Member Profile: Vanessa Bartram, WorkSquare

Vanessa Bartram, Founder
WorkSquare, LLC
Miami, Florida
Year program began: 2008
Jobseekers placed last year: 160

Social entrepreneur Vanessa Bartram launched WorkSquare in spring 2008 with a clear mission to reform the Miami labor market for service, light industrial, and general labor positions. As an advocate for low-wage temporary workers, WorkSquare strives to increase their access to job information, ongoing financial literacy training and referrals to benefits and resources that will help them earn more, spend smarter, and build wealth. At the same time, WorkSquare is working to reduce employers’ hiring costs and add value through better information about workers and a more efficient process to connect with high performers. Though starting her business in the midst of a recession, Vanessa has steadily built sales and established WorkSquare as a firm presence in the south Florida market.

We spoke with Vanessa to learn more about WorkSquare’s experience to date and her goals for the future.

How did you get into the alternative staffing business?
I was originally inspired by the ideas of C.K. Prahalad, an economist at the University of Michigan. His book, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, showcases for-profit business models that fight poverty while delivering goods and services to poor people. While studying my MBA, I had the opportunity to research Miami’s temporary labor market and was saddened by the abuses, poor information and lack of opportunity faced by many low-wage temporary workers. So, after graduating, I moved to Miami to start WorkSquare.

What job seeker populations does your company mainly work with?
Our membership is equally men and women. Ethnically, about half are Latino. The next largest group is African-American (30%) and the balance is white and Haitian.

What do you mean by “membership?”
We regularly do an orientation that covers basic job search skills and provides information about financial literacy and benefits available to low-income people. We invite participants to join WorkSquare and use our office as a resource center to access computers, job listings, information about public benefits, etc. We are currently designing a new web site that will enable members to market themselves directly to employers and likewise, give employers an efficient way to “shop” for workers based on their location, skills and performance ratings from temporary employers.

How many individuals does WorkSquare serve annually?
In the 20 months since we opened, about 1,400 people have gone through our orientation. Of these, we’ve placed 400 in work assignments and about 40 have converted to permanent positions.

How are participants referred to your company?
We receive referrals from case managers at social service providers, local shelters and through word-of-mouth.

What types of support services have you found to be most critical to their workplace success?
The first week or two on the job is a critical time and workers rely on us to answer questions and mediate any conflicts that arise. Also, we ask employers to rate our workers’ performance using a simple 4-star system (excellent, good, satisfactory or don’t resend this person). When the rating is satisfactory or less, we ask for more detailed feedback. Sharing this information with workers is often very valuable in helping them improve.

Unlike most ASOs, you operate without a community development sponsor organization. Who are key community-based partners and what is their role?
Our main community partners are the Human Services Coalition, United Way, and the Hospitality Institute. The Human Services Coalition has a Prosperity Campaign that links low-income individuals with financial services including free tax preparation, economic benefits counseling, homeownership counseling, and financial coaching. The United Way has a new Center for Financial Stability where we offer employment orientations twice a month. The Center is a pilot site that opened in October and offers a variety of social services under one roof. With the variety of social service agencies involved, we find there are good opportunities for cross-referrals. The Hospitality Institute is a 3-day training program at Miami-Dade College that was developed with input from local hotel owners. We attend their monthly job fairs to recruit graduates for our workforce.

What types of employers do you serve?
We mainly serve the hospitality industry, including hotels, restaurants, event venues, event producers, and caterers. We have a couple building services customers and would like to grow this market sector. We do not yet supply the industrial/warehouse sector but feel it has potential to offer greater employment opportunities to our members with criminal records.

What marketing methods or messages have you found to be most effective in attracting new customers?
Our policy of no fees for temp-to-perm conversions has definitely given us a foot in the door with many employers. They can evaluate prospective hires for 1 or 2 months at no risk. This policy also provides a strong incentive to our workers, who know they can be hired on day one.

You write an occasional blog and post Twitter updates … how do these activities impact your business?
To date, there is no direct business benefit. I mainly use these tools as a way to stay engaged in the policy and advocacy side of our work and aggregate thoughts, learnings and research I am developing on the industry and on the low-wage labor market generally. Regarding other social media, our new web site will be a great social network for our employee base to exchange information and make referrals. (You can check out Vanessa’s blog at http://worksquare.blogspot.com/)

What are the biggest challenges of operating a staffing service company in your market?
Miami/Dade County has a very high wealth gap. There is virtually no manufacturing sector, and the hospitality sector offers workers little room for wage growth. Going forward we are trying to diversify away from hospitality and explore opportunities in property management and health care which offer workers more room for on-the-job development and advancement.

As a manager, what do you wish you had more time for?
I constantly wish I had more time to think about the ‘big picture’ strategic issues and how we can innovate and improve industry practices to make greater social impact for low-wage workers while also strengthening the value proposition for employers. Our office is a busy place, staffed by myself and one other person, and has been growing quickly. So I’m very involved on the frontlines.

What about your staffing company makes you most proud?
I feel good about our success melding a for-profit business with our social mission. As a business, we’ve been able to maintain a no conversion fee and no minimum hours policy for customers and still generate a modest profit, while also improving the employment prospects and economic power of our workers.

What are WorkSquare’s main goals for the future?
Our long-term goal is to create an online platform that will function as an open labor market. Individuals can market themselves to employers, and employers can easily find qualified, reliable workers based on performance ratings collected from previous temporary employers. By integrating rating and feedback systems like those on eBay.com and Elance.com, we hope to identify the highest-performing individuals and help them advance more quickly.

Please, briefly share a success story about one of your workers or one of your customers.
We recently sent a woman Hortense to fulfill a short-term hotel housekeeping job. The customer loved her from the start but was not yet ready to hire new staff. Hortense liked the employer as well, and in the course of the assignment learned that long-time housekeeping staff earn $8.25 per hour. We subsequently placed her with another hotel that also wants to hire her and pays its room attendants $2.00 an hour more. Hortense is suddenly in a position where she has negotiating power with the first hotel and two good near-term employment options. This is precisely our goal … to allow workers to leverage temporary assignments in order to improve their negotiating power with other prospective employers.

To learn more, please visit WorkSquare on the web.

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