For many years, Jewish Vocational Service of Greater Boston was a small agency that helped Jewish immigrants find jobs. The organization was founded in 1938 to accommodate the influx of Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe. In 1981, it had about 10 employees and a budget of roughly $200,000.
That was the year the agency hired a new director: Barbara S. Rosenbaum, a former state health policy analyst who had just earned her master’s degree in public administration from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Under Rosenbaum’s leadership, Jewish Vocational Service became one of the largest job training agencies in the state, with a broad-based clientele of varied races and ethnic backgrounds. The organization now has a budget of $9 million and a staff of 175.
job training as
we know it.
For the past two years, Rosenbaum, a 62-year-old Brooklyn native, has been plotting a second act even more dramatic than her first. Her goal is nothing less than to end job training as we know it.
She maintains that existing job training programs are destined to fail many of their clients because they abandon the hard-to-employ right when they need help the most: after they have gotten their first jobs. Most federal and state agencies that fund job training programs limit post-employment services to one to three months of follow-up. The limits of this approach have become painfully clear to Rosenbaum.
“At this agency, we were enrolling people in very extensive skills training programs,” she says. “They would complete the programs, get entry-level jobs, and we’d collect our money from the government. Then three years later, they would be back on welfare, and they’d be back here. We started asking why.”
The answer, Rosenbaum concluded, is that without support services, follow-up, and additional training, disadvantaged people–most often single mothers with children–could not hold onto jobs. A car would break down, child care arrangements would fall apart, or a family member would get into trouble with the law. Any one of these reasons or a host of others could send a newly hired employee back to joblessness.
Bashemai Canty, left, and Lorraine Dyett-Riley
upend the traditional mentor model.
Even clients who dodged these land mines soon encountered the harsh reality of life at the bottom rung of the job ladder. Their entry-level salaries were not enough to lift them out of poverty. Living from paycheck to paycheck, these workers were vulnerable to life’s unexpected twists. A medical or dental bill could bust the household’s budget. Rent might go unpaid, and the family would wind up in a shelter. To avoid falling back into unemployment, Rosenbaum concluded, these clients needed to be helped up the career ladder.
Thus was born the Center for Careers and Lifelong Learning, known within the agency and to others in the job training world as “the CALL.” The CALL is a host of programs and policies aimed at helping clients (referred to as “participants” at Jewish Vocational Service) throughout their working lives, or at least until they are safely beyond the need for assistance.
But it’s not just the clients who have their fates riding on the CALL. Rosenbaum has staked the future of her agency on this initiative as well. She has remade Jewish Vocational Service around the concept–reassigning employees, drawing up new organizational charts, installing new computer software. She has poured most of the government money the agency gets into the CALL and has launched an ambitious private fundraising drive to finance the elements–mainly the services clients need after they get jobs–that government programs won’t pay for. Her goal is making the CALL a model for job training agencies across the country.
“We have taken a big risk,” Rosenbaum says. “We have put our reputation on the line.”
Indeed, the agency is risking more than reputation. Public and private money has grown increasingly scarce as the economic downturn squeezes the budgets of government agencies and private givers alike. Jewish Vocational Service is projecting a drop of $565,000, or 17 percent, in government contracts next year. This makes Barbara Rosenbaum’s wager even more of a long shot.
“When you look at the funding picture, you don’t see a lot of opportunities for innovation,” says Angel Bermudez, co-director of the Boston Foundation’s program department. “In that sense, it is a significant risk they are taking.”
Up the career ladder
The smell of curry and other spices drifts down the hallway of the Jewish Vocational Service offices on Winter Street in downtown Boston. On this July evening, after the office has closed for the business day, about a dozen CALL clients have gathered in a conference room for a potluck supper. A table is set with dishes from the native cuisines of the clients–Chinese, Dominican, Somali, and others. Also on hand are the mentors of each of these clients, people experienced in the world of work who have volunteered to offer advice and support to their “mentees,” as they are called in the agency, over an extended period of time. The supper is a social occasion–one is held every month or so–designed to cement the bonds between mentors and mentees and to celebrate the accomplishments of the new members of the work force.
“She is great support for me,” Lorraine Dyett-Riley, 38, says of her mentor, Bashemai Canty, 26, a former marketing manager for a software firm and now a graduate student at Bentley College. “Sometimes I get depressed going on interviews. It’s kind of hard to start over.”
Dyett-Riley, a Dorchester resident, had worked for 14 years in the billing department of a Boston insurance company, which laid her off after the company went through a corporate reorganization. Working for one company all those years, doing one set of tasks, she never learned the word processing, spreadsheet, and graphics programs that are essential for most better-paying clerical jobs today. Shortly after completing a training program at Jewish Vocational Service, she was able to get a job with a temporary employment agency. But now she needs to find a permanent position, and Canty, who despite her youthfulness is experienced in the ways of the workplace, has been giving Dyett-Riley tips on how to sell herself. Both women seem comfortable with the role reversal of the younger woman mentoring the older one.
“Job hunting for me is very stressful. I hate going on interviews,” says Dyett-Riley, who is married with two children, ages 5 and 16.
Canty, who lives in Roxbury, says she volunteered to be a mentor because she remembers how hard it was to break into the job market and now wants to help others. “I had been through the process before, and I had people who helped me,” she says.
The mentoring program embodies many of the principles of the CALL: follow-up, practical advice, directions on moving up the job ladder, and personal attention. Since the mentors are volunteers, it does not cost much to operate the program. That’s a good thing, observes Ellen Cross, manager of volunteer services for Jewish Vocational Service. “We’re a nonprofit, and we can’t hire 100 new staff for something like this,” she says.
But there is plenty that Jewish Vocational Service offers its clients under the new program that does cost money. The CALL is a catalog of services designed to prepare the disadvantaged for a lifetime of rewarding work. Participants can learn to speak English, balance a checkbook, prepare income tax forms, and find child care and housing. To give clients access to a range of education and training opportunities, the CALL has established formal ties with Northeastern University and Bunker Hill Community College. These new relationships have not come easy. Community nonprofit agencies and traditional institutions of higher learning have long operated in different worlds and tend to view each other with distrust–in part because they compete for many of the same sources of funding.
Jewish Vocational Service also works with employers, individually and in consortiums, to design and offer training programs for employed workers preparing to take the next step up the career ladder. These businesses want workers who are ready to take on the mid-level positions that are often the hardest to fill.
“It’s very holistic what we’re doing,” says Rosenbaum. “It’s not just jobs; it’s every part of their life.”
Rosenbaum is not the first person to recognize the need for continued services to the disadvantaged after they are employed. In recent years, a growing body of research from academic institutions and think tanks has underscored the importance of post-employment help to keep these new workers from falling back into dependency.
Evaluations of welfare reform in the mid-1990s found that only half of those who left welfare for work were still employed a year later, according to a 2001 review of studies by Public/Private Ventures, a national social policy organization. Periods of unemployment tended to last as long as the jobs themselves, and those who remained employed for five years saw their pay increase by, on average, a mere 37 cents an hour. A report issued earlier this year by the National Governors Association concluded that, for many of the low-income employed, “work support services are crucial to their self-sufficiency and advancement.”
Given such warnings, it’s no surprise that a growing number of public and private agencies, both in Massachusetts and across the country, provide some services to clients who have moved from welfare to work. Florida provides money for training, child care, and transportation to welfare recipients who have found work but are trying to upgrade their skills. In Minnesota, a state-funded nonprofit agency provides training for computer technicians for nine months after employees have started working. Closer to home, Action for Boston Community Development’s LearningWorks program has formal workshops and training programs for people who have jobs, as well as informal services, such as working with a client’s job supervisor if problems arise.
Barbara Rosenbaum calls herself “a bossy little woman.”
What sets Jewish Vocational Service’s initiative apart is that instead of treating services for the working poor as new offerings supplementing existing job readiness and training services, the CALL is a reorientation of the entire agency. When an individual–typically a welfare recipient or laid-off worker–comes in seeking help, his or her name is entered into a database. The agency then tracks the client through skills training, job hunting, and job performance, with goals and action plans spelled out for each step. Clients quickly learn that they are not beginning a short-term job hunt but a long-term relationship with the agency.
“It’s not that no one else is doing continuous learning,” says Conny Doty, director of the Office of Jobs and Community Services for the city of Boston. “But the important thing about Jewish Vocational Service is that they are very customer-focused. They are saying to the people that come to them, ‘We are not letting go of you.’ Individuals at that level of the labor market often need that degree of support.”
“It’s not an incremental change. It is fundamental,” says Nancy Snyder, deputy director of the Boston Private Industry Council. “They really are trying to redefine how they deliver services and who they are.”
Heeding the call
The oldest child of a Brooklyn television and radio parts salesman, Rosenbaum says she “always had an overdeveloped sense of responsibility.” She was president of her high school senior class and editor of the school newspaper. At Brooklyn College, part of the City University of New York, she received her bachelor’s degree, as well as a master’s degree in Victorian literature. “It was either that or I had to go to work as a secretary,” she recalls.
Rosenbaum then married and had three children. As a stay-at-home mom, she remained driven. “I did the New York Times Cookbook from beginning to end,” she says. “I learned how to sew. I was the classic overachiever. I never did master knitting, though.”
She came to Boston in the mid-1970s, when her husband got a job in the area. She found work helping to manage a health care study at Boston University. From there, she went to the state Department of Public Health, where she was a policy analyst during the first administration of Gov. Michael Dukakis. She left her job in 1978 to earn a master’s degree in public administration at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. After graduation, she applied for the open position of director at Jewish Vocational Service.
The agency was languishing at the time. Its original mission largely fulfilled, Jewish Vocational Service lacked direction, if not a reason for being. “I think they hired me because they felt if a woman was running it, and it went under, it wouldn’t be so bad,” Rosenbaum says.
After a few years, though, she launched the agency on a new course. With the welfare cutbacks of the 1980s sending thousands of ill-prepared applicants into the job market, federal and state money began to flow into job training. Rosenbaum positioned her agency to capture these dollars, beating out other nonprofit agencies for grants and contracts. In the process, Jewish Vocational Service became a nonsectarian job training and placement agency. Today, 25 percent of its clientele is Hispanic, and 55 percent is black.
“When she came, it was an agency that just would find jobs for Jews,” recalls FleetBoston Financial chairman Leo Breitman, then a member of the agency’s board of directors. “She took it to a completely different level.”
She didn’t do so by walking on eggshells. Rosenbaum jokingly refers to herself as “a bossy little woman,” and one friend, public relations consultant Marjorie Arons-Barron, calls her “a junkyard dog.” While there is no denying her tenacity, Rosenbaum has an easy, warm smile, and she inspires loyalty among the people who work for her.
“We don’t really see her as bossy,” says Adam Sass, director of skills training for Jewish Vocational Service. “We see her as someone with a vision.”
Not hedging her bets
The CALL has been around for less than two years, and formal evaluations of the program have not been conducted. But as of August, the agency reported that 284 individuals in the program had obtained job upgrades. Of 210 clients recently surveyed by the agency, 90 percent said they would recommend the program to others.
Whether the CALL can thrive, however, depends less on customer satisfaction than on the willingness of foundations, employers, and other private sources to fund the post-employment aspect of the program. While a trickle of public money is available to help former welfare recipients who have found employment, the government generally has an aversion to aiding people after they’ve gotten jobs. The federal Workforce Investment Act, which is the source of much of the money that flows to the CALL, typically allows 30 to 90 days of post-employment services. Thirty days is standard for programs funded through the state Department of Transitional Assistance. Many of Jewish Vocational Service’s contracts with government agencies provide no money for services after employment.
To make up the funding gap, Rosenbaum appeals to private funders sympathetic to her vision. She has won substantial grants from the Boston Foundation, Hyams Foundation, FleetBoston Financial Foundation, and Fidelity Foundation, as well as individual philanthropists. Since late 2000, Rosenbaum and other top officials of Jewish Vocational Service have raised $1 million in private money for the CALL, and she is confident she can come up with another $500,000 to ensure that the program enters a third year.
Any program that aspires to be a national model for job training, though, cannot depend on charity forever. Public/Private Ventures is conducting a study of the CALL for the Rockefeller Foundation, and Rosenbaum is counting on a favorable report to enhance the program’s credibility among state and federal policymakers. But she’s not waiting for that. More than once she has made the trek to Washington, DC, to spread the word and work with sympathetic members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation. US Sen. John F. Kerry and Rep. Stephen F. Lynch of South Boston introduced language into the still-pending US Department of Labor appropriations bill for 2003 earmarking $500,000 for the CALL.
In making her case to public officials, Rosenbaum points out that the CALL and programs like it are important not just to lift people out of poverty and to make welfare reform work, but also to build a qualified work force. She believes policymakers are ready to hear her message. And if they’re not, she’ll keep at it.
“If you can be persistent and stubborn, you can make it happen,” she says. And Rosenbaum is intent on making it happen, if only because she cannot imagine returning the agency to its old way of doing business.
“I’m staking 21 years of accomplishments here on this,” says Rosenbaum. “It’s like one roll of the dice.”