Program Strives to Take Women from a Job to a Career

Entry Point

Dawn Creighton

Dawn Creighton says ‘Foot in the Door’ was inspired by recognized needs within the business community and among women looking to become part of it.

They informally named the program ‘Getting a Foot in the Door,’ because that’s exactly what it can provide to area women who find themselves defined by those terms ‘unemployed’ and ‘underemployed.’

And while this initiative was conceptualized by officers with the Dress for Success (DFS) Western Massachusetts, it represents a broad and intriguing partnership between area institutions that provide an array of services to such women, train them — or someday might employ them.

Some of these institutions include DFS, early-education provider Square One, the YMCA, and employers such as Baystate Health, MassMutual, Columbia Gas, and others, who have agreed to collaborate in an effort to put more qualified individuals, specifically women facing a host of different challenges, in the local workforce pipeline.

Many of these women already have a job, or two, or even three, said Dawn Creighton, Western Mass. regional director for Associated Industries of Massachusetts and president of the DFS Western Mass. chapter, noting that several part-time positions are often needed to make ends meet. But what they don’t have is a career, a plan for how to forge one, or the skills necessary to even, well, get that foot in the door.

“The majority of women who will take part in this program hold low-paying and unstable employment, with a definite lack of upward mobility,” she explained. “What we want to do is help women look at long-term goals, not short-term goals, and realize that there are career paths, not just jobs.

“We want to empower women to look at a career trajectory,” she went on. “We want them to understand that, just because they start as a receptionist, they don’t have to always be a receptionsist.”

The unique program that begins later this month will address all that, said Jennifer Endicott, senior vice president for Strategy and External Relations at Baystate Health, adding that it won’t qualify individuals for technical positions that require a particular skill set. But it will help provide them with the soft skills and confidence that many area employers say are lacking in individuals they’re otherwise willing to train for those positions.

“It’s not really the technical skills that these individuals need — once they’re brought into our organization, or Smith & Wesson, MGM, or anywhere else, we’ll teach them the technical skills,” she explained. “They tend to fail on the soft skills, and a lot of programs out there will provide those soft skills, but no one’s really bringing it together in some kind of a comprehensive program.”

Bringing things together is the broad goal of this initiative, which is designed to improve the employability of participants, introduce them to resources across the region, and provide the tools for greater self-sufficiency.

Dawn DeStefano

Dawn DeStefano says the Foot in the Door program will provide women with something that has eluded many of them — a chance.

Here’s how it works: individuals chosen for one of 25 seats in the program will take part in a 12-week course of study that will yield a National Career Readiness Certificate through the Training & Workforce Options (TWO) program developed by Holyoke Community College and Springfield Technical Community College. Participants who earn that certificate are guaranteed an interview with a preferred employer, including Baystate, MGM, Smith & Wesson, and Columbia Gas, which made the pilot program possible with a $14,000 grant.

The interview is the only thing that’s guaranteed, said Dawn DeStefano, who spent 25 years with the YWCA and recently joined Square One as director of Resource Development, adding quickly that it’s often the break that can start someone down the road to a fulfilling career.

“What we’ve heard loud and clear from marginalized women, people who are just trying to make it in this world, is that they can’t get a call back — they don’t even know how to get an interview,” she said. “This program will provide an opportunity, a connection to employers in this area.”

Getting a Leg Up

Creighton told BusinessWest that DFS, while noted more for supplying clothes and shoes for women in need than for providing a foot in the door, has always had a workforce-development component within its mission statement.

But this pilot program represents a significant escalation of those efforts, she went on, adding that it was fueled by need — and on several levels.

For starters, there are the basic needs of the many who find themselves defined by those workforce terms ‘unemployed’ and ‘underemployed,’ she said, adding that there are many individuals who fall into these categories, despite vacancies at many companies, because they lack both hard and soft skills.

Elaborating, Creighton said the program will target two groups of women — those trying to re-enter the workforce and achieve a measure of work-life balance, and those who are juggling two or three jobs to make ends meet.

Meanwhile, there is a need for qualified help at businesses large and small, in seemingly in every sector of the economy, and at many levels, including ‘entry.’

The Foot in the Door program will address these issues through its 12-week program, the first of which — organizers are already undertaking the search for funding to ensure that there will be more — will begin Jan. 23, with classes at Square One’s facilities in Springfield.

Summing up what participants will learn, Creighton said “essential life skills.” By that, she meant everything from the basics on the responsibilities of being an employee to some technical skills and primers on the many resources available to them.

As for what the program will ultimately provide for its participants, organizers listed everything from a needed dose of confidence to an even-more-needed job interview.

“For a lot of these women, what they really need is a chance,” said DeStefano. “And we’re hoping to give that to them.”

As for area employers, the program should help fill a wide variety of entry-level positions, an overlooked but still-important piece of the current workforce puzzle, said Endicott, who gave Baystate’s perspective.

“Baystate has a number of pipelines for what I would call the professional trades — nurses, doctors, lab techs, medical assistants,” she explained. “But for that entry-level workforce, there’s no real, established pipeline, and we’re getting ready, in the not-too-distant future, to compete for that same workforce with MGM.”

Endicott said there are a number of positions program participants can interview for across several fields, including clerical, food and nutrition, environmental services, and transportation, among others.

And from there, well, there are certainly opportunities to advance within a system that employs more than 10,000 people across the region.

“Baystate is very committed to developing talent and promoting from within,” she explained. “We have a goal as an organization for 60% to 65% of promotions to be from within. So once they’re in Baystate and they develop the technical know-how, they can access all sorts of different programs to help them advance their career.”

And while it will obviously take some time to determine how successful this program is accomplishing its many goals, it is already drawing praise for the manner in which a number of diverse entities have come together in a way that expands each of their roles and also addresses a recognized need.

“This initiative is trying to take the good work that a lot of organizations are doing, like Square One, the YWCA, and Dress for Success, and bring them together to build a program that would create a workforce pipeline,” said Endicott, “and connect the programs in a more collaborative way than has been done in the past.”

Getting Pumped

A few weeks ago, Dress for Success Western Massachusetts received national recognition for the donations it logged during #GivingShoesDay on Dec. 1. Indeed, the group placed eighth in the country for total donations, and one of its contributors, the Westfield News Group, was the second-highest individual donor worldwide, with 200 pairs.

While obviously proud of that accomplishment, the DFS chapter has much bigger goals in mind. By partnering with a number of area groups, it wants to do much more than put a shoe on a foot.

It wants to get that foot in the door. And if this collaborative effort is successful, the area’s business community will take some real steps forward.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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