The Journey to Full Employment

This is the second post in a three-part series about the power of business to transform the lives of the poor. Read the first and third posts here.  This series is related to our upcoming event, Creating Good Jobs for Our Community.

Aside from the occasional babysitting gig, my first job was working at Paul’s Place, a now-defunct burger joint off Arapahoe Road and I-25. I spent the summer polishing brass and wiping tables but learned invaluable lessons about the working world along the way. A few examples: Just because you’re tired doesn’t mean the shift is over, a basket of French fries and onion rings does not qualify as a “nutritious” lunch, and a rude customer does not deserve a rude response.

While the hours spent at Paul’s Place provided real-world experience, the true learning happened around the dinner table when I got home. My parents gladly debriefed the day, evaluating awkward encounters and helping me find the courage to stand up to a difficult boss. Without their coaching, my road to employment would have been rockier.

But what happens when someone doesn’t have a supportive family to help them learn how to work with others or when factors like financial instability, violence, or mental illness disrupt their entry into the working world?

What factors should employers be aware of as they consider hiring people facing barriers to employment such as these?

The Roadmap

For more than 30 years, the staff at Open Door Fellowship (ODF) has wrestled with these questions as they serve Denver’s poor and oppressed. In the process of serving people with the most extreme levels of poverty or addiction, its leaders have identified the road clients travel on the way to full employment.

ODF’s Former Operations Pastor Chris Hooper explains it this way: “[Imagine] you are a 35 year-old man, who has spent the last 20 years on the streets. What can you offer the job market? The skills that helped you survive the streets are not an asset in the workplace. Before you are ready to work, you must ask yourself, ‘Will I become that man… who goes to work every day, who respects a boss’ authority, and who resolves conflict rather than physically fights with coworkers?’”

People in this scenario are considered “pre-employable.” Before they can successfully hold a job, they must move through a series of stages to establish healthy relationship skills and realize their own potential. ODF uses the following diagram, a loose adaptation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, to describe this growth process:

(Image courtesy of Andy Cannon, ODF)

At the Survival stage, people only think in terms of food, sleep, and (often) their addictions. Many cannot envision a life beyond survival because they cannot imagine living without drugs or alcohol.

As addicts connect with a supportive community and the security it offers, they witness a different way of life. They may initially come for a free meal or because they enjoy the programming, but gradually they begin to identify with the community (“These are my people”) and volunteer to help with tasks around the building (“This is my responsibility”).

This stage reflects a significant shift because people move from being those who only receive goods and services to become people who add value to the community. Comments like “Look how I cleaned the tables!” or “Don’t mess with the bulletins, it’s my job to hand them out,” indicate that they are beginning to see themselves as people who have something to offer. In contrast to a man living on the street, who may think, “No one would care if I was gone,” members of the community begin to realize that they matter.

For people to be employable, they must believe they can contribute.

At the next stage, Security, people’s lives begin to stabilize. They may enter a treatment program intending to “get cleaned up” or move into affordable housing. With the security — and community — a program offers, they can move beyond survival to deal with the layers and layers of issues that led them to their lowest point. Hooper notes that clients tend to cycle through rehab at least a couple of times as they pull out of their old way of life.

Treatment programs help people address the third need in ODF’s hierarchy: Relationships. In addition to discovering their identity in Christ, people learn new ways of relating to their families or establish new familial relationships through the church community. This stage looks beyond material poverty to address a poverty of spirit, and reminds us that anyone can be poor, regardless of the size of his paycheck. Just as people need to realize that they matter, developing a network of healthy relationships lays the foundation for successful employment.

In addition to the “soft skills” people learn by rebuilding relationships, they must realize their own potential to be employable. This stage represents the integration of faith and work in its rawest form (i.e. ,“God created you to work. You are able… you are gifted…you matter!”)

Reflection Questions

1.) Who was most instrumental in helping you know how to work?

2.) Have you ever worked with someone in the Survival, Security or Relationships stage of pre-employment? Or perhaps you’ve met someone in this stage through a service opportunity like mentoring or volunteering at a shelter?

3.) If you’re a business owner or decision maker, could you create space in your company for “pre-employable” people?

In the next post in this series, I’ll offer specific suggestions for employers considering creating good jobs for vulnerable people in our community.

Featured photo by Lrn2Go on Flickr, used under this Creative Commons  license.