Member Profile: Marcia Nozick, EMBERS Staffing Solutions

Year program began: 2008
Program sponsor: Eastside Movement for Business & Economic Renewal Society (EMBERS)
Jobseekers placed last year: 374

EMBERS was founded in 2001 to ensure that low-income residents of Vancouver’s downtown eastside inner city neighborhood had a voice in the city’s revitalization planning process. Building on this foundation, the organization went on to design services promoting economic self-sufficiency, first through entrepreneurship training which continues today.

In 2008, EMBERS launched its staffing service business, and in early 2011 they began a green renovations venture that provides construction and weatherization services. We spoke with director Marcia Nozick to learn more about EMBERS Staffing Solutions’ business services and the job seekers they assist.

How did you get into the alternative staffing business?
My Masters is in CED so I was familiar with the concept of social enterprise and always on the lookout for opportunities. The idea to do staffing originated with a resident who knew temporary workers were being exploited and proposed a cooperative. A group of residents began researching this idea but lacked the capacity to go forward on their own. We raised some money to do a business plan and in that process learned about the Alliance and other alternative staffing organizations.

What job seeker population does your program work with?
We are mainly focused on people who have graduated from addiction recovery programs and parolees seeking to reenter the community after their release from prison. We initially chose the recovery population because there’s a huge constituency in Vancouver. Of the approximate 16,000 residents in the city’s eastside, a full quarter receive Methadone treatments. In fact, Vancouver has the only legal, supervised injection site in North America. When people step out of treatment, it’s critical for them to have employment. Temporary staffing offers flexibility and part-time opportunities that enable them to juggle court dates, counseling, family reconciliation and other obligations and pressures while they’re in transition.

As we go forward, we may consider other populations but for now the recovery population is our priority. Currently, about fifty percent of our candidates are parolees. Overall, many of our workforce are men in their 40s and 50s who have skills and experience from the years before their lives went awry or that they gained while in prison.

How many jobseekers does your program serve annually?
Thanks to the Olympics, we more than doubled our number of people placed in 2010 to 374 compared with about 150 in 2009. This past year, we came close to achieving last year’s total. This number represents about a quarter of the people who approach us looking for work.

How are participants referred to your program?
Most of our referrals are from second stage recovery transition houses and the corrections system. The Salvation Army’s addiction services program, for example, is a referral source. We also receive referrals from some of our workers and local employment agencies.

What types of support services have you found to be most critical to your participants’ workplace success?
One-on-one coaching and counseling is the biggest thing, and we are available to our workers 24/7 if there is a crisis. We are like family in that we have high expectations of them and at the same time they know we care. We also emphasize to our workers that their job performance paves the way for others who will follow them and they take this responsibility seriously.

We pay workers weekly, and one support we provide is pay advances although we are trying to curb this practice, perhaps by limiting people to a maximum of four advances. We are also looking into financial literacy training as a support to help our workers set goals and manage their earnings.

We also assist workers with bus tickets and have a “lending library” of boots and safety equipment that workers can borrow until they’re able to buy their own.

What types of employers do you serve?
We mainly serve the construction sector. We have been able to do a small amount of warehouse labor business and have begun providing security hosts and front desk staff for single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels that house low-income people. 2010 was a terrific year for our business due to the Olympics, and construction remains strong, in part due to steady foreign investment in Vancouver. Construction is good work for our candidates because it pays well and offers opportunities for advancement.

What marketing methods or messages have you found to be most effective in attracting new customers?
We are still experimenting with methods. In terms of message, a strong sell in the construction industry is that we pay our workers $2 more per hour and we guarantee workers that are clean and sober. Drug use is endemic in the local construction industry and we can speak openly about it with contractors. That is not the case in warehousing or white-collar work settings where we would like to expand our business, so we need to figure out the right message to win business from these employers.

What has been an innovative solution to a customer problem?
During the Olympics, we had two large job orders from employers that needed staff seven days a week and were unwilling to pay overtime. The Bay, a major retailer in Canada, needed 50 workers per night to restock Olympics merchandise. The second customer, a contractor, needed 10 workers 24/7 to deconstruct the media center (totaling 30 workers for three shifts per day). All workers for both assignments needed security clearance and that, along with avoiding overtime, presented an immense administrative challenge in terms of recruiting and screening candidates, scheduling workers’ hours and managing time sheets. On the job, we assigned team leaders within the work crews to help us coordinate attendance and hours, and we paid them a higher rate per hour for these additional responsibilities. The team leaders were key to ensuring the work ran smoothly and our customers’ requirements were met.

What is your staffing company’s relationship with EMBERS’ Green Renovations business and entrepreneurial training program? 
Green Renovations is our construction business and provides weatherization, other energy efficiency upgrades and remodeling services. They source labor from the staffing division as needed and have hired some of our candidates. The renovations business also refers customer calls about small maintenance or repair jobs the staffing entity can perform, so they’re a good cross-marketer. Our staffing division intersects with the entrepreneurial training program as a source of part-time work that enables people to supplement their income while they’re enrolled in training related to their business idea or during start-up.

What are the biggest challenges of operating a staffing service program in your market?
A basic challenge is lack of enough jobs for candidates who are job ready. As I mentioned earlier, we are only able to place about a fourth of the job seekers who come to us. Like other ASOs, we struggle to compete with the large established staffing companies and to build name recognition in the market. In the construction industry, union contracts exclude us from participating in various projects and we would like to find a way to work with them.

As a manager, what do you wish you had more time for?
I wish I could spend more time in the community telling our story, making connections and promoting the business. Until now, I have been very involved in daily operations, but am hoping to step back this year and  manage more at a “bigger picture” level.

What about EMBERS Staffing Solutions makes you most proud?
I’m very proud of the impact we’ve had on people’s lives. To date, we’ve helped 300 people transition into full-time employment and we get very positive feedback in our exit interviews with workers when we ask how EMBERS has helped them. People are very appreciative of the opportunities we’ve given them. A common comment is that they had unsuccessfully tried to secure employment on their own and it was only through our support and job placements that they were able to get a job, prove themselves to employers and gain full time employment. Another common theme expressed is that their time spent with EMBERS built their self-confidence, and the income they earned allowed them to support and reconnect with their children who, in a number of instances have been estranged from them.

What are your organization’s main goals for the future?
On the business side, we would like to secure more longer-term assignments for people and diversify into making placements in white collar occupations. Support-wise, we would like to add financial literacy training. We are also considering adding some type of pre-employment training as a way to retain people and get to know them better. Up until now, we’ve relied on external agency partners for all pre-employment supports. Longer term, we would like to be able to provide transitional housing for our worker population to help bridge the gap between their release from treatment facilities and stable employment.

Organizationally, we’re exploring spinning off our staffing and green renovations businesses as separate companies, in part because the workers compensation insurer is applying the construction rate to staff across the board and the cost is getting out of hand.

Please, briefly share a success story about one of your workers.
I have a couple I’d like to share. First there’s Frank, who served a 15-year sentence for manslaughter and spent months following his release in an unsuccessful search for work. He finally came to us and within days we had him working as a drywaller. After six months of temp work, he was hired full-time and two years later he’s still working, has married and is doing well.

Another of our candidates, Andrea, was a former crack addict. She had lost custody of her child due to her addiction and entered recovery to get her daughter back. While she was in rehab she could only work one or two days a week and we got her a job as a carpenter’s helper. That led to an apprenticeship and then her hire as a carpenter at $25 an hour. She is reunited with her daughter and also doing very well.

What advice would you offer to someone considering alternative staffing as a strategy in their community?
Temporary staffing has been a great business for fulfilling our mission. My advice is to focus on sales and find people with experience in operations and data management systems. It has taken us a long time to establish good internal systems and that is so important.

Please visit EMBERS Staffing Solutions on the web to learn more.

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