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Communique: StepUp Wilmington (Formerly Phoenix) Has Big Employment Goals For 2018

Will Rikard, Executive Director

StepUp Wilmington (formerly Phoenix Hometown Hires) works to eliminate barriers to employment experienced by people with gaps in education, criminal records, transportation needs, and history of substance abuse. The group's annual Luncheon is Wednesday, 5/16 at UNCW's Burney Center.

Executive Director Will Rikard spoke with us about the program; listen above and see our extended conversation below. The free Luncheon begins at 11:30 on Wednesday and no ticket is required. To reserve your spot, email Bethany@stepupwilmington.org. 

Gina:      What does StepUp Wilmington do?

Will:        So StepUp Wilmington is first and foremost is about jobs working with individuals in this community who need support, who have some sort of obstacle to employment, to work with them to get employment. That is first and foremost what we do. After that, once people are employed, we take them through a nine month process, which is called Step 2, to do things and work on financial literacy, career advancement, as well as personal development. So we are with people on a journey for a year or longer working with them to see that they've reached a level of stability with work and personally that will help them thrive and do well in this community in overall.

Gina:      And what kind of obstacles are there to finding employment, securing employment, maintaining employment?

Will:        Good question. And Wilmington is a tricky employment market to begin with. Is a small market a does not have a lot of middle wage jobs so to speak.  but the people we work with who come to us looking for work typically have a number of, one of a number of barriers.  50 percent of people we see are more than 50 percent, have a criminal history, about 39 percent have a felony background. So we work very much to get them to be able to talk about their past in an interview setting. And we find that it's very effective if you can come out and be honest about what happened, talk about it in a positive light, really focus on more what you want to do today and what you want for your future, the employer will hire you. So that's one obstacle we see quite often.

              Substance abuse is an issue we see quite often.  So we work with people who have issues with substance abuse who are going through recovery. We work with people who have a limited education for whatever reason. About half of our participants have a high school degree or less so that obviously if you look at statistics, people with that level of education generally make a lot less. And so that's a big challenge and really creates an underemployment population that we work very hard to get into a jobs that pay enough and give enough hours to really make do with.  So those are the main thing is transportation is a big one.  About half the people we see have their own transportation. At the same time, a lot of those folks are at the edge of losing that. If something happens, if the car breaks down in this town, anybody who rides a bus knows it takes quite a while to get from one side to the other, even though this is not that big a town. So that is a challenge as well.

Gina:      It can be hard for people who don't have a criminal record and who don't have substance abuse issues and who do have a high school diploma to find meaningful work here. That need is tricky.

Will:        It really is. The first thing we work on is really building a partnership with the individual. So a level of trust. It's not about what we can do for them or what they can do for us. It's really what can we do together. So we start that journey, we set out ... our responsibility is to really establish relationships with employers.  So by doing that we're able to connect people to jobs, which is important. We also utilize the resources of employer's human resources, people with interview skills to come and volunteer with us.  So the people that come through jobs week, which is our job training program,  are exposed to people and training techniques and a lot of people, the general population just doesn't have, we utilize the experience of human resource professionals and other professionals in this community to teach people how to interview in a setting. And so usually our folks, once they graduate, they're better equipped to go interview and do well in an interview than your average job seeker, which is something we take great product

Gina:      Working with this population who has a lot of obstacles to overcome, it's a steep hill for them to try to get employment and maintain employment. How successful is this work? How much can you help?

Will:        Yeah, for sure. And we actually, we don't, we don't like the word help. We're there to support people in achieving their goals, getting to where they want to be. I think the mental side is very important. There is internal and external barriers to work for all of us. Right? And so I think if you look at criminal history, that is both an internal and external internal barrier. If someone believes they can't get a job because they have a criminal past, they're probably not going to. And if there's too many barriers from the employer side who don't hire people with criminal background is the same problem. So we go at it with, with both approaches. So we get people who have a criminal history to believe that that's not holding them back,  to use that obviously in the interview in a positive way.  And also advocate with companies to, and I think there's some good ones in this town- Verizon, for one, I believe the county, the city- they don't a screen up front for criminal background, but they ask it on the back-end. So they first and foremost look at the person, the individual, the candidate, and qualify them based on their skills and experience and desires. And then they go and verify and say, OK, we're going to do a background check,  tell us if there's anything on your background. And what you'll find is that people who are upfront and honest about that it doesn't necessarily impact their employment,  but when you put on the front side, it does create a barrier externally as well as internally.

Gina:      When you're talking about internally, in terms of the way a person feels about their history and the level of confidence that person has based on,  their experiences and how they feel that they're labeled, how they label themselves ... what do you do to work on that? I know you said you, you have a personal development angle to the work that you do. What is the basis for that? Is it religious?

Will:        Well, to start, once people walk through our door, they don't know this, but they're treated equally as an employee, as a volunteer, they are equal to any one of us. It doesn't matter what their past, where they bring with their past. So that's first and foremost. That's our approach. And usually after being with us for about two or three days, they start to see this. So being treated as an equal versus being given a ticket or having to wait in line, you know, always waiting for services, they recognize that we treat them as an equal and that's really important.

              So that's part of our approach. That's part of our mindset that's really ingrained in our values and that goes a long way in getting people to believe again in themselves in terms of what they can do, who they are, and get them to move forward. Because if you don't believe you can do something, you're just never going to do it. And so that's a big, big piece of it. What was the second part you said?

Gina:      Where does the philosophy that you employ, where does that philosophy grow up from?

Will:        Sure, so we are not a faith based organization, though spirituality is very important to us and we honor that for our participants. There is a lot of times participants are very, come from a very strong background of faith and we honor that and give them the space to practice that we do actually utilize our space at local churches to do our trainings. We use first Presbyterian on third street. We also use Saint James at first baptist, all those places or create a space for people to come and feel comfortable and welcome and also if they are, you know, when to practice religion as a place to do that. So we're very supportive of that. Scripture or religion is not part of what we teach.  but it does represent our values and what we believe. 

Gina:      How this program is funded?

Will:        So we are funded by many sources. The main, the biggest two funding sources for us are individuals and businesses. So about 70 percent of revenue comes from those two sources. I think that's a great thing that shows one, that the commitment this community has to causes like ours to supporting people in this community.  And it also is great in terms of it gets more people engaged in our work and what we do. We also get money from foundations locally as well as statewide or nationally. We are very excited to get some funding from the city and the county and we also get money from congregations and local churches. So we take a full on approach that we want to have multiple sources of funding, really diversify where our money comes from so that when times get tough, which they do, and will at some point, that you're prepared for that and the organization does not suffer.

Gina:      And why did you change your name?

Will:        Good question. In my time we've changed our name twice, which has been a fun thing and a great thing, but also challenging when we started, when I started, it was Phoenix Employment Ministry. Phoenix was founded in 2003 by John Skinner, as well as a group of people committed to seeing that people who are homeless or nearly homeless had opportunities to work and get jobs. In 2014, Hometown Hires came online thanks to Ben David and [inaudible] and Live Oak Bank and the United Way.  So once that happened, the board of Phoenix Employment Ministry, the United Way and other stakeholders got together and said it makes the most sense of these two things get together. So we did that.

 Along this path, in 2013,  we had spent time at step up ministry in Raleigh, North Carolina, which had similar programs to us, both jobs and life skills and they've been operating for 25 plus years.  They are an outstanding organization, they do tremendous work and the workforce development space. So we took the approach that we can try to replicate what they do and learn and teach ourselves how to do it or we can try to partner with them and see what they're willing to do to do to support us in getting, you know, much further down the line of our work. And so since 2013 we've been in, in collaboration with partnership with StepUp,  we are now part of an organization called StepUp North Carolina, which represents for organizations which is step up Wilmington, StepUp ministry in Raleigh, StepUp Durham and StepUp Greensboro.

So part of that it is, is really based on this a collaborative relationship. We all agree and believe that together we are stronger, we can learn from each other, we can do more to tackle the problems we have locally with unemployment and underemployment. And so we meet on a quarterly basis, or more often, to talk about what we're doing, what works, what doesn't work, are there employers that we can work with across the state versus just locally to get people hired.

Will:        And so really it is focused on, you know, what more can we do together that brings us and makes us stronger locally. And so that's why we did it.  And yeah, it's also "StepUp, it's a fun name.

Gina:      You're having a luncheon, is this an annual thing that you do?

Will:        We do an annual luncheon for many years,  this year we have lunch in May 16th, which is Wednesday,  and our goal is to raise $170,000, which is a big goal for us. Last year we raised just over $136,000.  This year we are "stepping up" as we like to say.  And really that's focused on the need.  We're looking to place 200 jobs this year. In order to do that, we need the funding and resources to be able to have the staff,  the operations, the materials to be able to do that. We're looking to have 500 people join us at the Bernie Center at UNCW at 11:30.

And really the luncheon has become a day of celebration for us. It is very much a fundraiser, but people who have been there will tell you, me included, that it is a day of celebration and hearing some unbelievable success stories to see what people have overcome, to get work and to find stability. And that's what it's all about. It's really celebrating the success of our participants, but also engaging the community in our work and letting them see what's happening. Also what more can they do to continue to serve people in this community to get jobs, and better jobs.

Gina:      Is it full?

Will:        It is not full. We'll let the fire Marshall tells us that it's full. Maybe I shouldn't say that, but we're pushing the limits as of today. I know we're looking at about 450 RSVP A, so we're trying to max it out and get, you know, 50 plus people there,  to have a full house. We want to reach capacity and we want to meet our fundraising goal first and foremost so we can put those 200 people to work. So if you go to our website, you can do it there or email if he emailed bethany@stepupWilmington.org.  she is our community engagement director and in charge of this event. So if you just shoot her a quick email and say, hey, I will be there, we will sign you out and make sure you have a table and we'll look forward to seeing you at 1130 at UNCW on May 16.

Gina:      And it doesn't cost anything.

Will:        It does not. There is no upfront costs. Our philosophy and theory is that people will come, hear the stories of success and transformation and be moved and willing to donate generously. That's how we've done it in the past as how we continue to do it   and found that to be a very successful model. We leave it up to the individual to decide how much they're willing to invest, what they can do personally.

If you can't attend, you still can donate, go online, write us a check. All the information about donating is online on our website, StepUpWilmington.org.

We do have a thousand job goal over the next four years, which is a big deal, and part of that goal, we want to have the average wage at 11.50 an hour. Last year, the average wage is about $10.15. We're not satisfied with that. So we're doing more and more to focus on not just a job, but getting people into better jobs, to look at second jobs, third jobs in terms of moving people from the first job into one that's better, higher paying, more hours. And we're committed to that. We've actually hired a Career Development Coordinator to focus on that work,  to work more directly with the Community College, other training resources.  There's some great organizations in this town - the Hospital and Live Oak Bank have both officially raised their minimum wage to $11.50 an hour. We hope more businesses will take that, follow that lead and do that.  Because truly it supports not only the person but supports all of us in terms of what it does when people are making more, when they're stable, when they're self sufficient. We all win when that happens. And frankly, some of it comes down to what people actually make.