A Rising Tide Can Lift All Boats – Carla Javits

‘A rising tide lifts all boats’ still holds true for most job-seekers. As the economy improves, more people find jobs while unemployment and poverty rates generally decline.

However, even as our economy has improved, the job market has failed to include some people – especially those with long gaps since their last job, no “legitimate” work experience, those with histories of incarceration, or those living with a disability. The result? 45 million Americans live in poverty – a number unchanged over the past three years.

Today, many people looking to enter the workforce face an uphill battle given their limited access to the hiring market despite the fact that many of the people who employers routinely turn away for the reasons noted are willing to work and, given some training and experience, are fully able to do so.

We want and need more people to work. The vast majority of people who are poor are not working.    Once people are working, they have the opportunity to advance and earn more. Taxpayers benefit as prison recidivism rates and homelessness declines. People, families and communities are more productive, healthy, and importantly, hopeful.

We need the full engagement of employers to change this picture. Part of the solution is to expand the number of social enterprises that provide a way in for those left out. One type of social enterprise is a mission-driven business that focuses on assisting and hiring people who face barriers to work.

These enterprises earn and reinvest their revenue in order to provide more people with jobs that build skills and a career path. They also offer a more financially sustainable business model than many other workforce development programs.

Some social enterprises operate as a business with employers as their customers, so they understand that employers demand well-prepared workers. To accomplish this, they provide transitional jobs that train and prepare people for the workforce. They then place people in a variety of companies and provide ongoing skills support to enable their workplace success.

The U.S. has a small but thriving social enterprise landscape that employs tens of thousands of people. Comparatively, U.S. corporations and our federal government are doing much less than our international peers to foster the growth of these companies and the people they train. With a dedicated effort in the U.S., we can achieve a lot more.

In the UK, for example, the Public Services (Social Value) Act of 2012 encourages certain private companies to include social enterprises in their supply chain. The Social Business Partnership in the UK acts as a brokerage for businesses seeking to procure goods and services from a social enterprise. Wates, one of the UK’s largest construction firms, sets annual procurement spending goals from social enterprises. In Australia, Social Traders partners with a management consulting firm to promote social procurement in the private sector.

Although U.S. lags behind, green shoots are sprouting in this country. Some large employers have seen the business benefit of hiring people once considered unemployable. Examples include Cascade Engineering and Butterball Farms that each hire the formerly incarcerated, and Southwire and GAP Inc. that each employ at-risk youth. Many cities are also adopting initiatives that require employers to first screen an applicant’s essential skills before checking on whether they have criminal records.

Other positive steps include Year Up and Opportunity Nation that announced a new Grads of Life initiative to place “opportunity youth,” the 5.8 million young adults in this country who are out of school and seeking work, into employment. The national intermediary SourceAmerica, formerly known as NISH, is helping its member enterprises that employ people with disabilities to access more private sector contracts. Best Buddies announced the I’m IN to Hire initiative to promote the business benefits of hiring people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The Business Roundtable is working on a new essential skills framework to level the playing field for frontline job applicants.  President Obama has gotten support from more than 300 businesses in answer to his call to hire the long-term unemployed.

While these individual initiatives are admirable, it is time for the U.S. to embark on a collective effort to focus on hiring practices. Business guru Michael Porter’s shared value initiative, where companies create measurable business value by identifying and addressing social problems that intersect with their business, offers a useful framework for a U.S. effort.

Perhaps as the presidential election heats up, we can spend less time poking holes in the hull of our collective ship, and more time talking over how our rising tide can truly lift all boats.

–This piece originally appeared on The Hitachi Foundation website.