Putting the Unemployed Back to Work

A Chicago nonprofit is upending the typical model of job placement by focusing first on what businesses need.

Chicago resident and mother of four, Shayla Grant, lost her job at a call center in February 2014 and remained out of work for roughly one year. During that time period, she ran through six months of unemployment benefits. She used her savings and any cash she had left over from a tax return to keep her family financially afloat. When things got really tight, she accepted government assistance through food stamps.

What Grant never anticipated was that one year later, she would find herself working for a large Canadian bank with 8,000 employees throughout the United States. "I was not looking for banking at all," says Grant. "I was looking for customer service or administrative work."

Her turn of fortune came about because of a Chicago-based, not-for-profit called Skills for Chicagoland's Future, which puts long-term unemployed and underemployed people back to work at private companies like AIM Specialty Health, Gap, GoHealth, TrueBlue, UST Global, and Swissport.

The nonprofit works with private companies to determine their hiring needs and extract commitments from them to hire a certain number of underemployed or unemployed people. Skills recruiters then go into the community to look for potential employees, like Grant, who fit the private companies' criteria. From there, they do extensive screening, interviewing, and sometimes even training to make sure the candidates are the right fit. "It's a demand-driven way of hiring. You lead with what the employer needs," says Marie Trzupek Lynch, the president and CEO of Skills for Chicagoland's Future. (Often, workforce centers or job-training programs do the opposite—they train people for jobs they believe will be in high demand, instead of looking for people to fill jobs that currently exist.)

In 2015 alone, Skills for Chicagoland's Future plans to place nearly 900 people in new jobs in sales, IT, health care, and insurance. Since its launch more than two years ago, 70 percent of the workers Skills has connected with jobs have been the long-term unemployed—those who have been out of work for six months or more. The average Skills candidate is 42 years old and has been unemployed for 20 months. In other words, most of the nonprofits clients are people who could use a boost to get back into the labor market. "Most of the people we serve don't live next door to a CEO," says Lynch. "We know that 80 percent of jobs are found through networking. We are their network."

That certainly was the case for Grant, 31, who connected with Skills after a recruiter saw her résumé on the nonprofit's jobs board. Grant had not considered working in the banking industry, even though she had worked as a bank teller for Chase before earning her bachelor's degree in criminal justice. Both her call-center and bank-teller experience made her a good fit for BMO Harris Bank, the Canadian company looking for personal banker associates.

After a series of interviews, Grant landed the job. She now answers customers' calls and questions about their personal banking, checking accounts, and account maintenance. Grant is making 50 percent more money than she earned in her last gig, and she's so appreciative of her new job, its benefits, and its training that she would like to build her career at the company. "I'm planning on retiring here," she says. "This is where I end my career search."

Hiring job candidates through Skills for Chicagoland's Future can also work out well for employers, says Andrea Kauffman, a senior human-relations business partner at BMO Harris. First, Skills does tons of research to find out exactly what companies are looking for in job candidates. Then, it heavily screens potential recruits to only bring employers the most qualified group. When companies do hire from Skills—and when they hire long-term unemployed people, in particular—they often end up with loyal, passionate employees. "They're all successful and so happy to be here, and they appreciate that they're being trained," Kauffman says. "Lots of jobs are sink-or-swim, and we just don't do that."

Skills for Chicagoland's Future launched in September 2012, first chaired by now-Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, a longtime Chicago resident and business leader. The goal of the organization was to create a public-private partnership to help put people back to work by first determining the hiring needs of local businesses. The not-for-profit receives funding from the city of Chicago, the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnerships, and various foundations and businesses.

Since its creation, 40 companies have committed to hiring workers through Skills, and the non-profit has placed over 1,300 people into new jobs. (Fifty-nine percent of those hires had just a high school diploma, and 62 percent were women). The jobs range from account managers to insurance advisers, medical coders, underwriters, and insurance customer service representatives. The most time-consuming part of the nonprofit's work, Lynch says, is simply finding companies the right candidates. "Because we are dealing with the unemployed, we have a high-touch model," Lynch says. "We recognize that to combat the stigma of long-term unemployment, we have to see everyone."

Now that Skills has honed its model of hiring, it wants to take its expertise to other locations across the country. Over the next three years, Lynch says that Skills for Chicagoland's Future wants to place 5,000 people in new jobs in its home city, while also expanding in six additional locations to set up similar programs and to teach other organizations how to recruit, use data, and work with companies to create the same types of results.