Member Profile: Bill Schwartz, Harborquest, Inc. and Civic Staffing

Bill Schwartz, Vice President and Chief Operating Officer
Harborquest, Inc. and Civic Staffing, L3C
Chicago, Illinois

Year program began: 1970
Jobseekers placed last year: 1,600

Harborquest, the country’s first alternative staffing service, began operating on Chicago’s North Side in 1970 as Just Jobs, a mission-driven operator that sought to raise the standards of the industry and create quality employment opportunities for low-income, inner city residents. The enterprise steadily grew, and during the next decade captured a top share of the region’s light industrial contracting market, employing more than 800 people per day.

By the 1990s, though, most light industrial manufacturing jobs had moved from the city to the suburbs near O’Hare Airport and beyond. In response, Just Jobs began providing transportation to low-income workers, and changed its name to Suburban Job Link in 1991 to reflect this new focus. A fleet of nine express buses shuttled hundreds of riders a day from North Lawndale to businesses in Chicago’s western suburbs at the shift change hours of 6 am, 2 pm and 10 pm. Meanwhile, the company continued to provide temporary staffing services as Core-Temp.

Suburban Job Link’s transportation services were largely financed by federal grants through the Department of Housing and Urban Development Bridges to Work Demonstration. Still, the service had huge costs, with annual shortfalls as high as $800,000 that were subsidized by staffing revenues. In 2004, Suburban Job Link persuaded the Chicago Transit Authority to take over its key bus routes, which they continue operating to this day.

In 2003, Suburban Job Link merged with the Chicago affiliate of the New York-based STRIVE Network, bringing a powerful and internationally known training program in-house and providing rapid job placement for STRIVE graduates. Suburban Job Link subsequently changed its name to Harborquest, Inc., reflecting the organization’s ongoing commitment to provide a “port in the storm” for disadvantaged Chicagoans.

That commitment and the organization’s entrepreneurial drive are strong as ever. This year, as Harborquest prepares to celebrate its 40th anniversary, it is about to launch a new staffing subsidiary, Civic Staffing, which will pioneer the L3C business structure and deliver trained, motivated workers to socially responsible employers in key Chicago industries. We spoke with chief operating officer Bill Schwartz to learn about this new venture and Harborquest’s forward looking business strategy.

First, why an L3C?

L3Cs are limited profit, limited liability companies that will enable us to tap into private investment capital to further our social purpose. Essentially, L3Cs are a hybrid business structure designed to do exactly that: combine the charitable purpose of a traditional not-for-profit with the opportunity for philanthropic and socially conscious private investors to earn modest financial returns. Last summer, Illinois became the fourth state in the US to authorize L3Cs, and we incorporated Civic Staffing in January, the first L3C in the state as far as we can tell.

As a transitional jobs strategy, what will distinguish Civic Staffing from Harborquest?

On the workforce side, Civic Staffing will recruit from a different pool of disadvantaged job seekers. During the last three years, we have mainly served chronically unemployed public housing residents referred by the Chicago Housing Authority’s Partnership for New Communities. These individuals have marginal skills and significant deficits in work habits, attitudes and experience, and basically constitute the “hardest to serve.” Harborquest will continue to serve this population through our existing, phased program model. This begins with STRIVE, our intensive 100-hour job-readiness training, and follows with supervised temporary staffing assignments, paid job search training and finally, assisted placement via conventional job development or temp-to-hire staffing assignments. Throughout this process we also provide in-house case management to our workers.

In contrast, Civic Staffing will draw workers from our workforce development partners at the Workforce Employer Resource Collaborative (WERC), a local consortium of 17 leading social service organizations that include Catholic Charities, Easter Seals, Jewish Vocational Service, Instituto del Progreso Latino and The Heartland Alliance. Civic Staffing will identify temporary and temp-to-hire placement opportunities in specific industry segments and our WERC partners will recruit, screen and refer graduates of their training programs as potential job candidates. Our WERC partners will also continue to provide post-placement case management for the workers they refer to us.

What specific industry segments does Civic Staffing plan to target?

We are targeting civic-minded, socially responsible employers in four industries: cosmetics, contract packaging, food processing and green energy. We’re firmly established in the cosmetics industry and know the contract packaging industry well. We see a strong market for our services in food processing and green energy, which is an emerging sector here as elsewhere. The green jobs we fill may range from weatherization and deconstruction to production and installation of renewable technologies. Our sales reps will be specialists in their respective industry and we will respond to opportunities as they arise.

What is the value proposition Civic Staffing is making to employers?

We will offer our customers access to a highly-motivated, well-trained, well-screened and well-supported workforce, along with the opportunity to practice their social values and help to meet their workforce diversity goals. By using Civic Staffing as their staffing supplier, these businesses will be known and recognized for their social responsibility and civic contribution.

How will Civic Staffing be capitalized?

We are raising a total of $700,000. We’ve applied for a $300,000 grant that represents Harborquest’s ownership stake, and are working to raise an additional $400,000 through a combination of private investors and ARRA funds available for transitional jobs. As the managing partner, Harborquest will lease administrative staff and services to Civic Staffing.

When do you expect to launch the new entity?

We anticipate a start-up date of July 1 or October 1 of this year, depending on our fundraising success. In the meantime, Harborquest has already begun partnering with WERC, whose members helped us fill 60 full-time temp and temp-to-hire employment opportunities in February.

You and your colleagues at Harborquest are continuing strong proof of the flexibility and resilience of the alternative staffing model. What advice would you offer to someone considering alternative staffing as a strategy in their community? 

Make sure your mission is fundamentally aligned with your ‘business’ model, so neither compromises the other. Gain intimate knowledge of your local labor market, your people and your competition’s people. In reality, you are a broker trading on the information you have gathered.

Compete courageously. Focus your value proposition on what really matters to your customers. Great customer service and a focus on total delivered cost usually trump low hourly rates.

Nurture and support your workers. They are a source of both good will and business intelligence.

This being a people business, prepare yourself for surprises … plenty of them. Maintain a sense of humor to get through it all.

To learn more, please visit Civic Staffing on the web.

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