Member Profile: First Step Staffing, Atlanta

First Step Staffing
Atlanta, Georgia

Year program began: 2007
Jobseekers placed last year: 211

First Step Staffing is a nonprofit enterprise launched in 2007 by entrepreneur and philanthropist Greg Block as a strategy to help homeless individuals re-enter the workforce, earn steady income and break the cycle of homelessness. First Step partners with a variety of transitional housing organizations in Atlanta to recruit job-ready individuals. A second business line, First Step Benefits, fast-tracks individuals with severe disabilities that prevent them from retaining employment for Social Security Disability and Medicaid benefits, thus securing them stable housing and medical treatment. In 2011, First Step Staffing was awarded the prestigious Revolutions Award for Outstanding Nonprofit Organization by the Georgia Center for Nonprofits in recognition of its work providing jobs, workforce development and benefits to Atlanta’s homeless.

We spoke with president Barbara Peters and Branch Manager Sebrecia Colquitt to learn more about First Step’s staffing business and the outlook for 2013.

First, please tell us how you both got into the alternative staffing business?

Barbara: I worked in traditional staffing for seven years and then moved into nonprofit workforce development at Goodwill where I ran a vocational training program. I met Greg Block when he was doing research to create First Step and became very interested in the project. He later recruited me to lead it.

Sebrecia: My background is in workforce development and I’ve been at First Step since August. My work here includes both business development and collaboration with our candidate-referring partner organizations. Prior to joining First Step, I worked at Jewish Family & Career Services, also in Atlanta, providing job development and career transition services to long-term unemployed individuals.

What candidate populations does First Step work with?

We serve job-ready individuals seeking to transition from homelessness. These are job seekers whose basic needs for food and shelter have been met so they are able to advance into employment and earn income to become self-sufficient. About 25% to 40% of our job seekers are chronically homeless, and upwards of 70% have a criminal record.

How many jobseekers does your organization serve annually?

Approximately 300.

How are participants referred to your staffing service?

We recruit primarily through partnerships with transitional and supportive housing organizations that refer residents in response to our notices about job openings. Other organizations also send us resumes of prospective job seekers. In addition, we have just begun working with a mayoral initiative, Unsheltered No More, to help displaced veterans move back into the workforce. First Step is part of a multi-agency team that has begun collaborating more formally to accelerate homeless veterans’ placement into housing and then employment. The initiative’s goal is to serve up to 300 individuals this year.

What types of support services have you found to be most critical to your candidates’ workplace success?

When candidates are referred to us, we review employer expectations and discuss workplace safety with them. We also help them develop transportation plans and provide them with work clothing and tools, if needed. In addition, we provide post-employment support such as job coaching and troubleshooting issues that arise on-the-job.

The job coaching is a critical support to ensure success. As candidates make the transition to employment, we communicate frequently with them and our employer customers, after day one, week one, month one and then at 90 and 180 days.

Prior to job placement, we rely on our transitional and supportive housing partners to provide case management and job readiness training. We also work with the Georgia Justice Project to help eligible individuals expunge their criminal record and remove this barrier. Our transportation supports include public transit passes and on occasion, transport via First Step vans. We also participate with a program that provides bicycles for people whose job sites are within a few miles of Atlanta’s rapid transit line.

What types of employers do you serve?

Transportation and warehousing businesses each account for about 40% of our sales and the remaining 20% is in hospitality and event staffing. We do a small amount of subcontracting with Hire Dynamics, around 2% of our sales, which is far short of our initial expectations. We’ve encountered two main challenges in growing this business. One is the newness of the model. Hire Dynamics staff are concerned about sharing the revenue despite the related cost savings the partnership will provide. The other challenge is the time needed to develop the personal relationships necessary for a successful partnership, particularly given the turnover rate in staffing.  We are working closely with Hire Dynamics to resolve these issues. Our staff is participating in an extensive training program at Hire Dynamics, and this will enable them to develop the relationships and knowledge necessary to support business growth for both organizations.

What marketing methods or messages have you found to be most effective in attracting new customers?

Face-to-face interactions with executives at Chamber and local Industry Council events are an effective way to identify new prospects and get the word out about our services.  We also solicit referrals from satisfied customers. In terms of message, we emphasize that we supply motivated individuals who we know well and who we support to succeed. We tell companies they will gain great employees and benefit the community, too, through using our services and getting people back to work. The key message is that using an alternative staffing agency is a great way to give back to the community without spending any extra money.

In 2013, we are soliciting our community-based partners for introductions to stakeholders that can lead to jobs. These warm leads are expected to produce great results. We also believe the emphasis on Veterans via our newest program, First Step Veterans, will attract local businesses. Finally, we are partnering with a large church that has members in all the major companies in Atlanta. They are sending the message that church members can help their neighbors by choosing First Step for their staffing needs.

What has been an innovative solution to a customer problem?

We recently began doing business with a transportation logistics company that was using a conventional staffing agency to supply warehouse workers for unloading and picking/packing work, and experiencing chronic problems with tardiness and no-shows. We offered them guaranteed on-time crews and based on that commitment, the manager initially agreed to seven full-time positions. Within a week, he increased the order to 10 and we’re now at 12.

We can guarantee our crews for two reasons: 1) we have a van and provide the transportation and 2) we developed a wage incentive plan, in cooperation with our customer, for individuals who show up on time. Our workers start at $8.00 per hour and can win a $.50 per hour increase every 30 days during their first 90 days if they are consistently on time. Thus, they can achieve a $9.50 wage rate within three months which is close to the company’s entry-level hiring rate. The van driver is also a temp worker who serves as the on-site crew leader and earns $1.00 more per hour for these additional responsibilities.

The customer is so pleased with our services he has asked about our ability to service additional warehouses they operate throughout the southeast and there may be future referral opportunities to other Alliance member organizations.

What are the biggest challenges of operating a staffing service in your market?

The Metro Atlanta staffing market is very competitive and trying to break in has been difficult, especially with larger accounts. As a small, local firm we need to lead with our service, not our name. In addition, it is difficult to finance the supportive services we provide through margin alone and still remain competitively priced.

As managers, what do you wish you had more time for?

Barbara: I’d like to be able to dedicate more time to developing our partnership with Hire Dynamics and building relationships with the Boards of our housing and other agency partners, which I think can lead to more sales. In our experience this type of collaboration and outreach leads to referrals.

Sebrecia: For me, it would be the post-placement job coaching piece and developing some retraining for our candidates to update their skills to go with the jobs that are available.

Please, briefly share a success story about one of your workers or one of your customers.

Muhammad is of one our veteran candidates who had the desire and the experience to work but needed help to earn income and secure his entry into the civilian workforce. We placed him with a local logistics company and after 90 days he was offered a full-time permanent position. He was thrilled to be hired and credited his success to the post-employment coaching he received to offer help when needed, volunteer for new tasks and projects, and take on more responsibility when possible. Muhammad followed that advice and his initiative and extra effort were noticed and rewarded.

What about First Step makes you most proud?

At the end of the day, it’s knowing we have impacted lives and families in very positive ways. Our workers do the hard work, of course, but the critical link to employment we provide has a very tangible impact and ripples outward. People get their kids back, we have a guy who just bought his first home! We are proud that we can contribute to those outcomes.

What are your organization’s main goals for the future?

One is self-sufficiency. We came close this year but did not quite break-even. Another is the deepening of our community partnerships I described earlier. Internally, we want to excel as a workplace and care better for our staff. We all work very hard taking care of our temporary workforce and tend to neglect ourselves. So, we want to improve in that regard.

We’re also working on an exciting partnership for temp-to-hire employment that includes a mentoring component. The market opportunity is cleaning, construction and landscaping work to rehab foreclosed properties, and the job candidates are tenants in affordable housing. We will train and place individuals in five-month paid internships during which they will be on our payroll and the employer will pick up the wage expense. Candidates will receive some upfront training and then ongoing training one or two days a month during the internship. After six months, when they “graduate,” the employer will hire them or we will place them elsewhere. At this point, we will also assign them a mentor and our hope is to involve some of our alumni as mentors.

What advice would you offer to someone considering alternative staffing as a strategy in their community?

Be realistic about your market and if at all possible, begin with a couple of large contracts in hand as well as political support. Choose your partners carefully. Also, beware of the cash flow challenges of staffing and be prepared to address these, particularly as you grow

To learn more, please visit First Step Staffing on the web.

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