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MINNEAPOLIS — When Tracie Roberts was laid off from her job at Target in 2009, she walked around the Mall of America every day for five weeks looking for work. Roberts, who's tall and soft-spoken, had worked at the Minneapolis store for 13 years as a team leader — sort of like a floor manager. She was told she was overqualified to work as a cashier. And yet without a four-year degree, she couldn't get a job in retail management. She was in her mid-40s, and she was stuck.
Twin Cities RISE!, a job training nonprofit, helps people who've fallen out of the job market climb back in. Participants range from casualties of the recession to people who face much bigger challenges, such as a history of drug abuse or incarceration. The program costs $5,000 per participant per year, and it can take more than seven months to complete. But it works. In fact, Minnesota was paying TCR for saving taxpayers money before such pay-for-success contracts were commonplace.
The key to TCR's success is its personal empowerment training. "Empowerment" can sound like mumbo-jumbo to some participants at first. At a class last week, Quinten Osgood — Roberts's old empowerment instructor — reviewed the basics with a new group. "It's all about the thought process. It's all about perception. How we think or feel," he said. And later: "It's about helping you look inside yourself for solutions." The class filled out work sheets and called out answers. They sat in foldout chairs, arrayed in a circle.
Like most participants, Roberts applied to TCR because she needed a job. But she now says the program changed her outlook on life, too. "I thought it would be a great free training program, I'd get my computer skills up. But it turned out to be so much more than that. It really did," Roberts says. When she speaks, you can hear the confidence in her voice.
TCR was founded, in the mid-1990s, to serve Twin Cities residents trapped in intergenerational poverty. To be eligible, applicants must have earned less than $20,000 in the past year, and they cannot hold a four-year degree from a U.S. college. The program has a particular focus on serving African-American men, although you don't have to be African-American or male to participate. About 400 people are enrolled each year, and one-quarter of participants served in recent years have been white.
The organization is on the front lines of the Twin Cities' demographic divide — and it has also witnessed how the economic downturn hammered working-class residents. "With the onset of the recession, and the change in the economy, there's just a whole new group of people trapped in poverty," says Tom Streitz, president and CEO. Most participants today are unemployed, not underemployed, when they enter the program. A greater share have criminal records or have struggled with substance abuse.
They're often people who need much more than a résumé-writing workshop. TCR does teach participants how to write a résumé, of course; classes also cover workplace communications, public speaking, and how to impress employers during an interview. Participants can focus on one of two fields: office support or operations (such as working a forklift). Because TCR has built close relationships with local employers, participants have an inside track when they apply for jobs.
Once participants are ready to enter the workplace (some drop out before they reach that point), TCR tries to place them in a full-time job that pays at least $20,000 a year, with benefits. That standard isn't always met, particularly in this job market. And for a family of four, $20,000 a year still means living below the poverty line.
But going from no income and no job prospects to a job that pays $20,000 a year is still a tremendous step up. Empowerment training also helps people stop thinking about low-paying jobs as dead-end jobs and start viewing them as opportunities. The concepts Osgood introduces, reinforced over weeks and months, leave participants better able to work with others, take direction, set goals, and work to reach them.
Personal coaches also work with participants while they're in the program, and for two years after they get a job. They help resolve any personal issues that might affect the participant's ability to succeed at work. That might mean connecting her to day-care services or to small grants for fixing a broken car.
The types of jobs TCR participants move into are typically high-turnover positions, says Joyce Gill, director of Employer Services. But employers find that the people they hire though TCR stick around. "With our participants, I think they're grateful for the chance to prove themselves," Gill says.
Participants "graduate" from the program when they've held their jobs for a year. More than 80 percent of participants who find jobs stay in those jobs for over a year, and 70 percent for two years. According to the calculations of former CEO Art Berman and independent economists from the Minneapolis Federal Reserve and the state government, every dollar invested in the program delivers a $7 benefit to the taxpayer — in reduced spending on social services, increased revenues from tax payments, and economic impact from personal spending.
Although most of TCR's budget comes from philanthropic donations, for much of the organization's existence up to one-quarter of its budget came from a state performance-based contract. TCR was paid when participants landed a job and if they were still employed a year later — a deal that, from the state's perspective, was a bargain. Moving forward, TCR could be well positioned to receive a new kind of performance-based funding from the state: a tool called Human Capital Performance Bonds, which use bond sales to market-rate investors to fund performance-based contracts.
Roberts now works at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Minneapolis, setting up conference rooms and ballrooms for events. She took advantage of one of TCR's newest offerings: a hospitality training program conducted in partnership with a two-year college. "It's not that far off from the retail industry," Roberts says of working in a hotel. "I have a lot of guest-service experience, and I work well with people that I've just met, meeting their needs."
Roberts is eager to learn everything she can about her current job, but she's also aiming higher. She just started summer classes at another area community college, earning credits she can put toward a bachelor's degree in business management (with a minor in philosophy). "I know that I can go back and do that, even working full time, with what TCR gave me," she says.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal and part of our Next Economy coverage.
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