Neighborhood MATCH Program

Last month, the Mills Corp. opened a new shopping mall 25 miles outside Houston that employs nearly 200 local welfare recipients who were recruited, trained, and transported across town with one goal in mind: self-improvement.

It wasn't the scolding, grounding, or hospital bills that most terrified 18-year-old Petra Trevino when she phoned her mother from the side of the road last year with news of a smashed, totaled car. She wasn't crying over missed dates or canceled road trips. She was staring welfare straight in the eye, and she was devastated.

"After the wreck, I didn't have any transportation to work, so I had to put in two weeks' notice, but I was dependent on a ride to work and finally just had to quit," Trevino says of the crash repercussions. "I was a single mom, I was unemployed, and I couldn't really do anything about it because I didn't have a vehicle."

Petra's story is a common one. Pregnant at 16, she dropped out of high school and ultimately moved in with her mother when her young marriage began shredding at the seams. An assistant manager at a Houston-area fast food restaurant, Petra could save very little extra money each month. Without transportation, she was also without options.

Several months after applying for federal assistance, the teenage mother caught wind of a welfare-to-work program that sounded plausible, credible, even attractive. The program, called MATCH (Mills Access to Training and Career Help), was just in its infancy in the Houston area, but had already generated a great deal of publicity and buzz through targeted billboards, radio spots, and 14,000 informational postcards sent to local residents on welfare.

"I first heard about the MATCH program through a friend," Petra says. "She encouraged me to come out to a job fair and find out what it was all about. I took advantage of the free transportation for a while, but now I've got an assistant manager position and my own car. And I'm off welfare, thank God."

A Wow! project in overdrive, the MATCH program was born last year in the Hunters Point area of San Francisco, where the Mills Corp. — a real estate development company — is building a shopping mall alongside the new and much-debated 49ers football stadium. The problem of hiring dependable, dedicated full and part-time employees in that lower-class region of the city has concerned Mills since the project's proposal. But when Jim Dausch, senior executive vice president of development for Mills, began talking with the San Francisco chamber of commerce and local non-profit foundations about opening the mall's retail and service jobs to disadvantaged residents of Hunters Point, Vice President Gore's office took notice. In August 1998, Dausch met with the Presidential Community Empowerment Board and quickly decided the welfare-to-work project could not wait for Ed DeBartolo and his 49ers. Conveniently, the Katy Mills mall outside Houston was just 14 months from completion and a prime testing ground.

"We needed to see whether we could marshal both federal resources and programs and local resources and programs with our own efforts to do a better job hiring people, particularly disadvantaged people and those coming off welfare, into jobs with a career path and benefits," Dausch says about the decision to launch a program in Texas. "The Mills malls have, on average, 3,500 full and part-time job openings when they start...but Katy Mills is roughly 25 miles from downtown Houston. Most of the people who need entry-level jobs are in urban areas or far rural locales. The challenge for us was to recruit people where they live, but then get them — on a regular, convenient basis — out to jobs in the suburbs."

An overwhelming percentage of the 800 people who attended Mills' 10 local job fairs this summer and fall were single mothers without any means of private transportation. Many of them had little or no work experience, and understandable qualms about leaving their children and entering the work force — perhaps for the first time.

"The first week of training is about self-esteem," says local organizer Sue Lovell, who was hired by Mills to establish the transportation, childcare, and training programs associated with MATCH. "When you interview, look someone in the eye. Don't be afraid to do so. You are worth something. You can do this."

Lovell began working on MATCH last February, and in roughly six months she and her colleagues managed to establish partnerships with local and national government agencies such as the Houston-Galveston Area Council — the local purveyor of workforce funds. The senior transportation planner there helped Mills organize a free transportation system for MATCH participants who live prohibitively far from Katy Mills. Relationships with the Urban League and United Way helped get the word out to potential candidates. And the Texas Workforce Development Board helped them tap into federal and state funds specifically set aside for childcare. Even with the appropriate funds in place, Lovell said she found herself nudging tradition and rigidity. For example, most child-care facilities' normal operating hours simply don't gel with the schedule of a mall employee who is counting the cash drawer until 11 p.m.

"All of these government services are meant to be effective, but they're not necessarily effective in the same way a private business is effective," says Rebecca Leppala, senior workforce planner on the Texas Workforce Development Board. "These business just need workers. They don't need to know about all the funding streams or paperwork that is involved with getting them there. But we are accountable for all costs, so we are learning to mix our cultures a little bit."

The Houston Community College represents yet another private-public partnership founded with MATCH in mind. In September 1998, HCC procured a million-dollar grant from the Department of Labor in order to launch the Institute for Excellence, which educates, trains, and secures jobs for welfare recipients who have no high school degree, no stable work history, previous drug problems, or a criminal record. Last summer, HCC applied for an $800,000 self-sufficiency grant through the Texas Workforce Commission, and this fall, it enrolled 70 additional people into an education and training course design specifically for MATCH participants.

The new 30-hour curriculum spans two weeks and includes three levels taught by certified instructors. The first, job readiness, introduces interviewing skills and resume writing tips. The second, work skills, tackles the importance of a strong work ethic, clear communication, and dedicated team work. The third, direct customer service, teaches the students how to effectively deal with clients and their requests and complaints.

"The trainees are flattered when Katy Mills employers take the time to speak to their class," says Dr. Lee Murdy, account executive of workforce development at HCC. "They tell the participants what is required of them in terms of shift work and uniforms. But, more importantly, the employers show they are interested in hiring these people and, for some, this is the first time they have ever been recruited for anything."

Of course, sometimes, even the best intentions and efforts don't produce the desired results. For example, Auntie Anne's — a pretzel shop in Katy Mills' food court — hired approximately 15 MATCH participants from Mills' recruitments fairs. That number dropped to 12 by the grand opening date of October 28, and now stands at five or six.

"A lot of the MATCH participants have not worked before, and they aren't sure how to get into the work flow as far as following orders and picking up new skills," says Auntie Anne's manager Connie Ladd. "They don't show up for work, they don't want the shifts I assign them, they have health problems, or they just don't want to do the job. I have a few employees who are terrified of the cash register because they are afraid of coming up short."

Ladd says a barrier to even her most dedicated MATCH employees — two of whom are currently training for shift manager positions — is the transportation system established by Mills and the HGAC. At the time of its grand opening, the mall closed at 10 p.m. and the MATCH buses departed at 10:45 sharp, allowing employees only about a half hour to close up shop. "It takes more than 30 minutes to close a food store," Ladd says. "And when half your staff is MATCH, that creates serious problems."

In addition, some participants have complained about shuttles departing from their downtown depot ahead of schedule. For the people who must take pubic transportation to those shuttle depots, a few extra minutes can mean a great deal. It can also cost them a whole day's pay — and perhaps a job.

Late shifts also create problems for employees who depend on childcare that ends at 5 or 6 p.m. "One of my employees does have night-time care, but she has to walk home from the Metro station with her child, and she doesn't live in one of the best neighborhoods around," Ladd says. "She won't work nights because she doesn't want to go through a bad neighborhood with a one year old. And I don't blame her."

Meanwhile, the Mills Corp. and its partners seem well aware of the kinks that need to be worked out of MATCH. A few weeks after Katy Mills' grand opening, the primaries behind the project met to reassess and gauge certain aspects of MATCH. At this time, the mall employs between 160 and 180 former and current recipients of public assistance. Mills hopes to grow that number through the holiday season, and mimic this premiere MATCH program in Nashville, Baltimore, Atlanta, and northern New Jersey. "We are also working with the local school systems to set up retail academies where young people who are at risk of dropping out can go and get a job and complete their G.E.D. work," Dausch says about Mills' other ideas for the future.

"MATCH is a good program. Once they get all the bugs out, it will work fine," Ladd says. "Some participants are just going through the motions, but others are very thankful for the help and they are trying hard. The ones that really want it will improve their situations. They will get off welfare."

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