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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

TIME magazine

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 Work Partnership.

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 ends--first fired."

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 reimbursements.

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 airplane-wing inspector.

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 time.

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.

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: July 13, 1998

Playing The HMO Game
Let's Play Doctor
Ahead Of The Feds
A Republican Who's Taking His Medicine
The Lesson From Webb
Did the Summit Matter?
Use It Or Lose It
Dressed For Success

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