Marie Trzupek Lynch, Skills for Chicagoland’s Future CEO (Photo: SCF)

In this day and age of near record lows of unemployment, it’s no secret that companies are struggling to recruit qualified candidates to fill open positions.

They’re asking, “How can we compete for talent and maintain our competitive edge?”

The answer is hiring talent like Anthony McGruder.

Anthony lives in the Chatham neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side where unemployment sits at 11.3 percent. After ending his military career, he spent months unemployed and eager to work, but he was not getting the chance. In fact, he wasn’t getting any job interviews at all. He had the skills and experience required but lacked the personal network or connections to get considered for a job.

Then Anthony came across our organization, Skills for Chicagoland’s Future, after seeing an opening for an aircraft fueling agent with Swissport. Since Anthony did that type of work in the military, a Skills recruiter thought he’d be a great fit and arranged an interview with a hiring manager.

Now Anthony is working at O’Hare International Airport, using his military training to be successful on the job. He finally got an opportunity.

A hidden pool of talent

Yes, we’re in a tight job market. Thanks to a low national unemployment rate, employers large and small are fretting that they can’t find qualified candidates to fill open positions. And of course, the widening “skills gap” has long posed a challenge for employers. Hiring managers typically respond by competing harder for the remaining job seekers, while poaching employed workers. That sounds to me like a recipe for diminishing returns.

The truth is, there are many unemployed or underemployed candidates out there who are qualified and job-ready. While the national unemployment rate is low, there are communities and demographics that aren’t sharing fully in the jobs boom.

For example, per the American Community Survey, in Chicago’s South Side neighborhoods of Auburn-Gresham, Chatham, and Englewood, the unemployment rate jumps to 12 percent, 14 percent, and 16 percent, while North Side neighborhoods are as low as three-to-four percent.

Ethnicity and age are also a huge factor in employment rates in Chicago. Currently, the unemployment rate for minorities is over 17 percent, while the Caucasian unemployment rate is as low as five percent. As far as age goes, youth between the ages of 16-24 have the highest jobless rate at a whopping 19.4 percent, while unemployment for those over the age of 25 drops down to a mere six percent.

Job seekers from these populations are more likely to face unnecessary barriers in the hiring process. Thanks to these barriers, qualified candidates are filtered out or never even given a first look. For these job seekers, the problem isn’t a lack of skills and experience. Rather, it’s one of access — and it’s a big problem for employers too.

At Skills, we make this case to employers every day. We meet the hiring needs of employers by offering solutions to place qualified, unemployed and underemployed candidates into available positions. Each of the 7,000-plus unemployed or underemployed candidates we’ve placed proves there’s a large pool of talent out there waiting to be tapped.

In the 20 years that I‘ve done this work, with the unemployment rate this low and companies struggling to hire, it is the first time that I am seeing and hearing many companies open to hiring new types of populations and reexamining the barriers that create challenges to hire new populations.

Breaking down the barriers

As the CEO of an organization that has grown from a few employees sitting in borrowed desks to more than 50 in seven years, I know what it’s like to agonize over hiring decisions.

No matter what industry we’re talking about, the strength of your workforce is a huge determinant of whether you succeed or flounder. Every time an employer extends a job offer, they’re taking a risk. Every hiring manager is looking for ways to minimize the risk that a candidate won’t excel in their role, or, even worse, that they won’t be able to keep the job.

While it makes sense to reduce risk, if your hiring practices screen out qualified talent, you are doing a disservice to your business. Finding the right balance is no simple task. It is easier to screen out job seekers than to evaluate and change hiring practices.

Without truly leaning in and talking about these barriers, and then sharing these openly and honestly with your nonprofit, government and education partners, the challenges will remain as the very partners you want to help you cannot unless they truly understand the challenges you are facing. An employer must make a conscious, strategic effort from the top down to reach deep and ensure everyone has access to job opportunities.

Over the course of working with 90-plus employers, we’ve seen these barriers truly come into focus for companies after they partner with a workforce nonprofit. The process can reveal a multitude of challenges, including drug testing, zero-tolerance attendance policies, the requirement of educational credentials that are not actually necessary, a lack of internal mentoring or project staff to work with nonprofits, as well as misaligned expectations of hiring managers versus corporate executives.

Companies face a maze of confusion when navigating the workforce system that exists in nearly every city. Companies want to partner with nonprofits, but they are not sure who can deliver, who is best in class and how the numerous nonprofits and programs are different from one another. We frequently hear about a request for a “one-stop-shop,” but that is challenging to find. Further, there are funding constraints for workforce development programs, and it takes commitment and time to develop programs and partnerships.

I have seen time and again the importance of (and the consequences of not) aligning on the type of job-ready candidate that your hiring managers truly want. If you’re a business leader, it is vital to understand who you want to hire and what segment of the population you are including or excluding with those qualifications.

For example, you need to be honest about whether you are truly ready to hire justice involved and then remove the barriers that prohibit the hiring of these individuals. You also have to be honest about whether you are truly ready to hire youth that are disconnected from school and work. I have heard directly from some justice involved and youth job seekers that their biggest hurdle is simply getting to the program on time. If you’re willing to think creatively about the structure of jobs and programs, it is very possible to find reasonable ways to address these challenges.

Companies should look at each individual job and determine whether it requires the degree that they have historically had on the job description. Then go further. Have an honest internal assessment about what level of education and job readiness you truly require. From there, you can target which nonprofits you want to work with locally.

Examples of success

What does success look like? Here are a few examples.

Let me start with Rush University Medical Center. When we first met with them five years ago, they were highly skeptical of working with us as they had some exhaustion from past experience with well-intentioned nonprofits that did not have the right job-ready talent for them. Throughout our first year, we felt like we were fighting an uphill battle and ended the year with lots of activity but only one hire to show for it.

It took time to build up, to learn about one another, and to be creative. We really broke through when we placed a recruiter on site at the hospital for six months. It took perseverance, creativity, and dedicated resources at Rush to work with us to be successful. This past year, we placed over 100 individuals into jobs at Rush.

McDonald’s has made a major commitment to address barriers to youth employment worldwide. The company pledged to offer 43,000 apprenticeships across Europe, combining workforce training and study. McDonald’s also funded a new apprenticeship program in Chicago overseen by Skills and is piloting pre-employment training for youth in Chicago before expanding to cities across the country.

Good corporate citizenship? Sure. But with 60 percent of its restaurant workforce between 16 to 24 years old, McDonald’s recognizes that a strong youth pipeline is essential to its continued success.

Here in Chicago, AT&T has launched the first in a series of anti-violence initiatives planned for urban areas nationwide, and the focus — no surprise — is on jobs. Despite a citywide unemployment rate of 3.6 percent, the rate in many Chicago neighborhoods is still in the double digits. AT&T saw the abundance of talent in 19 neighborhoods with high rates of gun violence and unemployment.

By committing to hire 400 neighborhood residents, establishing a new internship program, funding community employment organizations and proactively addressing its own hiring barriers, AT&T is creating a win-win for its workforce and the city.

Even with unemployment rates at historic lows, there are still millions of Americans who are unemployed or underemployed, but who have the skills, experience and drive employers are seeking. Employers that create better job opportunities will hire a more diverse workforce eager to work hard and prove their merit, while employers who ignore these job seekers will continue to struggle in finding and retaining talent.

In 2020, hiring managers need to recognize that this isn’t just an issue of corporate social responsibility, but one of competitive advantage. Employers of America, you have a golden workforce opportunity before you. It’s time to seize it.

Marie Trzupek Lynch is the CEO of Skills for Chicagoland’s Future and a member of the WorkingNation Advisory Board.