StepUp Durham works to train, help people find jobs – here’s one woman’s success story

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DURHAM – The onset of the coronavirus in 2020 led to many disruptions, including the closure of businesses and the issuance of layoffs from organizations.

For many in Durham, uncertainty loomed.  For one adult worker, the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a layoff.

Sarah, who told WRAL TechWire that the layoff was due to forces outside of her direct control, immediately began to look for work.  But facing uncertainty of the future, many businesses weren’t hiring.  She worked with a temporary placement recruiting firm and secured a contract job in November 2020, only to have that contract cancelled when the company sold the division in which she worked to a new acquirer in January 2021. It opted not to continue the contracts of contract employees as a part of the deal.

StepUp Durham

Unemployed again, and again through what Sarah described as no fault of her own, she turned to the resources that were available to her, including a late January resource fair put on in partnership from the Durham Workforce Development Board and Durham Tech.

Enter StepUp Durham

The fair, held virtually, included StepUp Durham, who works with its participants as they seek stability, often through employment.  Sarah met an employee of the organization, which had recently shifted much of its program delivery model from in-person training and support to a virtual environment, due to the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The organization, which provides free employment readiness training, personalized coaching, and other workforce development programs, shifted much of their work online.

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That’s when Sarah met the organization.  Just in time to participate in one of the organization’s program, newly virtual, that would provide training and support amidst a job search.

“It was easy to decide,” Sarah, who asked WRAL TechWire not to share her last name.  “It was free, and it was on Zoom.”

But expectations were high, Sarah said.  Participants were required to be on-time, on-video, and dressed for business.

“It doesn’t matter why you’re in the situation that you’re in, when you’re unemployed, the staff at StepUp are very welcoming and want to help you succeed, and get past any obstacles that may stand in your way,” recalled Sarah.

A few weeks following the conclusion of the program, Sarah began a new job, working as an office manager for a leading provider of fuel and fluid handling systems.

How StepUp helps others

Sarah’s success is not the only success story the organization could share, and by some measures, StepUp Durham program director Tim Wollin told WRAL TechWire, the organization became even more successful after implementing technology that allowed it to take its programs virtually.

“We now use Zoom, Calendly and the Google Suite,” said Wollin.  “As the world has transitioned to a virtual platform, we have found that these tools allow us to successfully reach our participants.”

The nonprofit organization, with an annual operating budget of less than $800,000, also launched a YouTube Channel and partnered with a startup, TalkHiring, whose founder attended Duke University, to enhance their participants training experience, said Wollin.

All of these services, and access to the technology infrastructure, is free for participants, noted Wollin.  The nonprofit has worked with more than 1,000 people since its founding in 2015, said Wollin, and secured more than 500 job placements.

One of those, in 2021, was Sarah.

But the organization has also improved its placement rate.

“Compared to our last fiscal year, we are about 20% more effective at serving people in obtaining employment in the current fiscal year,” said Wollin.  “We are averaging 34 days to employment,” he added.

Talk Hiring helps, too

The organization also works with the startup company Talk Hiring, founded in 2018 by Duke University alumnus Harris Osserman, who is also the company’s CEO, to add mock interview software to the participant experience.  StepUp Durham was the first client of the company, and the company’s software enables people to receive feedback on their mock interviews.  The two organizations partnered to translate the technology platform into Spanish, to better serve client needs, Osserman noted.

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“On average, StepUp Durham’s participants saw a 76% improvement comparing their performance in their first and last mock interviews,” said Osserman, in an interview with WRAL TechWire.  That comes from 226 mock interviews have been completed to date, averaging 2.4 interviews on the platform, per program participant, Osserman noted.

“Talk Hiring has allowed the participants and Employment Counselors to work closer together on their interview skills,” said Wollin.  “It is one thing to simply have someone tell you ways to improve. It is another thing, a powerful thing, when you can listen/watch yourself and see not only the ways you could do things better but also celebrate the ways you are already great.”

The partnership is helping job seekers, Osserman said.  And not just ones in Durham.

“StepUp Durham has been an amazing partner to us and they have greatly informed how the product works today,” said Osserman.  “StepUp Durham supports some justice-involved job seekers, and they wanted interview practice for interview questions about incarceration.  We were able to add those, and build custom feedback for those questions.”

Challenges still exist for job seekers in Durham, and elsewhere. “Many that we serve do not have access to either technology or dependable internet service, sometimes both,” said Wollin. “We are now working to secure laptops that would allow us to take our workshops into different communities that would not be able to receive services any other way.”

Other barriers include transportation, lack of childcare, and lack of stable housing, noted Wollin.  But access to technology and the internet is a main concern, he noted.  “Without those, people cannot even begin to search for employment.”

Osserman described yet another core problem: the talent acquisition marketplace doesn’t just require internet access, it often requires desktop or laptop access.  That’s an issue, because lower-income job seekers are more likely to be job searching on a mobile phone.

Yet mobile job seekers complete 53% fewer applications than desktop and laptop seekers, as completing applications takes, on average, 80 percent longer to complete, Osserman said, referencing a study from Glassdoor.

Long application process

Meanwhile, job application length is inversely correlated with the salary of the job, said Osserman.  The result?  Lowest-paid jobs have the longest applications, that same Glassdoor study found.

“Therefore, lower-income job seekers are more likely to be job searching on a mobile phone, applying to jobs on a mobile phone, taking longer to apply to each job due to the slow mobile job application, and the job applications for lower-paying jobs are longer,” said Osserman, noting that this is a huge problem in the talent marketplace.

And the Triangle labor market is, and has been, really hard to navigate, said Sarah.

“A lot of applications are done online,” she said.  “I know there are a lot of jobs available, but I also know that it’s probably hard for people to connect with the demand.”

“Things are just changing all the time, people are working from home, people are flexing their schedules, and people are coming from quarantining, or from being home with their family, and trying to get back into a regular routine of a work-life balance,” she said.  “It’s not easy.”

For job-seekers, StepUp Durham will offer a fall cohort for its Step2 program, an 8-week program focused on personal development, financial education and career pathways, said Wollin, noting that a benefit of the family-focused program is the provision of bank accounts for adults and their children up to $352, and a graduation bonus of up to $100 for every adult.

The organization is actively recruiting volunteers, including resume writers, mock interviewers, and what the organization calls “co-partners,” who work side-by-side with participants throughout Step2.  

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About the Author

Anthony Barnett
Anthony is the author of the Science & Technology section of ANH.