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Want a Job? Get a Job.

Since The Citizen wrote about First Step Staffing in 2018, the nonprofit has placed thousands of vulnerable Philadelphians in entry level jobs around the region. Now, it’s launching Second Step to create even better opportunities for all.

Want a Job? Get a Job.

Since The Citizen wrote about First Step Staffing in 2018, the nonprofit has placed thousands of vulnerable Philadelphians in entry level jobs around the region. Now, it’s launching Second Step to create even better opportunities for all.

In February of 2020, Tamika Langford had one thing on her mind: staying in recovery.

She had just moved out of the Philly-based recovery house where she had lived since April of 2019, when she checked herself in for treatment for a painkiller addiction. Her husband had passed away shortly before she started treatment, and she knew if she wanted to be able to afford her own place to live and continue with her recovery she would need a job.

But she was struggling with the searching process. Most jobs required online applications, and there were long waiting periods. Langford wanted to find an entry-level position quickly, so she could pay her bills and focus on her recovery. “It’s just so hard nowadays to get the job because you have to search and fill everything out online and then you have to wait,” she says.

“Philadelphia’s most vulnerable citizens, at the same time, are also among America’s essential workers,” Zerbe says.

Enter First Step Staffing. Langford had seen flyers for the nonprofit staffing firm located in Kensington around the common areas of her recovery house. The organization specializes in helping vulnerable people—including homeless people, those struggling with addiction and re-entering citizens—find entry-level jobs often within only a few days. In Langford’s case, she went in for an orientation session, filled out an application and “the next day I was allowed to go to work,” she recalls. Now, she’s celebrating one year at her job at a postal warehouse.

Langford is just one of First Step Staffing’s many success stories. Currently the organization employed over 3,000 individuals in 2021. This year, they’re working on expanding a program that provides free certification training to workers.

An answer to a social problem

First Step Staffing was founded in Atlanta by successful businessman Greg Block, former owner and CEO of American Pacific Enterprises. Back in 2007, Block wanted to start an organization that would give back to his community. He met with local leaders in Atlanta and found that the city was struggling to adopt social services programs that helped homeless people in the city find jobs.

First Step Staffing was his solution to this problem. The nonprofit firm partners with employers to help them fill unskilled positions, like those in warehouses or food processing. Seven years in, Block began expanding his program to other cities by acquiring for-profit staffing firms and transitioning them to the nonprofit model established in Atlanta. They’re now the largest nonprofit staffing firm in the country, with locations in California, Nashville and Orlando. In 2018, when The Citizen last wrote about them, they were just opening the Philly branch after acquiring the firm On Time Staffing.

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“His vision was to eliminate barriers; if you wanted a job he wanted to give you a job. At First Step, we remove all barriers,” Karima Rose, executive director of First Step Staffing in Philly, says of Block, who passed away in August of last year.

As with most staffing firms, corporate partners pay First Step Staffing a fee to fill their open positions with temporary employees. Though their contractual agreements bar them from sharing the names of their corporate partners, Jason Zerbe, vice president and general manager for First Step Staffing in Philly, says that many of the jobs offered are in food production, large-scale commercial baking, warehouses and mail-sorting. Workers employed by First Step in Philly are paid between $12-$16.25 an hour and offered ancillary services like employment coaching and transportation to and from job sites.

“It works. It’s successful. And we hope to continue to grow it here in Philadelphia to where someday we’re paying $40 million in wages,” Zerbe says.

For Langford, the transportation services offered by First Step are critical. Though she lives in Philadelphia, the warehouse she works in is located in New Jersey. Since she doesn’t own a car and there are few public transportation options between her home and her workplace, she wouldn’t be able to retain her job without First Step.

“Public transportation is not an option at my location,” Langford says. “First Step Staffing has helped me become financially independent.”

RELATED: Camden-based Hopeworks is expanding its job training and placement mission with an eye to fighting regional poverty, hundreds of jobs at a time

Ninety-five percent of the Philly branch’s operations are funded through their corporate partnerships. Businesses pay First Step for their staffing services and that money is then used to pay wages for the workers and support the nonprofit’s operations. The rest of their funding comes from donations, government grants and loans from local community development financial institutions (CDFIs)

One such supporter is the Reinvestment Fund, a CDFI that offers loans to support affordable housing development, education and other social services projects. They helped fund First Step’s venture into Philly in 2018 and have been a lender to the project ever since.

“FSS’s mission is to provide economic opportunity for individuals who face challenges to employment. We saw that as aligned to our own commitment to making sure that all people have access to essential opportunities like affordable places to live, access to nutritious food and health care, schools where their children can flourish, and quality jobs,” says Elizabeth Frantz, senior director of lending and investments at the Reinvestment Fund.

An antidote to pandemic job loss

In their first year in Philly, First Step Staffing employed 2,664 people and paid out $14.5 million in wages. Now, the Philly branch employs upwards of 900 people per week and they paid out $18 million in total wages last year. About 80 percent of their workers come from vulnerable populations, including homeless people, the recently incarcerated, those with addiction issues and struggling veterans.

And these numbers remained consistent even as the Covid-19 pandemic sent unemployment numbers soaring last year. Statewide, there were 540,000 new unemployment claims filed in the second half of March of 2020 after businesses shut down due to stay-at-home mandates. But First Step kept their doors open, transitioning swiftly to giving out masks and other PPE their workers needed to safely do their jobs. They also picked up new clients as demands increased for cleaning and janitorial workers.

Broke in Philly logo“Philadelphia’s most vulnerable citizens, at the same time, are also among America’s essential workers,” Zerbe says. “Helping the vulnerable population is an in-your-face, brick-and-mortar operation.”

In the midst of these unprecedented times, Philly’s First Step not only kept their Philly office open, they also found a way for the nonprofit to create more, better paying jobs. Last year, the Philadelphia branch piloted Second Step—a free certification program that helps participants gain job skills including commercial drivers license, forklift operation, culinary training.

“Now someone that was originally making $14 or $15 an hour can now be making $18 to $22 an hour,” Rose says.

Philly’s initial pilot program graduated 12 people last year. This year, First Step Staffing is working on rolling out the Second Step program to all of its major markets. As the program expands, Zerbe and Rose believe it will continue expanding First Step’s original mission by creating more, higher paying jobs for vulnerable populations.

“It works. It’s successful. And we hope to continue to grow it here in Philadelphia to where someday we’re paying $40 million in wages,” Zerbe says.

The Citizen is one of 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow the project @brokeinphilly.


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