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Organizations in Memphis are helping the chronically unemployed/underemployed

Christopher Sheffield | Memphis Business Journal

“Synergy’s goal is developing good work habits in chronically unemployed/underemployed”

Training someone to weld, solder electronic components or work on a production assembly line are all vital job skills.

But for a segment of the population battling addictions or just poor work habits, where it’s an accomplishment to simply hold a job or learn to manage conflict in the workplace, such efforts would be misguided.

There were 65,600 Shelby Countians deemed chronically unemployed and underemployed at the end of 2009, according to research firm Younger Associates. Several organizations in the Memphis area work to incorporate job skills training into their programs. Those organizations include the YWCA of Greater Memphis, Girls Inc., MIFA, Bridges USA and JIFF.

Two Memphis-based organizations, HopeWorks Inc. and Synergy Treatment Center, devote considerable time and resources to creating strong work habits and employment opportunities for those with a criminal background and drug and/or alcohol dependency.

“Work is central to what we do,” says Synergy Treatment Center executive director Pete Conerly. “Without the work component, we’d be just like most of the programs you’ve heard about.”

Job or vocational skills development is a vital part of Synergy’s year-long residential treatment process that begins after the first 35 days. It is a required part of the individual and group counseling residents must participate in, says Conerly, who served as the center’s medical director before being named executive director two years ago.

The jobs that residents —— about 170 a year —— perform full-time while in treatment help to fund the majority of the treatment costs, Conerly says. Residents work through employment partners such as Methodist University Hospital, the Memphis Zoo, Cargill Cotton, The Links at Cottonwoods and The Links at Riverbend, or in Synergy’s lawn care or bulk mail businesses.

These are typically low-skilled, manual labor-type jobs where the goal is to develop good work habits in a structured, supervised environment, Conerly says.

“We pride ourselves on residents developing a work ethic and earning their own way,” he says.

Things like conflict resolution, how to dress in the workplace, how to interview for jobs, are all basic skills most clients need, he says.

While those at Synergy are battling addictions, clients who come to HopeWorks are encountering other challenges that include criminal records, low educational attainment and coming from the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, says Ron Wade, executive director. The 22-year-old faith-based organization is run from the basement of Midtown Church of Christ. Addiction is also often part of the picture, he says.

“They’ve failed with the law or education or relationships,” Wade says. “A lot of them come here pretty broken.”

About 40 people attend the two 13-week classes conducted each year where the emphasis is on personal responsibility, job readiness, spiritual counseling and behavioral counseling, he says.

About 25 percent don’t complete the program either because of a failed drug test, poor attendance or just lack of motivation, Wade says.

A good record with all of those components is crucial if Wade and the program’s staff are going to feel comfortable referring graduates to one of HopeWorks’ 40 business partners, Wade says.

Wade, who came to HopeWorks after 33 years in private industry, says workforce development with the chronically unemployed/underemployed is a crucial component in the overall economic health of the community.

Of those that are unemployed, Wade says a vast majority want to work or are capable of working, but can’t because of blemishes in their past. In many cases, those issues can be resolved and unproductive people can get back into the work force.

“It’s not that they don’t want to work, but they have a hard time getting through HR,” he says.