Business

On the Hot Seat

Job-specific training gives unemployed a leg up

Loh-Sze Leung, director, SkillWorks
Kayana Szymczak for the Globe
Loh-Sze Leung, director, SkillWorks

Many companies have job openings and lots of people are looking for work. But too often their education and skills don’t match the jobs. Changing that is the mission of SkillWorks, a 10-year-old nonprofit that aligns low-skill workers with the training they need. The agency has helped nearly 5,000 people in Massachusetts get retraining, and its “pipeline” model, which connects employers, nonprofits, and workers, has become a national model used in a dozen other states. Executive director Loh-Sze Leung talked with reporter Megan Woolhouse about the need for the program and why it works.

How much of your funding comes from philanthropic groups versus private employers?

In terms of the money we raise, which is over $24 million at this point, 25 to 30 percent comes from public sources, the largest portion from the City of Boston — about $5.5 million. The other $18.5 million comes from philanthropic sources. The largest [source] has been The Boston Foundation and the second-largest, the State Street Foundation, the philanthropic institution affiliated with State Street Corp.

Does State Street benefit from the worker retraining?

There shouldn’t be any direct benefit to themselves. If you’re asking why do they invest in workforce development and why is it a priority for them, I would say it’s part of their larger business plan — how do we build up the community in which we do business to have people both ready to work and wanting to work.

Why do employers need help finding people to train for jobs, particularly when unemployment remains high?

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Employers should have their pick of job candidates, with so many people submitting resumes. But it’s actually like finding a needle in a haystack right now. [Employers have] put into place these online application processes to sort through hundreds of thousands of resumes trying to get the right person in the door. But actually sorting through all those options makes it more difficult to find the right person.

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This model we’ve developed and are evangelizing [says] instead of drinking from the fire hose of resumes, we’re looking at how you build a supply chain of talent.

Historically, haven’t employers been responsible for training workers?

There has been a change in how employers view employees. It’s a logical business decision for the employer to say if [workers are] only going to be here a couple years, or “I need to hire for a short term project, why should it be my problem to invest?” That might be a right decision for an individual employer.

How many employers are you working with right now?

About 70. A lot are in the hospitality sector because of our partnership with Best Corp., the nonprofit training arm of Local 26, the hotel union.

The number of people in the United States who have been unemployed for six months or longer remains at an all-time high. Couldn’t employers tap into a field of qualified but unemployed candidates?

For employers, the bias can be, “Well, this person has been out of work for a while. I don’t know why they’ve been out of work and if I had to choose, I’d rather have someone who’s working right now because their value is kind of proven in the labor market.”

Do you view the gap between employers and job seekers as a problem related to a lack of jobs? Or is our educational system not preparing students for the right types of work?

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It’s some combination. We need to get better information to consumers about where the jobs are, which fields are growing, and how they can prepare themselves for those jobs. There’s definitely an argument to be made that there’s not enough jobs out there. We also have to fill the jobs we have and get people to the place where they’re ready for employment.

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at mwoolhouse@globe.com.