Aristine Thomas felt like she was just a number. When she was furloughed in 2009 after 30 years of working at a pharmacy, she became one of the estimated 20,000 people living in Greater University Circle who were unemployed.
It was like “a dark cloud came over Cleveland,” Thomas said when describing that time. “I hadn’t filled out a (job) application in 30 years. I got out of high school in 1970. It’s different now.”
Now, most job applications must be filled out online, and breaking through that virtual wall to get a job interview with a real person can be tough. Thomas tried, and even got some interviews, but no offers.
Two and a half years after being laid off, she was spending much of her time watching television, filling out job applications online and volunteering in her neighborhood. Then she heard about the innovative Step Up to University Hospitals program.
Thomas lives just 3 miles from the Euclid Avenue hospital system — one of Ohio’s largest employers. What she did next would get her inside its doors and change her fortunes.
A Neighborhood Jobs Pipeline
Step Up to University Hospitals is a unique partnership between University Hospitals, Towards Employment (a nonprofit that helps people find work), and Neighborhood Connections, the small grants and community building program of the Cleveland Foundation.
The goal of the program is to become a “neighborhood jobs pipeline” that connects people living just outside the hospital’s doors in Greater University Circle with good-paying, entry-level jobs inside that offer benefits and the opportunity for advancement.
According to a paper from the Annie E. Casey Foundation: “Poverty and unemployment aren’t spread evenly across cities and regions, but rather are concentrated in certain neighborhoods and communities. … Poor neighborhoods are often isolated, cut off from the relatively prosperous cities that surround them.”
That is the case in Greater University Circle where the University Circle neighborhood thrives — it is home to Case Western Reserve University and University Hospitals with the Cleveland Clinic nearby — while unemployment surges in surrounding communities like Hough, Fairfax and Glenville.
“Pipelines help people get past barriers, get a foot in the door and get going,” the paper read.
Creating such a pipeline requires a strong partnership in order to provide the training and career coaching people need to succeed.
Danielle Price, of Neighborhood Connections, said the Step Up partners “operate as a network, each in our own area of expertise,” all focused on the larger mission of building wealth for residents of Greater University Circle.
“The only way to provide this range of support is through collaboration,” added Jill Rizika, executive director of Towards Employment.
How does it work?
Neighborhood jobs pipelines begin with deep and trusted connections to neighbors, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation paper. This is where Neighborhood Connections is able to have real impact in the Step Up pipeline.
“At Neighborhood Connections, we do authentic community engagement,” Price said. “We really get to know people. We know their strengths and their talents. We know that everyone has something to give.”
Neighborhood Connections’ role in the Step Up partnership is to recruit residents to attend information sessions and learn about the available jobs at the hospital. Staff do this by tapping into Neighbor Up, a network launched by Neighborhood Connections in 2012 that brings together folks from all sectors of Greater Cleveland to work together so all can thrive. At each information session, Neighborhood Connections staff provide light refreshments and music and greet everyone who comes. Those not already connected to Neighbor Up are introduced to the larger network.
“We’re trying to put the human back in human resources,” Price said.
Staff from Towards Employment lead the information sessions to tell neighbors about the available jobs. From there, folks may be chosen to attend a two-week pre-employment program at Towards Employment’s downtown office focusing on interview skills, customer service and job retention training. After completing that program, candidates are interviewed at Towards Employment by a recruiter from University Hospitals.
If selected by that recruiter, they go for a final interview at University Hospitals — after spending four days with a Towards Employment career coach doing mock interviews. Once hired, Towards Employment provides the new employees a job coach for the first six months of employment.
University Hospitals is Ohio’s seventh-largest employer with about 21,000 employees, according to 2012 data from the Ohio Department of Development.
The hospital’s Human Resources department receives about 12,000 job applications every month for about 300 available positions, said Debbi Perkul of University Hospitals. Wading through those applications to hire qualified candidates is a cumbersome and laborious task. Department staff typically interview about 12 people for every job opening, according to hospital statistics.
The Step Up partnership allows Neighborhood Connections and Towards Employment to do some of the candidate screening for the hospital. With the Step Up project, hospital HR staff have had to interview fewer than three people for every available position, statistics show.
The program “significantly reduced the interview-to-hire ratio, enhancing the efficiency for UH and creating new opportunities for residents,” Perkul said.
Staci Wampler, of Towards Employment, said people who go through the Step Up program not only are well-prepared to answer tough questions in a job interview, but they really understand what the job entails. This increases retention after people are hired.
With Step Up, they know “the job is a good fit,” Wampler said. “It’s a hard job. It’s not a cakewalk.”
Thomas said the program helped her to “keep it simple and stay focused” when answering questions during her job interview.
She got the job and is now a full-time employee in the hospital’s Environmental Services division.
“Without (Step Up), I’d probably still be at home on the Internet” looking for work, Thomas said. “You meet people … like everybody at Towards Employment, and they tell you all the good things you still have to give to the community. That kind of employment guidance is key.”