Member Profile: Trevor Kale & Elizabeth Wilson, Chrysalis Enterprises

Trevor Kale, Vice President
Elizabeth Wilson, Director of Customer Service
Chrysalis Enterprises
Los Angeles, California

Year program began: 1991
Jobseekers placed last year: 200

Pictured: Trevor and Elizabeth with Chrysalis Staffing employee Kanyae (in hat)

Chrysalis was founded in 1984 as a food and clothing distribution center serving homeless men and women living on the streets of Los Angeles’ Skid Row. In 1991, Chrysalis launched a full-service staffing agency, originally called Labor Connection, as a strategy to help homeless individuals enter the labor market and move toward self-sufficiency. In its first year, the staffing business provided 5,000 hours of work for homeless job seekers. In 1994, Chrysalis launched its second social enterprise, StreetWorks, to provide street maintenance services.

In 2005, Chrysalis formed a new division Chrysalis Enterprises to include the staffing agency, renamed Chrysalis Staffing, and the street maintenance business, renamed Chrysalis Works. Together these enterprises employ about 600 individuals annually and generate over half of Chrysalis’ operating budget. They provided over 200,000 hours of employment and paid $2.5 million in wages to workers in 2009. Based in downtown Los Angeles, Chrysalis Enterprises also serves job seekers at Chrysalis’ satellite offices in Santa Monica and Pacoima in the San Fernando Valley.

We spoke with Chrysalis Enterprises vice president Trevor Kale and director of customer service Elizabeth Wilson to learn more about Chrysalis Staffing.

What led you to Chrysalis and the alternative staffing business?
Trevor: I’ve been at Chrysalis two years now. My degree is in psychology, and immediately out of college I practiced functional family therapy, an approach that involves in-home interventions for kids on probation. From there, I was offered a chance to work in the for-profit sector, initially with Virgin Mobile to develop business in Sydney, Australia, and later with a start-up mobile phone company in LA. As that company wound down its operations, I sought to move into something more socially oriented where I could leverage my business experience. Chrysalis Enterprises was a perfect match.

Elizabeth: I previously worked in the entertainment industry for a company that does casting. In seeking to make a career change, I was attracted to the non-profit sector and discovered Chrysalis. I began here just over five years ago as the operations administrator.

What job seeker population does Chrysalis Enterprises mainly work with?
We work with individuals who are homeless and very low-income. About 60% of the people who participate in the Chrysalis program and receive help from a case manager are able to gain employment  through self-directed job searches. Others need a chance to further develop their soft skills and gain work experience to build their resumes. Chrysalis Enterprises is a transitional jobs strategy that provides them that opportunity, through both our temporary staffing and street maintenance job placements.

How many individuals does Chrysalis Staffing serve annually?
We place about 200 individuals through our staffing agency, and about 400 through our street maintenance service.

How are participants referred to Chrysalis?
We get referrals from area shelter managers and substance abuse counselors, but many people find us by word-of-mouth.

What types of support services have you found to be most critical to your employees’ success in the workplace?
We hold weekly retention meetings, which function as a support group for people. After three to four months, participants begin doing job searches through our Jobs Club. Our Chrysalis Works street maintenance crews are supervised by a dozen or so individuals who came up through our program. They serve as positive role models and really understand where our workers are coming from, in addition to giving workers direct feedback about their performance.

What types of employers do you serve?
A significant part of our staffing business is with non-profit supportive housing agencies, doing cleaning and maintenance work in their properties. We also supply janitorial staff to hospitals and hotels, and serve customers in the warehouse/industrial sector.

What marketing methods or messages have you found to be most effective in attracting new customers?
The supportive housing sector is a pretty tight-knit group and word-of-mouth has served us well there. We’ve also done some direct mail campaigns, and we network at local industry association meetings.  We promote our business as a unique way for a company to help an individual or the community while receiving excellent quality service from our workers.

What are the biggest challenges of operating a staffing service business in your market?
It’s difficult competing with the national staffing brands. Employers tend to think of the national firms first and overlook local suppliers. Also, it’s a challenge finding the right fit for our workforce. Nearly half of our job seekers have a felony background which makes them harder to employ.

Please tell us about an innovative staffing solution to a customer problem.
We once received a call at Noon from a local hospital that needed 25 people by 5:00 pm that day to perform a single shift of janitorial work for an impromptu inspection. We all jumped on the phones, assembled a group and were loading up the van to go to the job site when the customer called to cancel the order. That was a big letdown, but the hospital was impressed by our ability to respond on such short notice and called back the next week with a job order for five people. The next week they added five more and the next week 10 more, ultimately employing 25 individuals for about two months.

Please share a success story about one of your workers.
Elizabeth: I interviewed a woman Leticia one morning in Santa Monica, and in asking about her career aspirations discovered that her dream was to work in the catering business. She was a high energy, goal oriented individual and had already taken the initiative to learn about some of the top local catering firms. That afternoon we received a job order from Auntie Em’s Kitchen, a well-regarded company that Leticia was familiar with from her research. We placed her in the job and they hired her within a couple weeks. Sometimes the stars do align.

As managers, what do you wish you had more time for?
Trevor: I would like to spend more time expanding job opportunities for our candidates. In the current economy, we’ve seen a 40% increase in the number of people seeking our services, while the number of jobs has remained static. Our focus as a team these past couple years has been on improving operational efficiencies and ensuring good service to our existing base of customers. As we begin the new year, we’re better positioned to try to grow.
Elizabeth: As the customer service director, I wish I had more time to visit our customers on site.

What are Chrysalis Staffing’s main goals for the future?
Our focus going forward is to diversify and expand our customer base to be able to offer more job opportunities to our job seekers. We will be adding a dedicated salesperson and targeting customers in east and south Los Angeles, areas of the city we have not yet tapped. We also would like to refine our database management.

What about Chrysalis Staffing makes you most proud?
Chrysalis has a longstanding tradition of ringing a bell each time someone in our program gets hired by an outside employer. Everyone in the office stops for a few minutes to hear the individual’s news and congratulate them. We also ask them to share any advice they have for other job seekers. With this ritual we honor the person, and it also serves to inspire others in their job search and motivate staff.

What advice would you offer to someone considering alternative staffing as a strategy in their community?
To fulfill your social mission, run the staffing agency like a business. Focus on growing revenues and controlling expenses. Hire the best people and deliver great customer service.

To learn more, please visit Chrysalis Enterprises on the web.

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