From Hard Time to Full Time – Monique Perkins, Alameda County Director – CEO Oakland

Maybe you’ve seen them sweeping the sidewalks and cleaning the streets in Oakland. Perhaps you noticed the men in their yellow vests picking up trash along the highways of Alameda County. While they are picking up trash, they are also picking up essential life skills, and a paycheck, thanks to the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO).

CEO is a national organization that offers comprehensive employment services for parolees and probationers. CEO’s goal, according to Monique Perkins, the Alameda County Director, is to help every parolee and probationer it works with enter the workforce and then transition to a steady, full-time job that pays benefits.

To ensure that happens, CEO Oakland follows the national model that CEO has developed called Referral to Retention. Immediately after release from incarceration, program participants are immediately enrolled in a three-day life skills class. “We teach them how to get to work on time, how to get along with supervisors and co-workers, and how to answer the ‘conviction question,’ in way that shows who they are now, not who they were when they got in trouble with the law.” Perkins says.

Immediately after completing the class, graduate participants are hired as CEO employees and given a job on one of seven work crews, where they perform landscape maintenance for the city of Oakland or work on a CALTRANS highway litter abatement program. No matter which program they work on, each of the 150 crew-members working for CEO are paid at the end of the day. It may be small paycheck, but according to Perkins it is a huge motivation to return each day. As Perkins explains,  “the daily paycheck curbs recidivism, provides a sense of self worth, and immediately removes the stress crew members face about how to pay for a place to live and how to feed themselves and their families.”

In two years, with investment and strategic guidance from REDF, CEO Oakland has grown from an organization that worked with 144 parolees to one that in 2014 served over 400 and placed over 200 people in full time employment. By the end of June 2015 CEO expects to have 300 people placed in jobs.

These are impressive numbers. A critical factor in CEO’s success is placing the right employee in the right job. To make sure the right job is filled by the right person, CEO created the role of Business Account Manager. According to Perkins, “The goal of our Business Account Manager’s (BAM) role is not only to connect participants flowing through our program to opportunities for employment, but to critically assess the needs of the employer requesting workers to provide quality job matching based on their requests.”

It’s up to the BAM to match quantity of job openings with quality of work performed. That involves an assessment of the job itself, but also an assessment of the employee’s skills, and job readiness. Occasionally a BAM might receive a large work order with a tight deadline. Perkins says that instead of rushing to fill all job openings with just any job seeker, “Our BAM’s meet and discuss the needs defined by the employer and review participants in a case-conference style discussion to determine the best employment referrals for that employer. BAM’s review participant work ethic, attitude towards work, skills and abilities, along with specific employer requirements. By determining quality of placement over sheer quantity, CEO has achieved higher retention numbers and employment stability for our participants.”

The program is designed to be temporary. It lasts only 75 days, and the goal of CEO is “to move them up and out,” as Perkins says. A key part of the program is that the while the 75-day limit amounts to a ticking clock, the days are not continuous. Employees work four days in a row, then on the fifth day they return to the CEO offices for job referral services where they work with job placement counselors to find that all-important permanent job.

Because the training day doesn’t count as a day worked it extends the length of time a worker can stay in the program. Once a participant finds a job, the unused days are banked, so if there’s an issue and he or she loses a job, they can return to CEO and reenter the program and use their remaining workdays.

“We try to find a strategy to prevent job loss,” Perkins says. Sometimes that means giving up a job when it is not a good fit for the participant. “We had a young man in the program recently who had trouble getting to work, because he could not afford public transportation,” she remembers. “His paycheck just couldn’t cover the costs. So we accelerated an employee-rewards program to give him two American Express debit cards loaded with $25 each.”

The man went home for the weekend, thought about the situation, and quit his job. But he didn’t quit the program He re-entered the CEO Referral program to find a job that worked for him. And he returned the two debit cards, with the money unspent.

-Monique Perkins is a Workforce Development professional with over 18 years’ experience in workforce and program administration. She currently serves as County Director for CEO’s Oakland location where she manages the second largest transitional employment project for CEO outside of its main location in New York City.  She attended the University of California at Berkeley, majoring in Political Science and has attended numerous workforce development trainings and seminars.