The Job Training Program That Actually Works

Twin Cities RISE! is a long-term, expensive program. It also saves the government money.

Students in one of the Twin Cities Rise! job-training programs, which can take more than seven months to complete but have impressive success rates.
National Journal
June 12, 2014, 9:57 a.m.

This art­icle is part of an Amer­ica 360 series on Min­neapol­is.

MIN­NEAPOL­IS — When Tracie Roberts was laid off from her job at Tar­get in 2009, she walked around the Mall of Amer­ica every day for five weeks look­ing for work. Roberts, who’s tall and soft-spoken, had worked at the Min­neapol­is store for 13 years as a team lead­er — sort of like a floor man­ager. She was told she was over­qual­i­fied to work as a cash­ier. And yet without a four-year de­gree, she couldn’t get a job in re­tail man­age­ment. She was in her mid-40s, and she was stuck.

Twin Cit­ies RISE!, a job train­ing non­profit, helps people who’ve fallen out of the job mar­ket climb back in. Par­ti­cipants range from cas­u­al­ties of the re­ces­sion to people who face much big­ger chal­lenges, such as a his­tory of drug ab­use or in­car­cer­a­tion. The pro­gram costs $5,000 per par­ti­cipant per year, and it can take more than sev­en months to com­plete. But it works. In fact, Min­nesota was pay­ing TCR for sav­ing tax­pay­ers money be­fore such pay-for-suc­cess con­tracts were com­mon­place.

The key to TCR’s suc­cess is its per­son­al em­power­ment train­ing. “Em­power­ment” can sound like mumbo-jumbo to some par­ti­cipants at first. At a class last week, Quin­ten Os­good — Roberts’s old em­power­ment in­struct­or — re­viewed the ba­sics with a new group. “It’s all about the thought pro­cess. It’s all about per­cep­tion. How we think or feel,” he said. And later: “It’s about help­ing you look in­side your­self for solu­tions.” The class filled out work sheets and called out an­swers. They sat in fol­dout chairs, ar­rayed in a circle.

Like most par­ti­cipants, Roberts ap­plied to TCR be­cause she needed a job. But she now says the pro­gram changed her out­look on life, too. “I thought it would be a great free train­ing pro­gram, I’d get my com­puter skills up. But it turned out to be so much more than that. It really did,” Roberts says. When she speaks, you can hear the con­fid­ence in her voice.

TCR was foun­ded, in the mid-1990s, to serve Twin Cit­ies res­id­ents trapped in in­tergen­er­a­tion­al poverty. To be eli­gible, ap­plic­ants must have earned less than $20,000 in the past year, and they can­not hold a four-year de­gree from a U.S. col­lege. The pro­gram has a par­tic­u­lar fo­cus on serving Afric­an-Amer­ic­an men, al­though you don’t have to be Afric­an-Amer­ic­an or male to par­ti­cip­ate. About 400 people are en­rolled each year, and one-quarter of par­ti­cipants served in re­cent years have been white.

The or­gan­iz­a­tion is on the front lines of the Twin Cit­ies’ demo­graph­ic di­vide — and it has also wit­nessed how the eco­nom­ic down­turn hammered work­ing-class res­id­ents. “With the on­set of the re­ces­sion, and the change in the eco­nomy, there’s just a whole new group of people trapped in poverty,” says Tom Streitz, pres­id­ent and CEO. Most par­ti­cipants today are un­em­ployed, not un­der­em­ployed, when they enter the pro­gram. A great­er share have crim­in­al re­cords or have struggled with sub­stance ab­use.

They’re of­ten people who need much more than a résumé-writ­ing work­shop. TCR does teach par­ti­cipants how to write a résumé, of course; classes also cov­er work­place com­mu­nic­a­tions, pub­lic speak­ing, and how to im­press em­ploy­ers dur­ing an in­ter­view. Par­ti­cipants can fo­cus on one of two fields: of­fice sup­port or op­er­a­tions (such as work­ing a fork­lift). Be­cause TCR has built close re­la­tion­ships with loc­al em­ploy­ers, par­ti­cipants have an in­side track when they ap­ply for jobs.

Once par­ti­cipants are ready to enter the work­place (some drop out be­fore they reach that point), TCR tries to place them in a full-time job that pays at least $20,000 a year, with be­ne­fits. That stand­ard isn’t al­ways met, par­tic­u­larly in this job mar­ket. And for a fam­ily of four, $20,000 a year still means liv­ing be­low the poverty line.

But go­ing from no in­come and no job pro­spects to a job that pays $20,000 a year is still a tre­mend­ous step up. Em­power­ment train­ing also helps people stop think­ing about low-pay­ing jobs as dead-end jobs and start view­ing them as op­por­tun­it­ies. The con­cepts Os­good in­tro­duces, re­in­forced over weeks and months, leave par­ti­cipants bet­ter able to work with oth­ers, take dir­ec­tion, set goals, and work to reach them.

Per­son­al coaches also work with par­ti­cipants while they’re in the pro­gram, and for two years after they get a job. They help re­solve any per­son­al is­sues that might af­fect the par­ti­cipant’s abil­ity to suc­ceed at work. That might mean con­nect­ing her to day-care ser­vices or to small grants for fix­ing a broken car.

The types of jobs TCR par­ti­cipants move in­to are typ­ic­ally high-turnover po­s­i­tions, says Joyce Gill, dir­ect­or of Em­ploy­er Ser­vices. But em­ploy­ers find that the people they hire though TCR stick around. “With our par­ti­cipants, I think they’re grate­ful for the chance to prove them­selves,” Gill says.

Par­ti­cipants “gradu­ate” from the pro­gram when they’ve held their jobs for a year. More than 80 per­cent of par­ti­cipants who find jobs stay in those jobs for over a year, and 70 per­cent for two years. Ac­cord­ing to the cal­cu­la­tions of former CEO Art Ber­man and in­de­pend­ent eco­nom­ists from the Min­neapol­is Fed­er­al Re­serve and the state gov­ern­ment, every dol­lar in­ves­ted in the pro­gram de­liv­ers a $7 be­ne­fit to the tax­pay­er — in re­duced spend­ing on so­cial ser­vices, in­creased rev­en­ues from tax pay­ments, and eco­nom­ic im­pact from per­son­al spend­ing.

Al­though most of TCR’s budget comes from phil­an­throp­ic dona­tions, for much of the or­gan­iz­a­tion’s ex­ist­ence up to one-quarter of its budget came from a state per­form­ance-based con­tract. TCR was paid when par­ti­cipants landed a job and if they were still em­ployed a year later — a deal that, from the state’s per­spect­ive, was a bar­gain. Mov­ing for­ward, TCR could be well po­si­tioned to re­ceive a new kind of per­form­ance-based fund­ing from the state: a tool called Hu­man Cap­it­al Per­form­ance Bonds, which use bond sales to mar­ket-rate in­vestors to fund per­form­ance-based con­tracts.

Roberts now works at the Hy­att Re­gency in down­town Min­neapol­is, set­ting up con­fer­ence rooms and ball­rooms for events. She took ad­vant­age of one of TCR’s new­est of­fer­ings: a hos­pit­al­ity train­ing pro­gram con­duc­ted in part­ner­ship with a two-year col­lege. “It’s not that far off from the re­tail in­dustry,” Roberts says of work­ing in a hotel. “I have a lot of guest-ser­vice ex­per­i­ence, and I work well with people that I’ve just met, meet­ing their needs.”

Roberts is eager to learn everything she can about her cur­rent job, but she’s also aim­ing high­er. She just star­ted sum­mer classes at an­oth­er area com­munity col­lege, earn­ing cred­its she can put to­ward a bach­el­or’s de­gree in busi­ness man­age­ment (with a minor in philo­sophy). “I know that I can go back and do that, even work­ing full time, with what TCR gave me,” she says.

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