Hard Lives, Low Pay, Big Stakes

Dean Curtis teaches welfare recipients how to enter the world of work. But his lessons apply to every rung of the job ladder.


It’s an article of faith in the new world of work: The best companies are those that hire and keep the best people. That principle doesn’t apply only to Java engineers or to marketing executives. Companies battle for entry-level workers too: people who don’t make all that much money but who make a big difference in a company’s relationship with its customers.


Dean Curtis, 46, knows what makes entry-level workers tick. His 500-person firm, Curtis & Associates Inc., based in Kearney, Nebraska, trains welfare recipients in how to find and keep jobs. Its main program is a class, typically taught over the course of a week, that deals with everything from mastering the nuts and bolts of workplace interaction to developing and refining career goals. Founded in 1985, the company has worked with poor people from Milwaukee to New York City, from Detroit to Laramie, Wyoming. In 1998, it assisted more than 20,000 welfare recipients and found jobs for more than 11,000 of them.

How does the battle for talent unfold on the lower rungs of the career ladder? Not all that differently from how it unfolds at the top, says Curtis. If you want to find and keep great people — whether they’re making $10 an hour or $200,000 a year — you’ve got to reckon with three key issues.

Work Is Personal

At their first class, participants play an icebreaker game. “Take as many M&Ms as you want,” the instructor begins. After students have grabbed handfuls of candy, the teacher drops the other shoe: “For each M&M you took, tell the class something about yourself.”

The exercise underscores the principle that everyone has to become committed and involved. “When people enter our classes, we shake hands with them immediately,” Curtis says. “We also memorize their names. It is that kind of attention that makes new employees feel wanted — perhaps for the first time in their professional lives.”

One big reason for high turnover among entry-level employees, Curtis argues, is that supervisors don’t know their workers. So they’re unable to make a case for staying when someone learns about a higher-paying job, or to help solve simple problems that conspire against reliable performance. “If you make it known that you expect people to stick around for a while, you can have a big effect,” he says.


Back to Basics

The more things change in business, the more important the fundamentals become. But to people who have never held a real job, even the basics of work can seem alien. What kinds of things can I say to my boss? What can I wear to work? The ability to answer such questions involves what Curtis calls “alarm-clock” skills — the skills that get people to their jobs and keep them there.

“In one class,” says Curtis, “we ask folks to develop their own employee handbook. We tell them, ‘Develop rules that will enable the staff to get along better.’ Then we give everyone a red flag. For the rest of the week, students raise their flags whenever anyone breaks the rules.”

It’s Who You Know That Counts

Early on, trainers at Curtis & Associates noticed an unsettling dynamic among their students. During the first break on the first day of class, participants would gather to smoke or to chat in the corridor, while the teacher stayed behind to organize the next session. When the class resumed, students would come back in a darker mood. In those minutes of break time, a “negative network” had evolved: A few hypercritical students, playing on the nervousness of the others, had undermined the program’s spirit.

Whenever people enter a new environment, says Curtis, “they will gravitate toward somebody. They’ll look for answers. If they make their way into the wrong network, the social dynamic can reverse everything that a teacher or a leader is trying to accomplish.” That’s why it’s important for each new hire to have a formal mentor: “At the job-entry meeting, you say, ‘This is Greg. He can answer any questions.’ Or, better, assign Greg to look after five new employees, and base his success on their retention. Then reward Greg if they stay for a certain length of time.”

Call Curtis & Associates (800-658-4399) or visit the Web (


Sidebar: Work Rules

Jeanie Wood, 40, works as a trainer and supervisor at Curtis & Associates. She is based in Norfolk, Nebraska, a rural community about 125 miles outside of Omaha. For nine years, she has operated in the trenches of the battle for talent — training welfare recipients and placing them in jobs. In an interview with Fast Company, she described how she does it.

What’s the first thing that happens in your class?

We start by building a rapport with participants. They come through the door, and we get up and shake their hand, look them in the eye, and address them by name. That tells folks that they’re no longer just a number. Here, they’re people.

What’s the most important thing that you can teach someone who’s on welfare?

Responsibility. Ownership. Urgency: the sense that they need to act now. People think that they don’t have to prepare to get a job until they hear about an opening. We have to persuade them to get ready before that happens.


Does anything still surprise you?

I’m always surprised by the number of people who fear success. I used to think that the problem was a fear of failure. But we see participants who, after landing their dream job, start to sabotage themselves. Then, when they lose the job, they say, “See? I couldn’t have done that anyway.”

Why do they do this? Because a lot of them have never had role models for success or positive influences in their lives. They just keep waiting for the ax to fall.