Series| Catalysts
How to get a job when you’re living in poverty

This nonprofit offers a unique job training model for people overcoming the challenges of addiction recovery, homelessness, and incarceration.

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A Chicago-based organization focused on serving those experiencing homelessness and poverty believes that job training shouldn’t stop once an individual has obtained employment. Professional success is a long-term process, so Cara not only helps people enter the workforce, but remain in the workforce and find purpose in the process.

While obtaining employment is the immediate goal for many, sustaining employment is the ultimate test. This is why Cara’s unique model for career readiness training stretches beyond workforce development to focus on developing a person, not just an employee.

In addition to focusing on job training with skills like time management, teamwork, and professionalism, they’re also focusing on what Cara’s CEO Maria Kim calls the “harder skills” – love, forgiveness, and reconnecting with community.

Kim says, “We understand it’s not just about the skills you need to reenter the workforce; it’s also about the skills to navigate the noise of life.”

A New Kind of Job Training 

Cara’s job training services include a series of workshops designed to help people experiencing poverty find steady employment. In the classroom, participants are taught workplace competencies like digital literacy. They’re also given practical tools such as interview attire, public transit cards, and job-search techniques.

Then, participants are introduced to transitional job opportunities. These temporary positions are key to honing job skills, getting real-world work experience, and building a stronger resume. The jobs are offered through Cara’s own businesses – Cleanslate and Cara Connects.

Cleanslate specializes in building exterior maintenance, where employees perform duties such as litter abatement, light landscaping, and snow removal. Cara Connects, a contract staffing firm, offers opportunities like administrative work, customer service, and warehousing.

Cara’s goal is not simply to place a person in a long-term job as quickly as possible, as is the case with many job training organizations. Instead, they’re giving participants the opportunity to learn and grow, then use that experience to secure more permanent employment.

Kim explains, “Once people are placed, we stay with them for at least the first year, but then also for years beyond. That focus on the totality of an individual is what makes us different.”

For more permanent employment opportunities, the nonprofit partners with local businesses that offer competitive wages and benefits. They also have formal standards for evaluating what qualifies as a quality job that factor in hours, compensation, benefits, and longevity.

Another component of Cara’s social-emotional skill building revolves around their “Motivations.” These are morning rituals used to start the day in a positive and purposeful light for program participants. During this time, participants are chosen to get in front of the group and practice something most people are terrified of: public speaking.

Individuals enter the circle and often share their struggles, their strengths, and their successes. The activity helps to build community and show participants the support system which exists for them, even in their most vulnerable state. Local celebrities such as Bill Murray and Rahm Emanuel have even joined in on “Motivations.”

And it’s working: Cara currently creates and secures around 1,000 jobs per year in Chicago with retention rates over 70 percent. Kim says this is “over 20 points higher than national norms.” 

The Greater Impact

Today, Cara’s participants are earning an average wage of $13.48 per hour, many of them doing so while also overcoming the challenges of recovery, domestic violence, or transitioning into society post-incarceration. It’s clear that the work Cara is doing is not just helping the individual, but it’s helping the community as a whole.

The nonprofit boasts an annual social return on investment of 597%, totalling over $6.2 million. This is calculated by taking the sum of contributions made to society, such as income taxes paid, social security, and sales tax dollars spent, plus “annualized savings to society” in the form of unemployment payments, food stamps, substance abuse treatment, and recidivism.

Seeing the success their model has had in Chicago, the leaders of Cara have begun consulting with job training agencies in other cities to share their strategy. But their model isn’t prescriptive; instead, it’s a collection of guiding principles that partners can follow and adapt based on their unique community’s needs.

Kim says their goal is “to fuel a courageous national movement to eradicate relational and financial poverty,” and they’re doing just that. The team recently partnered with the Atlanta Mission in Georgia to help strengthen their job training program.

Cara was able to assist the Atlanta Mission’s team in finding meaningful ways to teach practical job skills in their existing operation, helping them make real and lasting progress. While many programs are judged solely by data, Cara believes that true success is visible through the people they help to regain control of their lives.

Their services couldn’t be more needed in a time like this. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, America’s unemployment rate rose to a historical height of 14.7% in April 2020. Nearly 21 million Americans are currently out of work and collecting state benefits.

As the country begins to rebuild itself and attempts to restore employment for millions, Cara will be cheering their participants on, making sure they’re both career ready and life ready.

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