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
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.
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
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
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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