Putting Atlanta’s homeless, vets to work

Moderated by Rick Badie

Georgia Works!, a nonprofit that works to get chronically homeless men off our city streets, recently held commencement exercises for graduates who now enjoy permanent housing and a full-time job. Read about the Class of 2015 in our lead column. The companion piece focuses on military veterans, their struggles to find sustainable employment and to fit in the civilian workforce.

A graduation that celebrates skills, self-sufficiency

By Phillip Hunter

Georgia Works! a comprehensive program aimed at addressing and ending chronic homelessness in Atlanta by breaking the cycles of addiction, criminal recidivism, and unemployment held its 2015 graduation on Sept. 17, the program’s second annual such event.

Georgia Works! is a comprehensive six- to 12-month program aimed at the chronic homeless in Atlanta who are challenged with a host of barriers. These include past due fines, past due child support, suspended drivers’ licenses, bad habits and joblessness due to criminal history.

The graduation, held in the main sanctuary of First Presbyterian Church, was well-attended by family and friends of current clients and graduates, as well as a host of employers and supporters of the program. The 2015 graduating class of 55 brings to 85 the total number who have graduated from the program since its inception in 2013.

The highlight of the evening was testimonials by a 2014 graduate and three 2015 graduates. The 2014 graduate, who charged the 2015 class to stay committed to their dreams and goals, has now held a full-time job for more than a year. He is pleased that he is now the father he always wanted to be as his teen-age daughter now lives with him. Prior to Georgia Works!, he had been homeless for many years, unable to acquire full-time employment.

The 2015 graduates who spoke left the crowd inspired and in awe as they regaled us with stories of their journeys from many years of chronic homelessness — sleeping on the streets of Atlanta and unable to find sustainable employment — to now being productive members of society.

The graduates shared that they are now confidentthey can attain and achieve the best that life has to offer as their lives are now grounded on the premise of self-honesty, hope, and a good work ethic. All of the men have full-time employment and permanent housing. They are taxpayers and self-sufficient men.

Members of this year’s graduating class are employed in various industries, such as metal fabrication, apartment groundskeeping, warehousing, downtown hotels, recycling, securityand building maintenance. The average starting wage of this year’s graduating class is $10.50 per hour.

Georgia Works!’ trademark is it’s paid transitional work.

After a 30-day trial period, program trainees are assigned to a “Street Team,” where they work 30 hours per week. Dressed in blue Georgia Works! uniforms, the men clean, and care for the streets around downtown Atlanta. The trainees are paid $7.40 per hour, which amounts to $222 per week. The trainees pay Georgia Works! $100 for their weekly room and board; they are required to put $50 per week into savings. The remaining $72 is their spending money.

After about four months in the program, trainees go to work with one of Georgia Works! corporate employers. Currently, more than 30 Atlanta companies provide temporary employment opportunities to Georgia Works! trainees. More than half of the program’s 85 graduates have obtained full-time employment through employers who are partners with Georgia Works!

While in the program, participants are provided intensive case management and are guided down a path of independence. By graduation, all of the issues that made them homeless are addressed. By graduation, the participants will have saved approximately $2,000 from stipends paid during their time in the program and acquired full-time employment of at least $10.00 per hour.

The program, housed on the second floor of the Gateway Center, currently serves 100 men. We plan to be able to serve 150 by the end of 2015 and to graduate 250 men to self-sufficiency by the end of 2017.

Phillip Hunter is executive director of Georgia Works!

Hiring, retiring veterans pays off for employers

By Nick Swaggert

The unemployment rate for Georgia is slowly dropping, but at 6.1 percent, is still above the national average. That looks positively rosy when you realize the veteran unemployment rate in the same state is 7.6 percent. Neither number should be as high as it is when we know Atlanta businesses are growing and seeking highly skilled, qualified candidates to fill job vacancies.

But it illustrates my point: veterans face a greater challenge to prove their aptitude for a job because their work history includes military service. This needs to change if businesses intend to thrive in the 21st century.

When it comes to considering veterans for a role, there’s the motivation from certain federal mandates for companies that accept federal contracts to consider veterans with the right skills. That same mandate also drives home the importance of retaining veterans in the workforce, recognizing you can’t just hire veterans to meet the mandate, but they also need to be counted as part of your workforce year-over-year. Though veterans are extremely loyal, that loyalty only goes so far before an underutilized or under-supported employee leaves for a job that offers more-challenging, meaningful opportunities.

The Vietnam Era Veterans’ Assistance Act requires organizations with government contracts (i.e., most companies) to identify if they have a need to hire more veterans, then create an action plan to get there. If you’re not sure about whether your company is affected by this mandate, check out http://www.usaspending.gov to see how much your company earns in government contracts. You might be surprised.

It’s been my experience that most companies only give lip service to the importance of hiring and retaining veterans. And do little in practice. This mandate puts the onus back on the private sector, with a measurable goal for hiring and retaining veterans in your workforce. And if you don’t, there might be consequences.

A veteran’s military skills are easily translatable to match a civilian job description, but the cultural shift from a hierarchical system to a collaborative and widely-disbursed leadership structure can be disorienting. Companies can help veterans shift from the military mindset and adapt to corporate culture more quickly and easily.

Some considerations:

  • Timing is everything: It is quickly drilled into military recruits to show up 15 minutes early for everything and that being on time is actually running late.
  • Collaborating instead of taking orders: “Getting the job done” in the military means following orders and the use of the word ‘I’ is nonexistent.
  • Purpose and meaning: While serving in the military, it’s the mission that gives you a sense of purpose and meaning. Connecting to that same feeling in a civilian job helps keep veterans engaged and loyal.
  • Support a veteran culture at work: Veterans often need to know their company understands them; developing a workplace culture where veterans are understood is key.
  • Mentorship program: A formalized mentorship program marketed to your veteran employees is incredibly successful in decreasing turnover.
  • Growth opportunities: This applies to any employee, but make sure veterans have opportunities to grow from day one.

A “one size fits all” solution may not exist, but adapting these considerations to a company’s needs will make a noticeable difference for veterans who make the transition to their civilian careers.

Understanding how to retain veterans in a workplace requires very little effort and the approach is packed full of common sense. Learning the most effective strategies may also boost your retention efforts across your entire organization. For any company still lamenting the lack of qualified candidates for their jobs, I say: Maybe you’re not really looking.

Nick Swaggert is director of the veteran program for Genesis10, business and IT professional services firm.

 


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