Collaborating for the Community
Anne Kandilis likes to say Springfield WORKS serves as “a platform for change, innovation, and collaboration.”
Elaborating, she said those three ingredients, and many others, are needed to address a number of issues challenging this region, but especially the need to connect area residents with job opportunities and enable them to thrive in the workplace and outside it, and also assist employers as they contend with an ongoing workforce crisis.
“Our vision is to have thriving communities where economic opportunity, growth, and resilience is possible for all,” said Kandilis, director of Springfield WORKS, a program of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council. “Right now, not everyone is able to access the resources they need to thrive; employers are not finding the workers they need, so there’s a disconnect.”
This disconnect becomes apparent with a look at some statistics she provided to make her point: the average hourly wage in 1998 was $17 per hour; adjusted for inflation, that would equal about $30 per hour today, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That means wages have effectively declined in the past 20 years, she said, while the cost of goods and services has increased, making it more difficult for working families to make ends meet.
Meanwhile, the median income of Hispanic households in Springfield is roughly half that of White households, which is also true of the metropolitan region and for Massachusetts as a whole.
To address these disparities, Springfield WORKS, a community-wide initiative, is collaborating with about 40 area organizations to remove systemic and racial barriers and create pathways to real economic opportunity and family well-being.
“The changes that we make need to be scalable and sustainable so that all of our neighbors thrive and our businesses thrive.”
As she spoke about Springfield WORKS and its broad mission, Kandilis characterized this area as being “rich in programs and poor in systems.” The main goal is to build such systems through those traits she mentioned earlier — especially innovation and collaboration.
Partners include organizations from the community, including Holyoke Community College, Head Start, Square One, Home City Development, Springfield and Holyoke public schools, and employers such as Baystate Health and Big Y, as well as larger national organizations like the Aspen Institute and the National Fund for Workforce Solutions.
Over the past few years, Kandilis and her team have been working with these organizations to start programs like the Whole Family/Two Generation model, the Western Mass Anchor Collaborative; the Ready, Willing and Able model; and efforts to counter the so-called ‘cliff effect’ (more on these later). Experience has shown that these groups can do more working together than they can individually.
“You think about the scarcity of resources, but over time, what our partners have committed to is what we’ve shown: this is not a zero-sum game. Just because you get funds doesn’t mean I won’t get funds; what we’ve done is bring more funds into the region through our collaborative work,” Kandilis said. “The changes that we make need to be scalable and sustainable so that all of our neighbors thrive and our businesses thrive.”
For this issue and its focus on employment, BusinessWest talked at length with Kandilis about Springfield WORKS and its collaborative approach to creating opportunities, putting people to work, and enabling them to advance in their chosen field.
Work in Progress
Partner organizations allow Springfield WORKS to work directly with not only employers, but the people who need the resources and help the most: families and residents of Western Mass., said Kandilis, noting that the first step was to partner with 413Cares, a website for people in the 413, to increase the visibility and access to programs and services offered in the area.
The online tool allows individuals to search through lists of organizations to find the resources they need, like housing, job skills, early education, healthcare, and more. Its main goal is for everyone, no matter which door they come from, to be able to access a resource.
“We wanted to make it [our partnership] tighter so we’re actually working with them directly to create a Springfield WORKS component where we have our direct partners and our resource partners in a space that we call Ready, Willing and Able,” she explained.
“A lot of people can’t afford to go to school and not work. So what are some of the policies employers can put forth to support workers and upward mobility?”
The Ready, Willing and Able model was created to allow Springfield WORKS and other organizations to learn how to better support local families, a need evidenced by statistics showing that 40% of them didn’t know where, or to whom, to turn for resources, whether for job searching, housing and food insecurity, healthcare, or other needs.
The individual is asked a series of questions to see if they are ready, willing, and able, said Kandilis. These include: do you have the resources in place that will support your success? Do you have a reliable childcare plan? Is your transportation such that you can get to training and work now and later, not just for today, but over the long haul?
This approach allows Springfield WORKS and its employer partners to meet individuals where they are instead of having them find the resources themselves.
“Families are receiving resources, but no one partner can provide all the resources a family might need in order to set up the worker for success,” she explained. “The second step, which is what we’re doing now, is to work directly with residents and families collaboratively to see what those system silos look like and break down those silos.”
While working in a collaborative fashion, Springfield WORKS and its partners will work with 160 individuals to see what this program looks like in practice. The hope for the Ready, Willing and Able model is to promote the systems in place and create needed change in how they serve individuals and families collaboratively, trying to keep families at the center of the equation.
This model is part of the list of strategies that goes into the Whole Family/Two Generation approach to careers — a model in which children’s and parents’ needs are addressed together.
“Oftentimes, there’s programming for parents and programming for children, but parents can’t focus on making the most of their education or job-training opportunities without early education or a safe place for their children,” said Kandilis, adding that partners for this model are mostly education institutions, such as Holyoke Community College, Tech Foundry, Head Start, Square One, the Department of Transitional Assistance, Springfield Partners for Community Action, the United Way of Pioneer Valley, Springfield public schools, and Dress for Success of Western Massachusetts, which delivers a career-readiness program called Foot in the Door.
Through the Community Empowerment and Reinvestment Grant, $400,000 was dedicated to helping facilitate systemic socioeconomic changes in the city of Springfield; the main goal is to mitigate the negative impacts of incarceration by identifying those most at-risk individuals at a younger age.
Nearly half of people with criminal backgrounds, nationally, are still jobless a year after leaving prison, and a criminal record can reduce the chances of a second interview by 50%, said Kandilis, adding that the unemployment rate among formerly incarcerated people in the U.S. (27%) is higher than at any other point in the nation’s history.
“We realized that there just wasn’t any data in the system about the barriers for after incarceration or the families that are connected to somebody who is connected to the justice system,” she noted. “The issue is not only inside, but outside of the justice system within the families. So when we started the project a year ago, Springfield WORKS administered a survey directly to those connected to the system through their partners.”
Roughly 200 people answered that survey — 51.7% of local adult respondents were formerly incarcerated, while 90.8% have family members who have been incarcerated — indicating exactly what they needed to move forward, and Kandilis said she certainly wasn’t surprised by the two biggest needs identified: employment and housing.
Springfield WORKS came up with the solution of creating programs that kept the family at the center, addressing the needs of both the parents and children.
“It can start with being parent-focused first and then the child, or child-focused first and then the parent,” Kandilis said, “so if we work with Springfield public schools or Head Start, they’re working with the child, but they also have family engagement, so now we can connect — we are connected — to those organizations so that we’re not increasing the burden of work in those institutions.”
Stepping Away from the Ledge
This past year, Springfield WORKS and its partners were given another $500,000 through the Community Empowerment and Reinvestment Grant so it can expand on these two strategies and build onto it with the Anchor Collaborative, which is a way for employers to look at their policies related to investing in upward mobility.
“A lot of people can’t afford to go to school and not work,” Kandilis said. “So what are some of the policies employers can put forth to support workers and upward mobility? How do I get a better job in the company I’m already working for? That’s a win-win for employers because they’re looking for retention.”
This reality motivates the employer to invest in its own workforce, not leaving it completely up to those outside of the system, whether it’s the workforce board or the state or other resources, she added.
When partners can collaborate, it allows for the families to be at the center, holistically. Using the Whole Family/Two Generation model, institutions are working together to relieve the burden on individuals navigating complex systems, instead shifting the navigation to the partners.
Meanwhile, the Anchor Collaborative blends workforce dollars, training dollars, and resources to support workers and worker access to opportunities. This is just one of the ways to help break the ‘cliff effect.’
In Springfield WORKS’ early days, Kandilis and her team learned that the benefit system can be a disincentive to work. The cliff effect is a phrase used to describe what happens when someone is receiving benefits — housing subsidies, food support with SNAP, childcare support — and they are working either part-time or full-time, but are doing just enough to still receive the benefits they need to make ends meet. They go over the cliff when they earn too much to qualify for such benefits, or receive a reduced amount, thereby creating a disincentive to work and advance.
“Many of the systems aren’t connected, so there is a lot of complexity in those systems; housing systems are not connected to the SNAP program, so the more money you make, the less benefits you get,” she explained. “So there is a point in time, and it happens very quickly, where, if you’re making a certain amount of money and you’re receiving a certain level of support to pay your basic needs, just a dollar more [per hour] might gain you $3,000 or $4,000 in income, but you might lose $1,200 in benefits.”
Springfield WORKS and its collaborators successfully proposed legislation to create a pilot that asks what would it look like if the government paid an individual what amounts to an earned- income tax credit or another kind of payment, “so that they’re no worse off as they start moving up the income scale beyond the cliff.”
This would give individuals and families the comfort and support they need to move from an $18-per-hour job to a $30-per-hour job over time and get them beyond that so-called cliff.
If the cliff problem isn’t solved, Kandilis added, people are going to keep being stuck in what is called the ‘benefits plateau,’ making enough money and working enough hours to be able to pay their bills, but also still receive their benefits.
Overall, Springfield WORKS is dedicated to serving families and individuals who need it most. In this economy, it’s not always easy to build oneself up when the price of everything is also going up. Meanwhile, employers continue to struggle with finding enough qualified help to fill open positions and keep their operations humming.
“What we’re doing is bringing resources to support the rest of the family,” Kandikis said in summarizing the ongoing efforts at Springfield WORKS. “That’s how we create the best families and prosperity.”