Member Profile: Cara Connects (formerly TCP Staffing), Chicago, Illinois

Cara Program_Joe Mutuc6Year business began: 2013
Jobseekers placed last year: 109
Sponsor organization: The Cara Program

Founded in 1991, The Cara Program empowers adults affected by homelessness and poverty to find quality employment. The organization gets its name from “cara,” the Gaelic word for friend, and likens itself to a friend who “coaches, pushes and supports a community of motivated individuals on their journey towards success.” An important part of Cara’s model is its trademark “Motivations,” a morning gathering of participants and staff for sharing personal stories of strength and perseverance, and some singing, too.

The Cara Program makes direct job placements on a no-fee basis and operates two social enterprises. Cleanslate, a provider of neighborhood beautification services begun in 2005, contracts with over 40 customers in greater Chicago including Business Improvement Districts, community development corporations and event management companies. TCP Staffing is Cara’s alternative staffing business, launched in 2013 in response to their employer partners’ increasing preference for temp “first” or temp-only staffing arrangements, and employers’ greater use of staffing companies generally.

We spoke with Joe Mutuc, Managing Director of TCP Staffing, to learn about its progress to date and outlook and goals for the future.

How did you get into the alternative staffing business?
I’ve been with Cara since 2006, and mainly focus on developing and implementing our overall training processes, and engaging and retaining strategic employer partners. For TCP Staffing, I act as Managing Director to provide “big picture” leadership to guide the business’s growth and profitability, and ensure it remains aligned with Cara’s culture.

Our first hire for TCP Staffing was Brian Stetler, who’s responsible for business development. This past fall we added a staffing specialist Sasha Ongtengco to manage candidate recruiting and onboarding and day-to-day account maintenance and customer service.

What job seeker population does TCP Staffing recruit and support?
Cara’s target participants are people affected by homelessness and poverty who are motivated to change their lives. We accept people on a referral basis only, and we collaborate with over a hundred community organizations in Chicago to identify and enroll suitable candidates.

Cara participants who complete our core four-week Life and Career Skills training may secure transitional jobs at TCP Staffing or CleanSlate, or be placed directly with employers on a no-fee basis. So far, 95% of TCP Staffing’s candidates are our training graduates, so to grow the business we need to recruit outside this pool.

We’ve just begun a new approach to build our candidate pipeline. We’re seeking individuals with lower obstacles to employment, perhaps individuals who are unemployed or underemployed, may have relatively recent work experience, and little to no criminal conviction history. These would be individuals ready to hit the ground running, who possess a polished resume, and the ability to present themselves professionally in a business setting. Our proposition to these candidates is if they complete our week-long onboarding training and perform well in staffing assignments for a minimum of four weeks, they become eligible for permanent placement opportunities through our network of employer partners like any graduate of Cara’s training program. They’re also eligible to receive retention services.

We’re continuing to use community partners for candidate referrals and just completed our first “mobile” onboarding class. In this case our recruiting partner was the Northwest Side Housing Center, an agency that helps low-income homeowners avoid foreclosure. To start, they recruited 10 candidates who are working but struggling to make ends meet. Of these, seven showed up and completed the class which we held at the partner’s location to make it more convenient. The curriculum includes an intro to TCP Staffing and Cara, some resume clean-up, and career exploration. We’re still very much in the pilot stage and will adapt the process based on our experience.

What types of support services have you found to be most critical to your workers’ success?
We affirm our students’ success at every milestone they achieve beginning the moment they begin our training. Following job placement, our retention specialists use a one-year coaching template that includes counseling and periodic check-ins related to health and stress management, housing, personal finance, goal setting and psychological barriers to success. So our approach is very holistic.

In addition, a full-time financial literacy specialist provides financial coaching with a focus on budgeting, especially to help new wage earners adjust to the loss of public supports, and promoting personal savings habits.

What types of employers does TCP Staffing serve?
Most of our placements have been in retail/customer service and janitorial jobs. Our customers include a mix of for-profit and nonprofit clients including Eurest Services, The Habitat Company, LISC and Catholic Charities. TCP also provides payrolling services for CleanSlate. As we expand our candidate pool, we anticipate being able to target higher-growth industries like IT and manufacturing.

What marketing messages and methods have you found to be most effective?
Cara’s been around for 25 years and has a well-established name in our market. We’ve found existing customers to be receptive to using the temp staffing option. For new prospects, we use a “co-selling” approach; our program business developers and Brian often call on employers jointly, and we’ve cross trained our program staff to sell both.

We regularly measure and publish our performance outcomes, which is an important part of our brand. Our retention rate one year after job placement is consistently 70% and above. This resonates with employers looking to minimize their turnover costs, and with funders seeking to maximize the return on their grant contributions.

What kind of data management systems do you have in place?
We use SalesForce to manage participant data and customer relations management, and we’ve added a separate portal into this system for the new candidates who enter TCP directly.

What challenges have you experienced in operating a staffing service?
One big surprise has been the length of assignments. We anticipated more short-term assignments – in the 2 to 3 month range – that would turn over and create opportunities for new candidates. Instead our two biggest customers keep many temps on as long as 9 months to a year. For assignments that do not have a set end date, we ask workers to commit to 3 months, and then they are eligible for permanent job opportunities that arise.

Also, until now, the size of our internal candidate pool has driven how much staffing business we can do, which means we sometimes have to turn down business opportunities.

As a manager, what do you wish you had more time for?
Personally, I wish I had more time to develop our staff. More generally, it’s hard to split my time between two jobs (TCP Staffing Managing Director and Cara VP of Programs and Strategies). I constantly have to balance priorities because not only do I want to impact as many individuals as possible, I want to grow a thriving business.

What about TCP Staffing makes you most proud?
I’m proud of the impact we have on improving people’s lives. I feel very lucky to be part of a team that’s driving a business to support our mission.

Please share a success story about one of your workers.
We recently celebrated one of our former worker’s one-year anniversary on the job at LISC Chicago. Juval began working at LISC in a temp position through TCP Staffing, and after two months was hired on as a permanent, full-time administrative assistant. Since then, he’s taken on new responsibilities and continues to rise to the challenge. Juval has also been able to move out of a shelter and into a place of his own, living independently for the first time in years. He successfully appealed for re-admittance to his former undergrad university and is now preparing to take classes and complete his bachelor’s degree.

What are TCP Staffing’s main goals for the future?
Our main focus is to ramp up our volume through growing our candidate pool and also improving our marketing. On the marketing side we want to make our website more robust, adding more testimonials, and automating functions to make it more customer-friendly.

What advice would you offer to someone considering alternative staffing as an enterprise strategy in their community?
Ask yourself, why am I doing this? How does the staffing business fit into our philosophy and program services? Remain flexible and be open to innovation.

To learn more, visit Cara Connects on the web.

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