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Photo: Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Carlos Omar Montes keeps all the equipment and supplies for his mobile barbershop in a 5′ X 5′ storage unit. With support from entrepreneurship programs, he’s building a new life after serving his time.

When I edited a magazine focused on low- and moderate-income issues in New England, I liked to acquire articles on helping former inmates lead a decent life after serving their sentence. Dumping someone on the side of the road with a toothbrush is hardly the way to help him start supporting himself and giving back to society (in the form of taxes, family stability, community service, etc.).

Although retired for four years, I am still drawn to such stories. Here’s one from Kelly Field at the Hechinger Report via the Boston Globe.

“Standing before a roomful of CEOs, angel investors and foundation representatives at Boston College Law School late last year, Carlos Omar Montes pitched his idea for a mobile barbershop.

“Omar’s Barbershop, he told the audience, would fill a niche in the grooming market, offering the ‘old-fashioned experience’ of hot lather and warm towels to men who are confined to group homes and nursing facilities.

“ ‘Omar’s will connect people to the happiest time in their lives, bringing them freedom, convenience and happiness,’ said Montes, dressed in a vest and tie for his presentation.

“A year and a half earlier, Montes, now 31, had been an inmate at the South Bay House of Correction in Boston. He served almost eight years in all, there and elsewhere, for possession of drugs and a firearm. Now he was in a lecture hall on the pastoral suburban campus of Boston College Law School, for the final day of an entrepreneurship boot camp that paired former inmates with law student mentors.

“Covid-19 would arrive a few weeks later. Still, Montes spent the lockdown positioning himself to move forward with his business as soon as reopening allowed — amid a recession that otherwise would have made it considerably harder for him to get any other kind of job.

“The idea of bringing higher education inside prisons got considerable momentum in the years leading up to the pandemic, becoming the subject of books, documentaries and extensive media coverage.

“But if ex-inmates weren’t getting hired before coronavirus, they are unlikely to be in the front of the line now that millions of Americans are unemployed, no matter how much education they received.

“The stigma against candidates with criminal records is so strong that, even with the skills they may have learned behind bars, many find it easier to start a business than get hired by one, said Marc Howard, a professor of government and law who helped start Georgetown University’s Pivot entrepreneurship program last year. …

“Project Entrepreneur at BC, launched last year, is one of a small number of similar efforts that take place both inside prisons and on college campuses and attempt to provide inmates and ex-inmates with the skills, confidence and contacts they need to start their own businesses. They also aim to open traditional students’ eyes to the stigmas and systematic barriers to employment former prisoners like Omar face. …

“Many employers are wary of hiring ex-convicts. According to one widely cited study, a criminal record reduces the likelihood of a callback or job offer by nearly 50 percent. The result: More than a quarter of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed, and nearly half are re-arrested within eight years of their release. …

“Thirty-five states, including Massachusetts, and more than 150 cities and counties have adopted ‘ban the box’ policies that bar questions about prior convictions from job applications. …

“Said Kevin Sibley, executive director of Boston’s Office of Returning Citizens, which helps formerly incarcerated people find education and employment, even in ‘ban the box’ states, many employers still run background checks late in the hiring process and drop any candidate who has committed a felony, ‘even when it has nothing to do with the work assignment.’ …

“Elizabeth Swanson, who has led a Babson College entrepreneurship program for prisoners for a decade, said the lessons of these prison entrepreneurship programs are not only for the inmates.

“When she asks students, at the start of each semester, what they think about prison, Swanson said, they’ll often say something like, ‘I’ve seen “Orange is the New Black.” ‘ Some are terrified to step inside a jail. But when they get to know the inmates, through letters or visits, ‘they do a complete 180.’ ”

More at the Globe, here.

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Photo: The Empowerment Plan
Many people experiencing homelessness would like a job even more than a coat warm enough to sleep in outside.

A student’s idea to help people experiencing homelessness got a whole lot better after a homeless woman offered advice.

Kimberly Wong writes at Streetwise magazine, “Some students might believe that school projects are only good for a grade, but Empowerment Plan founder and CEO Veronika Scott knew that they could be something more. Scott was a student at The College for Creative Studies in Detroit when her professor assigned her class a project to fill a real need in the community. Noticing the homelessness that pervaded the city, Scott, who was only 20 years old at the time, began to visit a homeless shelter to try to figure out how she could help people who were homeless. …

“Scott visited the homeless shelter three times a week for five months. Hearing the ideas of the people living in the shelter showed her what she needed to do — she had to make a coat. She learned to sew from her mother, and even after the project was over, she continued to work on this coat that she hoped would change the lives of as many of the homeless as possible.

“The water-resistant coat she was designing would be able to be transformed into a sleeping bag at night or into an over-the-shoulder bag on warmer days. As Scott was in the process of perfecting the design for her coat, she was approached by a homeless woman who told her emphatically that what she really needed wasn’t a coat, but a job.

“Taking this feedback to heart, Scott partnered with a shelter and hired two homeless women to start making coats that would come to be known as EMPWR coats.

“Scott paid the women to learn industrial sewing and manufacturing and brought local designers on to the project. Just like that, the Empowerment Plan was born. …

“The Empowerment Plan has been running for almost seven years and has 35 employees. All of the employees were hired while homeless and have since secured permanent housing with their families.

“Jessica West, a seamstress team leader at the Empowerment Plan, is just one example of the way the Empowerment Plan has changed lives. West was sleeping in her car with her children before they moved into a homeless shelter. She discovered the Empowerment Plan while living in the shelter and has been working with them for two years. She and her children currently live in a comfortable home fully furnished by non-profit organization Humble Design, … one of the many organizations the Empowerment Plan works with to improve the lives of their employees. …

“Usually, Empowerment Plan employees work at the organization from one to three years, but this is by no means a set timeline. Above all, the Empowerment Plan is focused on the individual growth of its employees.

“The employees at the Empowerment Plan are paid through the sponsorship of EMPWR coats — and since the coats also go toward helping the homeless community, it’s a win-win situation. Sponsoring an EMPWR coat costs $100, which covers the cost of materials, the seamstresses’ wages, and overhead. EMPWR coats are mainly sponsored by individuals, corporations, and non-profit organizations. The Red Cross has even sponsored EMPWR coats for disaster relief. …

“While the organization currently relies on donations, it is working to become self-sustaining [with] a new retail line of coats with functions similar to the EMPWR coat but with its own style.”

More here.

Hat tip: Spare Change News, Boston’s street newspaper.

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Photo: Douglas Trattner
A Cleveland co-op trains refugees and others for produce-growing jobs.

I continue to find it fascinating that so many people who are making products for sale are also intent on providing job opportunities for refugees, ex-offenders, and others with challenges.

Douglas Trattner writes about one such effort at Cleveland Scene.

“It’s a brisk late-winter morning in Cleveland, but inside the greenhouses of Green City Growers it feels more like Tampa. …

“At 3.25 acres, this site is one of the largest urban greenhouses in the country, and it happens to sit in the heart of the economically depressed Central neighborhood. Inside the state-of-the-art hydroponic greenhouse, some 300,000 plants at various stages of growth float in shallow pools of nutrient-rich water. There are leafy heads of butter lettuce, colorful mixed-green blends, peppery upland cress and fragrant Italian basil.

“Opened in 2012, Green City Growers has had a promising, albeit challenging, run. Part of the ambitious Evergreen Cooperatives, which includes Evergreen Cooperative Laundry and Ohio Cooperative Solar, the greenhouse was the only one of the three employee-owned companies to not be profitable. That should change this year, says Jeremy Lisy, VP of sales. …

“As a chef and former owner of the specialty produce company KJ Greens, Lisy reached out to his former colleagues to see what types of products they were interested in. He added different lettuces and blends and beefed up sales. This year, the company is expected to hit $3 million in sales, doubling what it was just two years prior. …

“Green City Growers provides 38 people with living-wage jobs and a path to ownership. Working with programs like Refugee Response and Towards Employment, the greenhouse employs many people who might otherwise find it hard to secure gainful employment. On the current roster are people with nonviolent criminal records and immigrants from Bhutan, Guatemala and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“After one year of employment, workers get to join the co-op, which includes benefits like credit management and car and mortgage assistance. When the company begins to turn a profit, that money goes to the worker-owners in the form of bonuses and savings for retirement.

“Laurie ‘Spike’ Cook did [time] in the state pen but she currently is the transplant supervisor at the greenhouse and she sits on the board of the co-op. After leaving prison she searched in vain for a job for a full year until she took a class with Towards Employment. A week later she had a full-time job.

” ‘I haven’t missed a day of work in over a year,’ says Cook, who arrives an hour and half before her shift begins every day.

This place gave me a second chance. It makes me want to do better, stay better and do the right thing. Without this job I might have messed up. This job, right here, is the reason I wake up every morning. I plan on staying here until I retire.’

More here.

Photo: James Alan Edward
The nonprofit Beautiful Day trains refugees for the US job market. But if a refugee has a learning disability, the speed of doing even simple tasks may be too slow for a future employer. Let me know if you have a Providence-area job for a cheerful but challenged refugee. There’s someone I’d like to help.

033017-BeautifulDayRI-trainees-photo-by-James-Alan-Edward

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Photo: Deborah Amos/NPR
Elias Kasongo, from Congo, came as a refugee in 1994. Marc Schulman, president of Eli’s Cheesecake, hired him to wash cake pans and, over the years, promoted him to purchasing manager.

See what I mean? I can hardly keep up with all the stories of Americans who help refugees (and refugees who give back). I feel a kind of duty to let you know about them in case they aren’t part of your daily fare.

National Public Radio’s Deborah Amos reported this next story about refugees working in some surprising Chicago businesses.

“In Chicago,” she reports, “war refugees have a hand in the city’s most famous handmade cheesecake.

” ‘People who come as refugees have great skills,’ says Marc Schulman, the president of Eli’s Cheesecake, which has sold cheesecakes and other baked desserts since 1980. One-third of adult refugees arriving in the U.S. have college degrees, according to the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., a think tank that tracks the movement of people worldwide. And refugee employment is a successful model for finding skilled workers for a food business that has become high tech, says Schulman.

“A cheesecake at Eli’s is still based on the simple recipe of the founder, the late Eli Schulman, Schulman’s father, who served his famous confections to political leaders and Hollywood stars. Marc Schulman wears the Cartier watch that Frank Sinatra — a regular customer — sent his father in 1987. …

“The mixing and baking are computerized, so the 220 employees have to be highly skilled. Schulman recruits about 15 percent of the workforce from refugees resettled in Chicago. The employee list reflects the waves of flight from war-torn countries — Iraq, Bhutan, Kosovo, Congo, Myanmar.

“Elias Kasongo began working at the bakery in 1994 after fleeing unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo. …

” ‘I’ve been here at Eli’s for the past 22 years. It’s my home; it’s a beautiful thing,’ says Kasongo, who is now a U.S. citizen. The job was all he had when he was starting his new life in America. Today, he’s a homeowner. …

“Schulman’s hiring strategy is used at other well-known companies in Chicago, including Tyson Foods and Trump International Hotel & Tower.

[!]

” ‘Every major hotel works with a refugee agency,’ says Sean Heraty, manager of workforce development at RefugeeOne. ‘Job retention is through the roof.’

“Employers have ‘awakened to the potential of refugees,’ says Kathleen Newland, at the Migration Policy Institute. That’s because they are hardworking and loyal and tend to stay on the job longer than American-born workers, she says.”

More here.

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I’m beginning to think that this period of history will come to be known as one of enormous creativity. It’s not just isolated incidents. I was working on the upbeat story below and skipping back and forth to Facebook, where each sign from the marches and each costume seemed to outdo the last — and where I saw women on the US-Mexico border weaving their hair together Friday — when it hit me. One and one and 50 have already made a million. And there is no sign of stopping.

The story I wanted to share is on a creative effort to help refugees, this time in the Netherlands.

Liz Alderman described it at the NY Times.

“Mahmoud al-Omar leaned over a sewing machine in the basement of a former prison being used to house refugees and began stitching jeans for a popular clothing line. With more than 15 years experience as a tailor in Syria, he zipped through one pair and moved on to another, methodically filling a small order.

“The job, set up by a Dutch organization that matches refugees with work opportunities, is only temporary. Yet after Mr. Omar fled his war-torn hometown, Aleppo, two years ago, just having a place to go each day felt like a salvation.

“ ‘Working is completely necessary to speed up integration,’ said Mr. Omar, 28, who still struggles to speak Dutch, hindering his chances of a full-time job. ‘I want to become independent as soon as possible, so I can start giving back to the country that took me in.’

“When more than one million men, women and children streamed into Europe last year to seek a haven from conflict and poverty in the Middle East and Africa, governments viewed the labor market as the quickest path to absorb newcomers. The sooner people started working, the thinking went, the faster they could get off government aid and start contributing to the economy.

“Yet permanent jobs have proven elusive. The lack of language is a big barrier, as is a skills mismatch. Some refugees do not have the right experience, while others cannot get their professional qualifications or degrees recognized.

“Private initiatives have sprung up across Europe to help. The Refugee Company, the Dutch group that steered Mr. Omar toward work, is one of scores guiding refugees into professional networks and opportunities to improve employability.” More here.

From the company’s About page: “Our mission is to empower refugees. We believe work is the best tool to integration; through work, refugees can blend in with their society and build up a new meaningful life in The Netherlands. We speed up integration by providing opportunities for newcomers upon arrival to utilize their talents again. …

“We decided Refugee Company will focus on craftsmanship. We provide work opportunities in the creation and hospitality sector, as that is where our roots lie. We see a growing demand for craftsmen and horeca [Hotel/Restaurant/Café] staff in the Netherlands.” More.

The Providence Granola Project does something similar in Rhode Island, though on a smaller scale. Language is definitely a barrier, so if you have always liked explaining English to people, consider volunteering near your home.

Photo: The Refugee Company

 

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Although I completely understand the indignation of civil libertarians about some Massachusetts prisoners being obliged to make business cards for state officials, I think prisoner job-training programs like Michigan’s show real promise.

Consider this Associated Press story by David Eggert about “a new program that removes soon-to-be-released inmates from the general population and assigns them to an exclusive ‘vocational village’ for job training. The idea is to send them out through the prison gates with marketable skills that lead to a stable job, the kind that will them out trouble long term. …

“Jesse Torrez, 41, is among the prisoners who were admitted to vocational housing at the Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, about 110 miles northwest of Detroit. There, the inmates receive full days of training in high-demand skills such as welding, machining and carpentry.

“Torrez, who is imprisoned for unarmed robbery, served two previous prison terms. Each time after release, he said, he reverted to ‘drinking and drugging’ when he could not find steady work. If he lied about his criminal record, the employer would inevitably find out and fire him.

” ‘It was just real tough, due to my past, which I created and am totally accountable for,’ said Torrez, a father of five who is hoping to be paroled in 2017 and is being trained in construction trades.

“He said he has a job waiting for him with a manufacturer. …

” ‘We see an untapped talent pool here,’ said Mark Miller, president and CEO of Cascade Engineering Inc. in Grand Rapids, which makes automotive parts, trash carts, storage containers and other goods.

“Cascade does not ask job applicants about their crimes until they have been extended an offer. Depending on the job, inmates can make between $11.60 to start and $15.15 an hour within a year.”

More.

Photo: AP
Inmate William Garrett works on a cabinet at the Habitat for Humanity Prison Build at the Ionia Correctional Facility in Ionia, Mich.

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I’m leaving a job that has been a great fit for me and starting at another organization. Although I’m really looking forward to new experiences after 10 years, there are a few things I’m likely to miss …

an unusual number of really nice co-workers, the building’s art collection and landscaping, subway musicians, the weary dignity of homeward-bound commuters, sunrise over Boston Harbor, Styrofoam sheep floating in Fort Point Channel, a vast array of food trucks, the farmers market, the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, conversations on the commuter rail, the conductor with the circus-announcer’s voice, a commute that allows me to read …

and this view.

120315-sky-over-boston-harbor

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I am still employed at my job of 10-plus years until January 1, but since so many people are on vacation the last fortnight of the year, I got my good-bye party last week.

Wow. Only nice things were said. Kind of like Tom Sawyer attending his own funeral. Here you see my friend Lillian giving me credit for a discussion group that she was more than half responsible for.

A senior vice president surprised me by researching my online theater reviews (I used to moonlight as a critic) and reading two passages that suggested a strong social-justice interest, a theme I hadn’t realized was there. Another colleague commented that she had never met anyone that nice who was also so subversive. Then my top boss stood up to redefine “subversive” in a flattering way that related to the perceived social-justice streak.

Man, now I have to live up to all that. I should say that I have worked at about 10 places since starting as a camp counsellor, and I have never had affirmation like this. A number of those places were glad to see me go. I guess I have learned to tone down the subversive side so it sounds nice.

121715-Lillian-at-my-party

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Miller-McCune.com tweeted today that the National Endowment for the Arts has new data on where artists are finding work.

Four of the six New England states are among the states with the most arts jobs: Vermont, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.

“The report on artists in the workforce supplements and expands upon a 2008 paper, which found about two million Americans list a job in the arts as their primary source of employment. That comes out to 1.4 percent of American workers.

“New York heads the newly released state-by-state list, with artists making up 2.3 percent of its labor force. California, home to the film and television industry, places second with 2.0 percent.

“Not far behind are Oregon and Vermont, each of which has a workforce in which 1.7 percent of workers are artists. That means they exceed the national average by a substantial 20 percent.

“ ‘Writers and authors are especially prominent [in Oregon and Vermont],’ the NEA report notes.

“Also exceeding the national average: Colorado and Connecticut (where artists make up 1.6 of the labor force), and Hawaii, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maryland, Washington, Nevada, and Minnesota (at 1.5 percent).”

Although there likely to be different perceptions of what kind of work constitutes arts employment, I find the report interesting. And since I know anecdotally that there are arts jobs in Maine and New Hampshire (the two New England states not among the top few), I can’t help hoping that some organization will do an in-depth study of the region. Unfortunately, ornery New Englanders don’t often think regionally.

And more generally, what are the reasons some states have more arts jobs? Public policies? Landscape? Accident?

Read more here.

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