In the Spotlight

News & Features
New Workers, New Practices
By Mark Zdechlik
October 15, 1998
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4
Part of the MPR Welfare to Work Series

Welfare reform arrived in Minnesota as the state's economy was enjoying one of its biggest booms in recent years. As a result, not only are there companies looking for workers, there are workers looking for jobs. Some companies have been aggressively recruiting people going through the welfare-to-work transition.

IT'S JUST BEFORE 5:00 IN THE AFTERNOON as a handful of people exit a Metro Transit bus in northeast Minneapolis across the street from United Parcel Service's main Twin Cities distribution center.

The bus line G-1 began in June. It's there because UPS requested it as part of its ongoing effort to attract employees who do not have strong work backgrounds. UPS convinced transportation officials, providing the service would help some people make the transition from dependence on government programs to employment and self sufficiency.

The workers take their place in a maze of conveyor belts. Hundreds of people loading, unloading and sorting thousands of packages. Among them are several people who were effectively forced onto the job market at the beginning of the year by welfare reform. Donna Johnson coordiates UPS's welfare-to-work program in Minnesota.

Johnson: I think it's working really well. So far, I mean, just this year we've hired 53 MFIP clients onto our payroll. There's probably more that we don't even maybe know about, but those are the ones for sure that we know about, and we've gotten some excellent, good quality people on the payroll from it.

That is not to say difficulties don't commonly arise when people not accustomed to working get jobs. But Johnson says UPS has learned it pays to recognize and - when possible - to accommodate the struggles of people moving from welfare-to-work.

Johnson:You have to get over the obstacles or get around the obstacles. You gotta tear those brick wall down, which are the daycare problems and the transportation problems and the personal problems.

UPS works with government and non profit social service agencies to find employees fresh from the welfare rolls. Although Johnson says her company doesn't necessarily extend special privileges to former welfare recipients, she does say when something goes wrong, her first inclination is not to terminate the worker.

Johnson: Sometimes employees will just leave and we won't know why they've left. And sometimes it is because they didn't know how to handle a situation with the supervisor holding them accountable for coming to work on time, or every day. We call them. We'll usually try and make three attempts to give them a call and find out why they've quit showing up for work. I'd rather work it out than see an employee walk out the door, 'cause you've already invested time and money into their training and to hiring them and orientation. So I'd rather keep them.

And Johnson says employees who come to UPS from welfare programs are actually more likely to remain with the company than other entry level workers.

Another major company that began moving welfare recipients on to its payroll long before welfare reform is the Marriot Corporation. In 1991 Marriot began recruiting traditionally difficult to employ people - including welfare recipients and the homeless - in a program called "Pathways to Independence."

Mark Kaufman: The primary needs of this population, surprising to some, is not job skills.

Mark Kaufman is senior manager of employment and training at Marriot.

Kaufman: If you take a look at our approach and our curriculum, it's not around, you know, how to make widgets or how to make a bed or anything else. We do that, but the bulk of our approach is around helping people become more dependable. Those life skills are the key piece.

Many call the life skills Kaufman is referring to as "soft" skills - the ability to consistantly make it to work on time, to communicate professionaly with co-workers and supervisors, to accept criticism, to follow rules. In many cases instilling those qualities in people is a lot harder than teaching job skills.

Like UPS, Kaufman says Marriot has a better retention rate with welfare to work employees than its regular workforce.

Kaufman: Our national retention rate is around 70 percent. For our mainstream population, it is not that high.

Both companies freely acknowledge the impetus behind their efforts is to fill open jobs. And finding workers has become increasingly difficult over the past couple of years amid the strong economy and record low unemployment.

The "Employment Action Center," a non-profit human service agency in the Twin Cities helps screen job candidates for UPS. The Agency's director of welfare-to-work programs, Betsy McMillan, says like any other group, there's great diversity among welfare recipients. She discourages generalizing about their prospects for employment. But McMillan does say she's concerned some of them finding work now will be vulnerable when the economy slows down.

McMillan: They may be a matter of last hired, first to be let go. And in that case, that will affect many new entrants, newest entrants, to the job market, including a lot of the welfare-to-work workers, whether they have good skills or not. If an employer is going to make a decision based on the skills that are being demonstrated, then again, there will be many people who don't have good "soft" skills that will be let go.

UPS says regardless of the economy, it will not abandon its welfare-to-work program. Marriot won't predict the fate of its program in a weak economcy.

But Mark Kaufman, of Marriot, says his company gets a lot more from the program than warm bodies making beds, bussing dishes, and vacuuming carpet.

Kaufman: One of the most exciting things about this project is the loyalty factor, and that's something that you really can't quantify in dollars. Yes, you can talk about retention and those types of savings, but the additional benefits in terms of, you know, customer service and just employee self-satisfaction is very high. And it's not just for the trainees, but for the other hotel associates as well. They take tremendous pride in knowing they've really made a difference in someone's life.

Marriot hopes to bring its "Pathways to Independence" program to the Twin Cities. Its submitted a request for state funding to help cover the cost of training. UPS says it hopes to convince transit officials to add more bus service to its facilities so welfare-to-work employees and others will have more options - and be available for more shifts.