Dressed For Success
Companies are teaching their welfare-to-work hires how to look
and act the part. The results are lasting
By Adam Cohen/Kansas City
Yvette Johnson was the kind of job applicant who makes employers
dread hiring off the welfare rolls. She had been on welfare for
six years. Jobs like cleaning hospital rooms and cutting
vegetables ended with her quitting or being fired. And she had
four kids who had to be shuttled to day care and baby-sitting.
When Kimberly Randolph, an operations supervisor for the Sprint
phone company in Kansas City, Mo., met Johnson at a job fair,
she pegged Johnson as "a job hopper, with a bad attitude." But
at her interview, Johnson made a plea. "That was me, and I know
it doesn't look good," she said. "But give me a chance."
Johnson took her chance and ran with it. She woke up at 5 a.m.
and spent two hours on buses, dragging the kids to day care and
then getting to training classes. For nine months now, she has
been an operator at Sprint's calling center at 18th and Vine,
and she's a star. She sits at a computer with a headset on,
placing calls and billing calling cards. She handles 600 calls a
day, at an average of 38 seconds a call. Already, she has racked
up four "good customer-contact reports" from satisfied callers
who put in a good word with her supervisor.
Johnson is part of a small but impressive welfare-to-work
program Sprint began last October in one of Kansas City's
poorest neighborhoods. Sprint's 18th-and- Vine call center
employs 48 operators, half of whom were on public assistance.
The center is meeting its performance standards, and its 77%
retention rate is more than twice as good as Sprint's call
center in the Kansas City suburbs. That's a big deal in an
industry where every employee departure can mean $6,000 to
$15,000 in lost training and productivity. Sprint is thinking
about upping the 18th-and-Vine staff to 100.
Sprint isn't alone on the welfare-to-work bandwagon. Of the top
100 U.S. companies, 34 have programs, and 13 more are planning
them. Executives of such blue chips as United Airlines and
Salomon Smith Barney were at the White House this spring
toasting President Clinton's one-year-old Welfare to Work
Partnership and saying their welfare hires had better retention
rates than workers found from other sources. Why the sudden
success? There's the economy, which has made employers so
desperate that some are hiring convicts to work in prison. And
there's welfare reform, which has drilled into recipients the
fact that unemployment is no longer an option.
But welfare-to-work practitioners say one factor in its success
has been a dramatic change in how welfare recipients are prepped
for the work force. Old-fashioned job training used to teach
typing or using computers but not the first thing about how to
act on the job. The focus now is on "soft skills," basics like
showing up on time, dressing appropriately and not fighting with
co-workers. "Employers are saying, 'Give us people with the
right attitude and job readiness, and we'll take care of the
rest," says Eli Segal, president of the nonprofit Welfare to
Sprint's experience is that soft-skills training seems to work.
Most Sprint welfare hires start with six weeks of basic-skills
boot camp at Kansas City's Metropolitan Community Colleges. It's
amazing what some students don't know. To many, it's news that
they can't wear just anything they want to get a job: short
shorts, sweats, spandex. Some need to be told that "bed head,"
clumped-up hair from a night on the pillow, is out. With the
motto "Expect the Unexpected" on the board, they talk about
getting to work. "That person you're relying on may be your best
friend," says instructor Rebecca Breit. "But are they reliable?"
Many need the concept of "boss" explained. "So many of the
students who come in have had 20 or 25 jobs," says Breit. "You
ask them why, and they say, 'He told me to sweep the floor, and
I didn't think it was my job.'" And then there's resolving
disputes. "Sometimes that's an interesting class because they'll
say, 'I'd just flatten them,'" says Breit. "Some of their lives
have been so mired in conflict." As telephone operators, the
students themselves will be easy punching bags. They are drilled
on how to diffuse angry callers without losing their own cool.
"How would I handle a customer who starts off angry?" asks a
student. "I'd HEAR. Hear the problem. Empathize. Act on the
problem. Resolve the problem."
When students graduate, they move on to 14 days of Sprint
in-house training, where the advice gets more refined.
Instructor Kelly Marcus tells them they can keep a conversation
from getting too heated by using the "blameless apology"--to be
sorry a customer's calling card was rejected rather than accuse
him of not having paid his bills. And Marcus teaches
Sprint-specific skills, like advising trainees with a shaky
knowledge of geography to try looking for "Guatemala" in the
computer's country listing if they can't find it under cities.
She cautions against playing tricks on customers, like getting
rid of an angry English-speaking caller by transferring him to a
Spanish-speaking operator, because that worker will be caught.
Some welfare experts fear that Welfare to Work is being
oversold. Peter Edelman, who quit as Clinton's Assistant
Secretary of Health and Human Services in 1996 because he
believed welfare reform was too drastic, grumbles that these
programs "are still taking [people] off the top of the deck" and
that many of the hardest-to-place welfare recipients are being
pushed off the rolls without having much chance of entering the
work force. He is concerned that companies will drop their
welfare-to-work hires when the economy slumps and workers become
cheaper and more plentiful. "These people are the classic
example of last hired," he says. "And you know how that
But Hazel Barkley, 18th-and-Vine's operations manager, is a
believer. She tells her welfare-to-work employees they can rise
as far as they set their mind to. (Sprint reimburses tuition for
skill-boosting classes.) And she lets them know she herself
started by working the phones. Yvette Johnson has already picked
out a computer-spreadsheet class she wants to take during her
daily noon-to-2 p.m. break, and she's aiming for management.
"There's a lot of things we can do here," she says. "One thing I
know, I won't be on welfare again."
Not Just Work: Some Perks Too
Salomon Smith Barney The New York City-based financial-services
giant runs an unusually upscale program focused on placing
single mothers in white-collar jobs as administrative
assistants. Salaries range up to $30,000 a year plus stock
options; benefits include an on-site fitness center and tuition
Cessna Aircraft This airplane builder, based in Wichita, Kans.,
trains its welfare hires in blueprint reading, tool use and
nuts-and-bolts assembly as well as soft skills like on-the-job
communications, personal finance and assertiveness. Former
welfare recipients have moved up from sheet-metal trainee to
Tender Loving Things This midsize California manufacturer of
stress-relief and aromatherapy products has two former welfare
recipients on staff. They're eligible for company benefits that
include not only medical and dental coverage but also
English-as-a-second-language instruction and massages on company
Gloucester Co. This 40-employee manufacturer of sealants and
caulking materials, based in Franklin, Mass., allows flexible
hours, subsidizes day care and provides health and life
insurance. A worker who needs to buy a car can ask the company
for a loan but must get financial counseling as part of the deal.