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Welfare to WorkWELFARE TO WORK

America is experiencing the best economic conditions in 30 years. Mortgage rates are low, inflation is under control and the unemployment rate has been in steady decline. But sustaining the current growth of American businesses is becoming more and more difficult, due to a shortage of qualified workers. With employment opportunities so widely available, the competition to attract good workers has become intense. Skilled workers have gained new leverage in their demands for wages, benefits, and promotion. In the technology and software industry alone, employees are in such shortage that the US Government has granted an unprecedented number of foreign work visas, in order to meet the staffing needs of American companies and ensure continued economic growth.

This labor shortage comes at a time when almost 3.5 million people across the US are receiving welfare benefits. The question that comes to mind: Why don't companies hire welfare recipients instead of importing workers from abroad? Unfortunately, many welfare recipients need assistance and training in order to fill the positions that are available.

To address this issue, the US Government has created the Welfare to Work Partnership. The idea: To make welfare recipients job ready and encourage and assist businesses in hiring these individuals without displacing existing workers. The large pool of workers within the welfare system can be recruited and trained to fill many positions that are currently going unfilled. With the help of service providers such as Goodwill and the National Urban League and the participation of nearly 6000 companies across the US, the program appears to be taking off.

ABILITY Magazine's, Chet Cooper recently spoke with Eli Segal, President and CEO of the Welfare to Work Partnership.

CC: How did you become involved with the Welfare to Work Partnership?
ES: President Clinton and I have been very good friends for about thirty years. We met at Martha's Vineyard and have been very close ever since. In 1992, I moved to Little Rock and ran his presidential campaign. After the campaign was over, rather than going back to Boston, I moved to Washington and became an assistant to the President. In the fall of 1996, the Welfare to Work legislation was passed, and at the beginning of 1997 the President asked me, to start and run the Welfare to Work Partnership, a non-profit 501c3 corporation. The challenge was to help move people from welfare to work by finding jobs for them and getting businesses to join in. I thought it was a worthwhile endeavor and went to work.

CC: How did you get companies to join the Partnership?
ES: We came up with the motto: "Welfare to Work is a Smart Solution for Business." We tested this approach rather than talking about charity or philanthropy. We wanted to show that there were some bottom line benefits for the companies involved. It was just an idea in May 1997. A year and a few months later, we'd gone from an idea to an organization with six thousand companies-all sizes, all sectors, all regions.

CC: Did you have significant bi-partisan support for the program?
ES: While we were encouraged by the President, we're very proud of the extraordinary range of Republicans who support this effort, from Tommy Thompson, who is the chair of the National Advisory Council of the Welfare to Work Partnership, to Richard Worthland who does all of our polling, to Bill Marriott, the chairman of the board of Marriott, and many others. We jealously guard our non-partisan roots and mission.

CC: Are the companies involved primarily Fortune 500 companies or is small business also involved?
ES: Companies or many sizes are involved. While we are very proud of the fact that we represent Wall Street, or at least 39 of the Fortune 100 companies, 80% of our members have less than 250 employees and almost half have less than 25. So, we are a broad-based organization with a very simple mission-to help people make the transition from welfare to work

. CC:And have those companies followed through with their commitment to hire former welfare recipient?
ES: It's true that having 6000 companies who make the commitment to hire does not necessarily translate into hires. But, we recently polled our first 3000 companies and learned that last year, in our first year of business, they hired 35,000 people. So, this is more than rhetoric and wishes. It's happening and it has happened.

CC: Many people are concerned that these jobs are simply make-work projects that don't last very long, sending people back to welfare within a short time. How accurate is that perception?
ES: Quite simply, it's just not true. A recent study shows that the companies that have undertaken this are finding higher rates of retention and less turnover among former welfare recipients than other entry level employees.

CC: Why do you think that is?
ES: Whether it's big companies like United Airlines and Marriott, or much smaller companies, companies are making an investment and once they make an investment they want it to pay off. Through a wide variety of devices, such as mentoring, career ladders, never compromising quality and working closely with their non-profit partners, companies encourage employees to remain onboard and find they have better employees.

CC: Better employees?
ES: We actually have a statistic which shows that 76% of our partners, who hired former welfare recipients, view them as good, productive employees. Those are the exact words of the study.

CC: How does Welfare to Work support companies in fulfilling their commitment to hiring former welfare recipients?
ES: We do it in essentially two ways, Chet. First, we motivate companies and after we motivate them we give them the tools to succeed.

CC: When you say motivate, what does that entail?
ES: The principal way we motivate companies is to help them understand that the stereotypes about welfare recipients are just plain wrong. We show them, in person, through our Public Service Announcements and with events by the President and Governors that there never was a "welfare queen", that given half the chance, welfare recipients will make it from welfare to work.

CC: You mentioned tools. What kind of tools are companies given to help them hire former welfare recipients?
ES: Well, we access them into networks or organizations that are involved in the partnership, we teach them about tax credits, and we introduce them to service providers such as Goodwill, the National Urban League and other small providers all over the US that are willing and able to train former welfare recipients and make them job ready.

CC: What types of positions have typically been offered to former welfare recipients?
ES: We're real proud of the fact that this is not what many people thought it would be-positions in fast food, hospitality and retail. It's all industries, from high-tech to financial institutions, banks, insurance companies, investment banking houses, brokerage houses etc.

CC: How have welfare recipients responded to the initiative?
ES: Welfare recipients hate welfare worse than Bill Clinton or Newt Gingrich ever have, and all they want is a job and all companies want are good workers. So, while the economy is strong, our job is to motivate companies by breaking down their attitudes, because before you change behavior you have to change attitudes. Then, once we've got the attitudes changed, we connect them into the networks.

CC: How many people has Welfare to Work helped to employ?
ES: When the legislation was signed, there were 13 million people on the roles, there are now about 8.5 million. (That's people, not adults. We know on the average that each adult has just slightly less than 2 children.) So, there really has been a very dramatic decline in the rolls.

CC: Is it possible to eventually find a job for everyone?
ES: The conventional wisdom Chet, is that of these 3.5 million adults still on the rolls, about one third of them can easily make the transition to work. Another third can do it with a lot of effort and some assistance. For instance, major child care needs and transportation issues first need to be addressed, but they can do it. The remaining third are very hard to place. They may never be ready to make the transition. Due to mental conditions, abusive relationships they may be in, drug abuse etc., they may not be able to do it. But, we know that there are still a couple of million people, minimum, who can move from welfare to work if we help them. Even if the economy stays as healthy as it is, it's going to take some time to get this all done.

CC: In terms of the people you've helped find employment, do any special success stories come to mind?
ES: Well, one example I can think of is a great woman named Felicia Booker. She was an ordinary kind of woman who loved computers. She has two children and was a welfare recipient for five years. An interesting thing about Felicia is that she's blind. In partnership with the Welfare to Work Program, AG Edwards, the prominent brokerage house in St. Louis Missouri, hired Felicia. Since then, I think she's had at least two promotions and now earns a very substantial salary. In August of 1997, she was introduced by President Clinton during our first event outside of Washington DC, in St. Louis, Missouri. Then, for the Welfare to Work anniversary in May of 1998, she came to the White House where she was once again introduced by the President. If we had a walking symbol of what we're about, it would be Felicia Booker.

For more information on the Welfare to Work Partnership, call your local welfare office or visit www.welfaretowork.org



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