated and the fruits and vegetables are something we wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole,” she said.
More than 400 people have been hired as employees of Sweet Beginnings, of whom less than 4 percent have returned to prison, compared with a national recidivism rate of 55 percent. They have learned how to develop and follow personal budgets and have had their credit repaired. Sweet Beginnings hires about 10 men and women per cohort, and each cohort works for 90 days. With four cohorts per year, roughly 40 men and women are hired through Sweet Beginnings annually. It used to make more hires, but it scaled back to improve the quality of the work experience. Having in essence a 400 percent turnover rate “has its own inherent challenges,” said Palms Barber, explaining that “at the end of the day, our social enterprise is fulfilling its mission.”
Men and women coming out of prison apply for positions at Sweet Beginnings and are evaluated on the basis of job readiness and other measures. They also can apply for positions with other companies through the North Lawndale Employment Network, which Palms Barber also directs.
When asked in the discussion session why the program has been so successful, Palms Barber pointed to the restoration of employees’ self-worth, explaining that “We’re excited to do that, not only from a reentry perspective but from a health care perspective as well.” In response to a question about working with prisoners even before they leave jail, Palms Barber said that she was interested in that option, because “urban beekeeping is tough.” One option would be to establish apiaries and partnerships with prisons so that people have jobs as soon as they leave and do not have to look for one.
Sweet Beginnings has received many inquiries about replicating the model in other places. After 10 years, it has begun to turn a profit on the sales of its products, which makes the model especially attractive. It has been working with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to develop a replication toolkit that would ease the process of establishing Sweet Beginnings operations elsewhere.
Offering one last Chicago-based perspective, Kyle Westbrook, executive director of education policy in the Office of the Mayor, described the efforts of the mayor’s office to “serve all of our youth in this city regardless of where they are coming from and regardless of where they want to go.” People aged 16 to 24 come from a variety of circumstances, he noted, which requires a tailored approach to getting them to an educational or career destination. “How do we make sure that all the adults in the city are aligned to providing students with the clear path to those opportunities?” he asked.
For a young person who has just been released from the Cook County juvenile justice system, to cite a specific example, finding the pathway to a meaningful education and career can be like solving a Rubik’s cube, said Westbrook, adding that “This young person has to jump through eight different hoops to get connected to a meaningful pathway.” The opportunity youth described by Hampton are often disconnected from formal institutions. “How do we get them reconnected? How do we make sure that there is a clear pathway for that group of students?” he asked.
One productive approach has involved the reinvention of the community college system in Chicago. Instead of having community colleges try to be everything for everyone, the city has focused the community college system to align with job growth in Chicago over the next 10 to 15 years, including health care, information technology, advanced manufacturing, transportation, distribution, logistics, human services, education, and business and professional services. Business partners have helped reshape the curriculum and also have been involved in shaping the physical spaces. For example, said Westbrook, Rush University Medical Center has been heavily involved in making sure that the state-of-the-art health care facility built at nearby Malcolm X College aligns with industry standards. At Olive-Harvey College, a multimillion transportation distribution and logistics center reflects input from corporate partners such as UPS and FedEx. “There is a tremendous amount of work and energy in city colleges to make sure that Chicago continues to have a workforce that is equipped for the job growth that exists,” he said.
Westbrook reported that he has been talking with community, faith-based, and other groups about what the city can do to support African American and Latino males, who fare poorly on average on major life indicators such as graduation rates, college completion rates, and health outcomes. The first thing these groups have said is that African American and Latino males need jobs. They also need health care, including mental health care, Westbrook said. “Growing up in some of our hardest-to-serve communities can be a traumatic experience for young people. They don’t even have the language to talk about trauma. They don’t have the language
to talk about their experiences or about what becomes normalized in terms of the violence and poverty they see in their environments,” he explained.
This effort dovetails with an initiative announced by President Obama named My Brother’s Keeper, which seeks to improve life outcomes for African American and Latino males. It has six milestones:
- Ensuring all children enter school cognitively, physically, socially, and emotionally ready
- Ensuring all children read at grade level by third grade
- Ensuring all youth graduate from high school
- Ensuring all youth complete postsecondary education or training
- Ensuring all youth out of school are employed
- Ensuring all youth remain safe from violent crime
In response to a question about how even youth with extensive training cannot find good jobs in health care, Westbrook said that the City of Chicago has been expanding access to the 12 colleges in the city through need-based scholarships, so that “a student who graduates from Malcolm X has a pathway into a 4-year degree.” Scholarships address the needs of students while also giving the colleges an opportunity to increase diversity on their campuses. In addition, said Westbrook, the city has been making a broader effort to make sure that higher education degrees are aligned with where the jobs are. “Is there a long way to go? Absolutely. But I’m confident that we are headed in the right direction,” he said.
Workforce development requires not only opportunities but making sure that young people have the base of health and mental health to take advantage of those opportunities, Westbrook concluded. “We have to make sure that young people are prepared and equipped to be successful and stay in jobs.”
In response to a question about how programs can overcome the traumas many young people endure, Westbrook cited several initiatives, including the launch in the Chicago public schools of parenting universities. Such training “help parents understand the nuts and bolts of how to make sure that their children are on track educationally,” he explained. Such programs also provide parents with access to educational opportunity for themselves, such as GED courses, he said, adding that if “students begin to see their parents actively engaged in improving themselves educationally, that becomes an environment in the home.”
Finally, Westbrook pointed to several programs designed to help ex-offenders enter the workforce, such as a partnership with the Chicago Transit Authority to place men and women into union jobs and second-
chance Pell grants for ex-offenders. “Are they enough? Certainly not, and there are more folks coming out as ex-offenders than there are job opportunities,” he concluded. But such programs mark an acknowledgment on the part of government that this population needs to be served better than it has been in the past.
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