EMBERS adds worker training, benefits in breakthrough year

Jun 23, 2015 No Comments by

EMBERS Staffing Solutions (ESS) operates in Vancouver, British Columbia’s Downtown Eastside, an area of the city notorious for record levels of crime, drug use, poverty, and a large number of people with mental health problems. Launched in 2008 to provide work opportunities for people graduating from addiction recovery programs, ESS struggled through four years of ups and downs and seriously considered closing in 2012 as placements slowed to 8 to 10 workers per day. Instead, the business revised its sales strategy and secured a multi-year contract that has led to a dramatic turnaround.

In 2014, ESS employed 877 people, converted 400 workers to full-time hire and paid $3.1 million in wages and benefits. On any given day, ESS has 150 people working on different sites. The sharp growth in business revenues, fueled by a surge in construction activity in the Vancouver market, has enabled ESS to invest in worker training, extend medical and dental benefits to long-term workers, and buy two vans that have enhanced ESS’ customer service and expanded its territory.

ESS’ placements have always been concentrated in the construction industry. Most of their workers have some level of construction experience, the industry offers good pay and advancement opportunities, and addiction is an acknowledged problem that can be openly discussed with employers. ESS’ market differentiator has consistently been the promise to deliver reliable, sober labor. Through its screening and matching practices, the business has gained a reputation for providing quality workers, and customers also know (and like) that ESS pays workers $2 to $4 more per hour than the competition.

ESS’ “turnaround” contract resulted from a project to restore and renovate 13 Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels for social housing. Led by the Provincial government and Habitat Housing Initiative, the $143.3 million project brought together a number of sub-contractors and included a social procurement provision requiring them to hire local residents. The construction management sub-contractor approached EMBERS to supply workers, and ESS’ business grew rapidly from there. The construction firm has long since exceeded the social hiring goals for the project but continues to be a satisfied customer, and accounts for about 30% of ESS’ current revenue.

Worker training and benefits are new additions for ESS that were not part of their original business plan but align with their social mission and have become selling points to both clients and candidates. All employees who have worked steadily for at least six months are eligible for paid medical and dental benefits. The company has sponsored training for 103 general laborers in such skills as hoist operating, traffic control, occupational First Aid, and fall arrest (the safe stopping of a person falling), with 13 individuals advancing to Construction Safety Officer, a management position. ESS’ training partners include the British Columbia Institute of Technology and the Care Institute of Safety and Health, Inc.

Today, ESS’ biggest challenge is managing their growth. Their current priority is to develop a more efficient internal staffing plan, and to improve their systems for dispatching workers, tracking information, and managing cash flow.

Trico Charitable Foundation recently sponsored a case study to document ESS’ journey from social enterprise concept in 2003 to the present day. The study, prepared by the Centre for Social Innovation and Impact Investing at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business tells ESS’ story and highlights key insights about launching, sustaining and scaling an alternative staffing business. It’s an interesting and worthwhile read!

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