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Keeping a Job
By Lynette Nyman
October 13, 1998
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4
Part of the MPR Welfare to Work Series

THE PREMISE OF WELFARE REFORM IS SIMPLE: Get people off the welfare rolls and into jobs. The reality is many people going from welfare to work are hard to employ. Job-hopping, lack of work history, poor English skills, and no transportation are just a few reasons why getting a job is difficult. But with the current labor shortage, there are a lot of jobs available, and the challenge for many is keeping a position once they've found it.

Scott LeMire is the recruitment coordinator for Marsden Building Maintenance in St. Paul.

LeMire: The first 90 days are the most crucial, both for the employee and the employer. Success often comes down to what's called the soft skills - the ability to balance personal and work life, to be present and punctual, and to get along in the work place.
They've got a staff of around 3,000. Almost three-quarters are part-time with about 100 percent turnover each year. LeMire says these jobs are where many welfare-to-work people start learning the working life. And he says the little things can become a big deal without soft skills.
LeMire: You have a sick child. What do you do? You know, a lot of these people have not had to deal with those kinds of issues. The first few times it happens, it's a barrier. They don't understand. "My kid's sick. I have to stay home and take care of it." Whereas other people that have been dealing with the issue for a long period of time will find an alternative source of child care or make some kind of arrangement to make sure they get to work.
Solving transportation problems, or being on time on a regular basis, are behaviors most learn at home, watching one's parents meet the demands of the modern workplace.

But county welfare workers often find they're dealing with people who missed out on that while growing up. So learning these skills can be like acquiring a new language or lifestyle.

Kari Olson works at the St. Paul Rehabilitatin Center where she's the placement team coordinator. She plans many of the center's training programs for job seekers.

Olson describes the American work culture as a white, middle-class ideal. She says those who haven't learned and accepted that will have retention problems.

Olson: A large part of our lives is going to work. And within American culture, this is what you do. You grow up. You go to school in order to get a job as kind of your life expected. You're expected to get a job. And that's what we're dealing with. With some of the immigrant populations, too, where their idea of a job is very different than the American ideal. And Americans have this Protestant work ethic, the "showing up on time thing," that dates back to the 1600s, and how we believed that a person should behave and you work hard and you're rewarded for it.
Worker: What employers want to know is, "Are you going to be leaving all the time to go have a cigarette?"
Each week at the St. Paul Rehabilitation Center, small groups of job seekers gather to work on how to get and keep a job. This class looks promising. But for some, not having a high school education will hurt. For others, a language barrier will add to their struggle. Still, they're optimistic, even though most haven't held a job for longer than a few months at a time.

Angelique Sanders is 20 years old and a mother of two. She's unique among the class participants. She worked at a pizza restaurant for three years. Sanders says that was before her first child was born in 1996.

Sanders: I had gone into false labor for, like, three times I had false labor. So they said I couldn't work. I had to stay off my feet. Even though I couldn't work, I still did stuff around the house. I couldn't stand to be laying down or sit down all the time. And then I got pregnant again which was a shock. I didn't think I'd get pregnant that quick because I was using all protections that I could possibly use without getting the double shot.
Sanders was put on bed rest again. A year later, she's ready to find a job and get off public assistance. She's outspoken in the class answering questions and offering her opinion.

Sanders did not think highly of the person, in one example the instructor gave, where a worker jumped over the counter at a fast-food restaurant to talk to her friends.

Sanders: Basically, I don't think she should have gotten the job in the first place, or if she got the job, the person who hired her should have told her, "Look, we don't want your friends hanging around all the time," or, "We don't want you jumping over the counter," you know? Taking cigarette breaks when it's not your break time or, "Ask us if you can take it earlier."
Sanders describes herself as determined. She recently completed a course in data processing, so she'll probably find a job right away. And she may have her pick of the opportunities out there because of the labor shortage for entry-level positions.

That has turned the tables on employers. This means companies are more likely to try to solve problems with new employees rather than handing them the pink slip. Scott LeMire with Marsden says 10 years ago it was a different case.

LeMire: If someone didn't show up and was habitually absent or tardy, it was a no-brainer. You terminated their employment. With the situation now, of course, you have to change. And the change is that you work with the people a little closer. The supervisors have to continue monitoring and keeping them on track, trying to coach them along more. It's more job coaching than anything else. And training the supervisors is one of the things we've been doing to help them to become coaches, work with the people, get them going.
Many social services agencies like the St. Paul Rehabilitation Center have job retention specialists who work one-on-one with people as they ease their way into a working lifestyle. There's training for employers, too. And while social workers are pleased with how things are going, they worry about what could happen if there's an economic downturn. They also say it's still early in the welfare reform process.

So far the people coming through the doors are generally willing and able to work. The welfare experts say there's a whole other population out there, less motivated, less skilled, and harder to employ.