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Best Practices: Cascade Engineering Makes Welfare-to-Career a Reality

Helping welfare recipients get good jobs and keep them isn't easy, but Cascade Engineering figured out how to make it happen.

Fifteen years ago, Fred Keller, the founder of Cascade Engineering, wanted his company to do more for its community in Grand Rapids, Michigan, so he determined to hire more workers out of poverty. In his first attempt, Keller took a straightforward approach, visiting the local mission and recruiting unemployed people he met there to work in his manufacturing plant. Two weeks later, none of them were still on the job.

“It was really frustrating for Fred because he wanted to see it work,” Kelley Losey, director of Cascade’s sustainability consulting unit, says. “We had two false starts; we don’t call them failures because we learned a lot.”

But after overcoming early challenges, his company came up with successful welfare-to-career program that is getting people to work, saving money for the company and the public, and becoming a model for communities around the country solving the same problems.

The company’s second attempt at developing a sustainable welfare-to-work model involved a partnership with a local Burger King franchise. Participants were asked to work at Burger King for six months to develop good work habits and team skills, and then would be offered a higher-paying job at Cascade. Once again, none of the participants made it through the program.

“We found that the pay range at Burger King was really much too low for these welfare mothers to support their families. ... They had already [worked in the fast-food industry] and so they were not really interested in that whole process,” Ron Jimmerson, a Cascade executive who was deeply involved in the welfare-to-career program’s creation, told a Stanford Business School researcher.

Then the company came across the work of Ruby Payne, who had developed a framework for understanding the cultural differences between people coming from low-income backgrounds and those from the middle class. That understanding—and particularly an understanding of the specific kinds of social support participants in the welfare-to-career program would need to succeed—was baked into Cascade’s next attempt.

Jimmerson helped put together a coalition that included Michigan state agencies, business groups and nonprofits. They made sure a social worker was on-site at Cascade to support the program’s participants and bridge communication problems between workers and managers. Workers received several days of orientation. Those who needed help getting to work received transit assistance, and those with domestic difficulties were given support. New employees who aren’t part of the welfare-to-career program also go through extensive cultural and social orientation to help the team-building process.

This time, the program has succeeded, and today, 95 percent of those who enter stick around. The program produces more than just the social impact, however. A Stanford Business School case study [PDF] estimates that Cascade's five-year savings total $502,000 due to lower contracting costs, wage subsidies, and tax credits. It also provides $900,000 in savings to the government, which has to pay less into welfare programs and sees increased tax receipts.

Now the company has started applying these lessons to one program that helps prisoners re-enter the community and find new jobs, and another, called Armed Forces to Work Forces, that helps veterans find employment. Cascade has also started a consulting unit to help other companies, communities, and NGOs replicate the company's successes.

“Businesses are not separate from the community, and that’s the message that we try to get across,” Losey says. “You can’t operate in the small box that’s just your four walls.”

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