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May 7, 2019

Goodwill Northern New England expands jobs program to its employees

Photo / Maureen Milliken Goodwill Northern New England has expanded its job retention program to its own employees.

Goodwill Northern New England's Job Connection program, which began in Portland in 2015, had helped hundreds of  job seekers with social and workforce connection challenges.

As the unemployment rate dropped and staff turnover rose, the nonprofit organization has made the move to use some of the elements of the program with its own workforce of about 2,000 in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.

“We want to support our employees as well as we support the people who come to us and ask for help keeping their jobs or getting into a new career,” Kelly Osborn, senior vice president of client services, said in a news release. “We’re Goodwill. It’s in our DNA to hire people who have some barriers in their lives. We deal with that all the time in our programs, but we hadn’t intentionally brought those services to our own employees.”

Goodwill Northern New England has hired a full-time “life navigator” for employees — a licensed clinical professional counselor who is available during both work hours and off-hours. The navigator, Sandy Qualey, doesn't report to the human resources department, but is part of the organization's workforce team, "making her a safe person for employees to talk about complicated problems," the release said.

Employees had to get used to the idea they could trust Qualey, said Heather Steeves, Goodwill Northern New England's external communications manager. Once they did, the program, which began with Waterville-area employees, took off.

She said the trust building isn't much different from what the organization experiences with the Job Connection program, which matches counselors with job seekers, helping them with life skills, finding work experience, even helping them with buying  a uniform or equipment. The program supports those who take part after they've found a jog.

The internal program is voluntary, and has to be initiated by the employee, Steeves said.

"People have complicated lives," Steeves said. The organization, looking at its job retention issues, realized that some employees could use the same help with challenges that range from domestic abuse and child custody, to the stress of selling a home.

The program began in central Maine, "because we just have a really good cross-section of employees there." The organization has stores in Waterville, Augusta, Auburn, as well as its workforce services center in Augusta and a NueroRehab center in Lewiston, as well as residential centers and day programs.

Goodwill is now looking to hire another life navigator for New Hampshire and Vermont.

"The life navigator role is the essential factor in Goodwill’s Job Connection program, which offers a wrap-around approach and stays with participants for as long as they want," the release said. "The life navigator uses the best practices of social work to help get people into personal stability and help them learn how to stay stable for life. Participants can call their life navigator when they’re so anxious they want to quit their job and need to talk through their feelings, for instance."

Helping people keep their jobs

In the internal program, Qualey, who is a licensed counselor, meets with employees wherever they want to meet, but often she’ll go to them where they work: at homes, stores and day programs for adults with disabilities. She travels all over the state, as well as New Hampshire. She stays with the employee for as long as they want to meet, and meets with them either weekly or every other week.

“A lot of people need counseling: divorce, how to sell your house, custody cases," Qualey said. "There’s a lot you don’t think of, but it happens in life. Everybody has barriers in their life, but not everybody has support. I can be support helping them navigate through those barriers. I can go into their work and they won’t get docked pay and they can get counseling. A lot of people have received counseling in the past but can’t afford the copay anymore.”

Qualey has helped people keep their jobs, according to Goodwill, in some cases by helping to open a dialogue with the person's supervisor and talk about their struggles and steps they're taking to solve them. She's also helped people with wider-ranging issues, like getting out of abusive homes.

She's even helped people leave their Goodwill jobs for careers that better suit their lives.

“Some people say, ‘I work at the store and I don’t want to forever, but I can’t see a way out of here.’ I help them figure that out,” Qualey said. “Goodwill doesn’t say, ‘You have to work for us’ they say, ‘how can we help you be successful and become what you want to be?’”

Steeves said that while the program's goal is to retain workers, "We're also Goodwill. If [an employee][ comes to use and says their dream is to be a nurse, we're going to help them.

The external Job Connection program has grown in the four years since it was first established in Portland, and there are now five teams in Northern New England, Steeves said.

The program also has business partners who take on participants as volunteers and potential future employees, giving the person work experience. Steeves said the number of business partners has grown as the state's workforce has became tighter, but the program is always looking for businesses willing to participate.

Steeves said that often a person is put in a "survival job" while Goodwill helps them find the right fit. Once that happens, the organization has found, "People are staying in their jobs." She said that wages are frequently higher than expected.

She didn't immediately have numbers on how many it's served, but said the program has had much success helping people keep and find jobs.

"It seems like businesses are looking for answers on how to get and keep great employees," she said. "Looking at in a holistic way can help."

She said that innovating job creation and retention at the organization isn't new. "Goodwill has been helping people get and keep jobs for 200 years," she said.

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