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Hidden Talent: Survey finds work willingness, skills among area homeless community

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A 2020 Harvard Business School study popularized the term “hidden workers.” It refers to a growing group of people who are unemployed or underemployed and eager to gain or increase employment, but who are not discovered by companies due to hiring methods that overlook their potential.

In Springfield, The Connecting Grounds, a church that provides outreach to people who do not have stable shelter, has conducted its own hidden workforce study. The Work Readiness Study released last month surveyed 204 people meeting the federal definition of homelessness – almost a tenth of the 2,280 population in the church’s ongoing street census.

The study starts to answer the question often asked about unsheltered people: “Why don’t they just get a job?”

“Being homeless in Springfield, Missouri, is a full-time job because the system is so disconnected,” said Christie Love, pastor of The Connecting Grounds. “It is made so difficult. It takes all of your time and all of your energy to figure out how to get from one service provider to the next.”

She added that shelter requirements aren’t always conducive to holding down a job. For instance, Safe to Sleep, which provides nighttime shelter for women, is not an option for someone with an evening or overnight job.

To get people to work, Love said it’s necessary to connect people with resources to help them meet their basic needs. After that, the survey shows a large untapped body of workers with willingness and skills to contribute.

The study’s summary states, “We believe this data spotlights a wonderful opportunity for local employers to creatively and innovatively find ways to lower barriers for potential employees and tap into the large pool of hidden workers who call Springfield, Missouri, their home.”

The sample
Of the 204 people surveyed, 48% were ages 36-50, 26% were 51-65 and 16% were 25-35. The respondent pool ranged 16 to over 65.

Educationally, nearly half the respondents had at least a GED certificate (22%) or high school diploma (27%), and 18% had some college. Some respondents reported having associate or bachelor’s degrees, with a handful having master’s degrees or beyond.

When asked about their work situations, over 10% reported that they worked full time and  another 10% saying they worked part time. The majority, 62%, reported they did not work at the time of the survey, and 18% receive disability benefits.

Of the part-time workers, only 28% reported that was their preference. Another 48% said they worked part time but were willing to or wanted to work full time, and 25% reported that they already worked more than one part-time job.

Of nonworkers surveyed, 42% were seeking employment and 15% had applied for disability. Another 20% said although they were not seeking employment, they desired to work if they could overcome certain barriers.

COVID-19 made it harder to find work opportunities for 58% of respondents. A quarter of respondents lost their jobs during the pandemic, which is when 44% of those surveyed lost their homes.

Hidden experience
The survey asked respondents about their work experience. More than a quarter of them reported having 30 or more years of experience under their belts, and 64% had more than 10 years. Only 12% had less than a year of work experience.

The previous work experience they reported was wide ranging. Previous managerial or supervisory roles were held by 61 people, and 51 had run their own business. There were 10 veterans, and 58 reported having volunteered in the community.

Many of the respondents held certifications, including 18 certified nurse assistants, 29 forklift operators, 11 home health aides, two pharmacy techs and eight certified mechanics. Other certifications included first aid, ServeSafe and child development.

Respondents claimed skills ranging from computer abilities and typing to construction or mechanical abilities to leadership and being good with people.

“These are things any employer is looking for right now – basic computer, typing, customer service, leadership,” said Sally Payne, Springfield’s Workforce Development director. “The skill sets according to the survey match perfectly with employers’ needs.”

But in reviewing The Connecting Grounds survey, Payne said she was struck by one statistic in particular: 29% of respondents reported they did not have a phone.

“If someone doesn’t have a phone, how does an employer get in touch with them about an interview?” she said.

The survey found 68% of respondents had applied for at least one job in the past year, and 22% had applied for more than 10. Half of the respondents who had stopped looking for work did so out of frustration with obstacles they faced.

From Payne’s perspective, the obstacles are numerous.

She said it’s not as simple as a person living out of a car tonight, going to work tomorrow and having everything work out great. People need support and education to move forward.

“If they have no work-appropriate clothing but have a house, food – we can help with that one thing,” she said. “This population has so many needs.”

Payne points to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which places physiological and safety needs, like food, shelter and clothing, at the base of a pyramid. Only when those basic needs are met can higher needs effectively be addressed.

Payne said those communities or organizations that want to address homelessness need to look at the issue expansively and provide multiple supports to get them on their feet and keep them out of the situation they have been in.

“A lot of people may just be one paycheck away from being homeless. That’s the reality,” Payne said.

She added that her department can offer multiple supports, such as a phone bank, resume help and clothing assistance.

“Everyone’s going to have a different story or barrier,” she said. “We have to look at them as individuals.”

Payne suggested getting employers on board that are willing to help with the situation.

“Knowing who those employers were would be really important,” she said.

Workforce Development has had success at identifying employers willing to employ those who have been incarcerated – a group with similar and often overlapping challenges as the homeless population.

“Getting a group of employers and starting that matching work would be a great thing to do,” she said.

Love noted The Connecting Grounds has a volunteer program where people can put in hours to earn the equivalent of $10 per hour to go toward court fines, fees, sober living expenses, monthly bus passes and the like. Hours have also been cashed out for classes at Ozarks Technical Community College or for fixing and registering a car.

While people put in volunteer hours, they learn important work skills, such as communication, Love said.

"It’s become our own job training and work readiness program,” she said. “We would love an opportunity to partner with local employers to help them meet their employment needs.”

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