Expanding Workforce Development

Businesses benefit from workforce development programs for disadvantaged and underrepresented populations

by RaeAnne Marsh

A hot topic these days is businesses’ difficulty in filling open positions. Creating a pipeline or directly supplying workers are organizations who contribute to workforce development through their focus on serving disadvantaged or underrepresented populations.

Disadvantaged Bring Unexpected Strengths

Phoenix-based One Step Beyond, Inc. is a private, nonprofit organization that provides comprehensive programming and services for adults who have developmental or cognitive disabilities. One Step Beyond empowers its members to achieve independence, self-sufficiency and employment through innovative culinary, education, fitness and arts programs as well as strategic partnerships with local businesses that enable participants to contribute to and achieve greater social participation in their communities.

“From a statistical standpoint, people with disabilities are going to be some of your best employees,” says One Step Beyond CEO Madison Blanton. “Not just from performance but from retention. They’re going to show up every day, they’re going to be proud of what they do, they’re going to work hard, and they’re loyal. They’re going to stick with you.”

Statistics she cites should make any employer sit up and take notice. A study of 8,500 persons with disabilities in competitive employment found a nearly 85% job-retention rate after one year as measured by companies like DuPont and Sears, which measure retention rates — and HR experts estimate the cost of a single turnover ranges from 93 to 200% of the employee’s annual salary. A survey of 250 supervisors in 43 businesses showed supervisors are as satisfied with the performance of their employees with disabilities. According to Safeway, “These workers’ time and attendance records tell the story. Their numbers are far superior compared to those of employees who are not disabled. They deliver incredible customer service.”

Blanton notes that other benefits include having a more inclusive and diverse workforce. “The more diversity you have, the better your workforce is going to be because you’re getting different perspectives and you’re able to look at problems and find solutions from different angles that you wouldn’t be able to do if you just had a full White and male and non-disabled workforce.” For example, she relates, “Microsoft has actually looked at hiring people with autism in particular because they have a unique perspective on the world. But also, when it comes to problem solving, they’re more focused; because of that they may find solutions to problems that we may not be able to — and maybe faster than we would be able to.”

There is also an impact on company culture and recruiting. “It’s a good PR thing to not just say you’re an inclusive workforce but have really hard examples. And that’s huge right now for our society, and also for recruitment.” Blanton points out, “A lot of young people especially, when they look at employers, they’re not just looking at salary and benefits. While that’s important, they’re also looking at culture. For a lot of our young people, inclusivity and diversity are really high on that priority scale.”

Tech Pipeline for Single Moms

Dress for Success Phoenix provides a comprehensive range of wrap-around programs for adults and teens, and CEO Tamala McBath notes the independent 501c3 nonprofit organization partners with an impressive group of 160 nonprofits in the state to provide referral services and has assisted more than 19,000 women since opening its doors in 2009.

“As a full-service workforce development organization, Dress for Success Phoenix offers 11 life-changing programs,” says McBath. Among these are Fast Track to Success, which provides competitive professional skills that include one-on-one career coaching; Teen Workforce Initiative, which helps teens successfully enter the workforce through education and empowerment; EducateHER/Pathway Program for Single Moms; and a re-entry program, which helps formerly incarcerated women find sustainable employment.

Last year, DFSP was selected by Women’s Foundation for the State of Arizona as the nonprofit partner to launch the “Pathways Program for Single Moms” in the state’s central region.

“The Pathways Program for Single Moms in Central Arizona has 23 programs across the 10 Maricopa Community Colleges that are eligible for this funding,” says McBath, referring to participants being awarded 100% paid tuition for a one-year certificate in technical education as well as Quality-First/Kindergarten-ready childcare; a stipend to use toward living expenses, computer equipment, transportation, and more; as well as emergency funds. “These are primarily Fast Track Certificates and short-term programs leading to industry credentials in the following high-demand areas: applied technology; business, entrepreneurialism, and management; computer and information technology; education; and health sciences,” she explains.

 “At its core, Dress for Success Phoenix is a workforce development organization. The Pathways Program for Single Moms program is another tool that allows us to help more women prepare for growth and self-sufficiency,” says McBath.

More Focus on Reskilling and Upskilling

Scottsdale-based Early Warning Services, LLC, owners of Zelle, earlier this year formed a sponsorship grant and hiring partnership with national nonprofit workforce development organization Merit America. The grant and partnership will provide technical skills training and career development opportunities to individuals without college degrees in the Phoenix Metro Area.

“Given all the talk of hiring freezes, budget cuts, and layoffs, it’s no surprise that the benefits of reskilling and upskilling existing talent have never been more vital,” says Connor Diemand-Yauman, co-founder and co-CEO of Merit America. “Partnerships like the one announced between Merit America and Early Warning provide a path for businesses to invest in strong, entry-level talent. Our relationship is symbiotic: Workers look to their employers for increased opportunities at work and businesses are rewarded with satisfied and productive employees who fill talent gaps and drive business growth.” He cites a joint Amazon and Gallup study, which found 71% of workers who participated in upskilling programs reported job satisfaction, and the World Economic Forum’s 2021 report, which found that the U.S. could generate a 3 to 4% boost in its GDP by 2030 by reducing skills gaps through upskilling, demonstrating that upskilling is in the best interest of businesses and workers alike.

The available programs offer training for in-demand technical skills including IT support, Data Analytics and Java Development, along with professional skills development and personalized career coaching to prepare learners for new roles. Through this partnership, Early Warning will help bolster the reach and impact of these programs by facilitating introductions to other local partners and employers. The opportunities stemming from Early Warning’s grants will focus on serving underrepresented groups in tech, including women, gender-nonconforming and nonbinary individuals. a. Underrepresented groups include minority populations, women, gender-nonconforming and nonbinary individuals. In the U.S., Black professionals comprise less than 15% of the tech workforce and women make up 28%. LGBT+ comprise less than 10% of tech developers.

“Merit America sources candidates for the hiring partnership by reaching out to its graduates in the desired locations who meet Early Warning’s hiring needs,” says Diemand-Yauman. “Like with all our great partnerships, we work in tandem with Early Warning to leverage their extensive state and local network to identify great candidates for our reskilling and upskilling programs.” Other companies Merit America has partnered with in the past and businesses that have hired through them include Amazon, JP Morgan Chase, and Infosys.

“Merit America’s programs teach the skills employers need through blended learning programs that combine the best of online learning with world-class coaching and personalized support. Our programs include IT Support, Java Development, Data Analytics, and UX Design — all focused on in-demand tech skills currently needed in today’s job market,” Diemand-Yauman says, explaining that, in terms of how Merit America determines what employers need and which job skills are in demand, “most of those answers come from the employer specifying to Merit America what they are in need of at a specific time, combined with Merit America’s constant scanning and analyzing of the shifting job market and job trends throughout our workforce — which is also how Merit America determines when to update skills training programs to new course options.”

Opening Doors to Construction for Women

Girls Can Build is an Arizona-based initiative powered by Sharp Construction with a mission to break down barriers to women in the construction, design and engineering industries. By spearheading and supporting projects, opportunities and mentorship in these industries, the initiative seeks to inspire young women to be Bold To Build.

“The program was started by Sharp Construction in partnership with the Girls Scouts Arizona Cactus-Pine Council and The Center of Building Innovation at Arizona State University,” says Jennifer Villalobos, vice president of business development and marketing at Sharp and co-founder of Girls Can Build. “It will give girls mentorship/shadowing opportunities with professional women currently in the industry, really fostering the idea behind ‘See it to believe it!’ Additionally, it will build confidence with handling tools and learning handy home life skills.”

There will be a set of approximately 50 learning modules with hands-on project deliverables that surround important foundational elements within the design, engineering and construction business sectors; all built and developed by a team of professionals in the industry in partnership with the Center of Building Innovation at Arizona State University and the Girl Scouts Arizona Cactus-Pine Council teams.

Celebrating its one-year anniversary in February, the program marked a milestone with the purchase of a vehicle for its Mobile Building Space. “With the Girl Scout Mobile Building Space, the Girl Scouts plan to take an educational curriculum on the road. The traveling program would provide girls across the state with access to tools and workshops that teach them building skills, the basics of the design and build process and career opportunities in the industry,” says Tiffany Sharp, principal of Sharp and co-founder of Girls Can Build. “We hope to roll out the van in fall of 2023.”

Sharp notes that women make up only about 14% of the construction industry, and breaking down those barriers continues to be a challenge. “The Girl Scout Mobile Building space allows us to fill the labor shortage in our industry, as well as increase opportunity for diversity, which translates into more unique and efficient solution options to provide to our customers,” she says.

What Powers These Programs

One Step Beyond

In furtherance of One Step Beyond’s goal of enabling those who are developmentally or cognitively disabled to achieve independence, self-sufficiency and employment, the organization establishes strategic partnerships with local businesses. “Before COVID, we had a lot more,” says CEO Blanton. “We had to shut our doors for a year, and no in-person services. We’re slowly getting back, and are looking for new partners now.”

Three of the current partners here share their experience in the Feedback feature of this April edition.

Arrangements with businesses can be different from state to state. The following three apply to Arizona.

“One is what we call a paid internship, but it actually costs the business nothing,” Blanton says. OSBI gets subsidies from its government contract that will pay the individual a certain amount per year in wages to participate in an integrated internship opportunity. “It’s not us hiring for our company; they have to be working in an environment with individuals who are not disabled,” she explains, noting, “From a business perspective, it’s great — you’ve got an intern and you don’t have to pay them. From our perspective, the individual is getting paid, just from a different pot of money.” What’s key is that they’re getting experience that will benefit them and that they can put on their résumé. Not only does this give the individual a foot in the door, but it provides an employer who may have never hired someone with a disability before a low-risk option of testing out the waters. “And more often than not,” she says, “realizing all the things I was talking about, these people are some of the best employees you’re going to have.”

Another type of arrangement is group supportive employment, by which a group of individuals will come to a business and work part-time on different tasks or projects over the course of a week, such as putting mailers together or shredding documents. Through this partnership, the business is actually paying OSBI for this service, and OSBI pays the individual as part of its payroll. “Again, though, this is an opportunity for the individual to come to your business,” Blanton says. “Maybe you haven’t worked with people with disabilities before, and you get to see the value these people bring to your workforce in terms of the work they do and also increase of morale for the organization’s culture.”

There is also individual supportive employment, which is more typical of employment services. OSBI will work with an individual, find out where they want to work, take them on interviews and, once they get a job, provide a job coach who will go with them for a predetermined amount of time to support the individual until they learn the job well enough to be able to do it independently. “And even after that, we still do check-ins once a week or month or quarter — depending on the individual and the kind of support they need. So, if things come up — like a shift in the work schedule or something happened and they need to talk to their supervisor about it — we’ll always come back and help out in an as-needed basis,” Blanton says. “From an employer’s perspective, this is not as low-risk as the internship, but you’re getting not just the person you’re hiring but a job coach, too, to be there side by side with individual to make sure they learn the job to your expectations.” It’s all geared to ensuring the individual will be successful at their job.

Dress for Success Phoenix and Pathways Program for Single Moms

To achieve its mission of empowering women to achieve economic independence, Dress for Success Phoenix maintains strategic partnerships to offer outcome-driven programs to ensure women are getting hired, being promoted, receiving well-earned raises, networking with other professionals and gaining control of their finances. Nearly 50% of the women DFSP serves are single mothers, and 25% of those served live below the poverty level.

In addition to those previously mentioned, DFSP offers the following programs:

    • Styling: Interview attire and a week’s worth of professional clothing;
    • Career Center: Access to resources, such as résumé and cover letter writing, mock interviews and professional skills training;
    • Professional Women’s Group: An international networking association for Dress for Success clients, exploring social and economic needs in relation to work, home and community;
    • Mobile Career Center: Bringing services to women with transportation challenges;
    • SNAP Outreach & Enrollment: Identifying opportunities to receive and maximize program benefits;
    • Restoration of Rights: Help for ex-offenders who want civil rights restored and cases set aside; and
    • Veteran’s Suit & Salute: Helps female veterans develop and promote their personal brand, enabling them easier transition or advancement in the civilian workforce.

DFSP has proven programs in place to help these women achieve beyond graduation. Upon completion of the certificate program, DFSP will provide additional resources to ensure women are ready for career advancement, such as application and résumé building, interview and work attire, connections to top-notch hiring employers, as well as financial coaching.

The Pathways program DFSP has implemented as a partner with Women’s Foundation for the State of Arizona is designed to eliminate common roadblocks single moms often experience on their journey to higher education. Says CEO McBath, “Pathways is about more than just a certificate in education. Those enrolled are supported in all aspects of their life, as well as phases of their education and career journey to ensure they achieve lifelong success. Pathways enables women to get their families on a path to self-sufficiency.”

Pathways Program for Single Moms provides wraparound support in a variety of areas that are common roadblocks prohibiting single moms from going to school, including tuition cost, equipment expenses, childcare and transportation. DFSP will assist program recipients to navigate the enrollment process. Those accepted into the Pathways program will be awarded 100% paid tuition for a one-year certificate in technical education plus other financial assistance that includes Quality-First/Kindergarten-ready childcare scholarships, a monthly stipend with active program participation and a completion incentive and graduation bones. Recipients will also receive ongoing support services through community partnerships: career services for coaching and planning, internship opportunities through Maricopa Community College, and networking opportunities with local industry leaders also through Maricopa -Community College.

Early Warning Services, LLC and Merit America

“We know there are many individuals in our local communities who aspire to pursue professional development opportunities, especially in technology,” says Natalie Schwimer, chief people officer at Early Warning. “Through our grant and partnership with Merit America, we are investing in the career growth of our employees and overall community by providing a new pathway for success.”

“We believe it should never be too hard or too late to advance your career, and so we are thrilled to partner with Early Warning to reach more learners in the Phoenix Metro Area,” says Rebecca Taber-Staehelin, co-CEO and co-founder of Merit America. “By breaking down roadblocks to career growth, we are preparing hardworking individuals for new careers with transformative wage gains that will translate into down-payments for homes, rainy-day funds, or just a bit of breathing room during uncertain times.”

For example, when Monica from Maricopa found Merit America, she was recently laid off from an IT job in the restaurant industry. While she had some IT experience, she decided to use the down time to add additional skills by completing the Google IT Support certificate. According to Merit America, Monica is now a digital advisor support associate with Charles Schwab, a job that allows her to work remotely and provides flexibility in caring for her child. Her new career path yielded not only a $7,000 wage gain, but also quarterly bonuses, more vacation time and plenty of room for growth and advancement.

In partnership, Early Warning and Merit America teams will also collaborate to create additional opportunities for program participants through hosting networking events and streamlining the process for program completers to apply for careers at Early Warning. Merit America will assist Early Warning’s recruiters, hiring managers and leadership throughout the process to ensure successful and equitable candidate hiring.

Girls Can Build

Girls Can Build co-founders Tiffany Sharp and Jennifer Villalobos were motivated by their own experience as women in the construction industry.

“What sparked my interest in targeting this population was the passion that I, personally, have with my own career and the lack of introduction to opportunities that I have seen presented to young women for careers within our industry,” says Sharp, principal of Sharp Construction.

“What inspired me was my own personal experience as a first-generation Mexican American woman,” says Villalobos, vice president of business development and marketing for Sharp Construction. “I have a love and passion for this industry that started when I was exposed to it five years ago. For the first time, this career has allowed me to feel confident and strong, and I wanted to ensure that girls across Arizona are exposed to the same career opportunities. This program allows them to explore and gives them a look at a career where women can be very successful.

“Girls Can Build and the Girl Scout Mobile Building Space will not only open the door for a diverse workforce, but break the stigma of the construction industry for women,” Villalobos continues. “It will create a future workforce of inclusion and strong independent women who know that they belong in the industry. This program will provide mentorship opportunities and will allow them to learn from experienced women who look just like them.”

“We are excited to spark this interest in our girls,” says Christina Spicer, co-CEO of Girl Scouts Arizona Cactus-Pine Council. “This Girls Can Build and Girl Scouts partnership will be an incredible opportunity to expose girls to one of the largest sectors in the Arizona community, and, as they are exploring career opportunities, they can see the trades as a unique space for them to share their talent.”

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