As the country begins to move towards pandemic recovery, employers are struggling to find willing workers.
There's plenty of debate over why people aren't returning to the workforce—changing values around work, people starting their own businesses, and unemployment assistance paying more than available jobs are common arguments.
Regardless the reasons, many people who do want to return to the workforce are reaping the benefits of a high demand for workers and low supply.
is a faith-based nonprofit that provides job and life skills training and job placements for South Memphis residents in the 38126 and 38106 ZIP codes who are unemployed or underemployed. Graduates of their Work Life course are then employed through their Advance Memphis Staffing agency, which provides temporary workers to over 20 local partner companies.
Kelsey Dees, Advance Memphis' director of programs and community engagement, said the organization employs 30 to 40 workers at any given time and most are full time. Each person is different, but in general, the goal is to move their graduates from temporary positions to permanent placements with the partner company after three months.
This year, their partner companies are being offered higher pay than ever before and more of their graduates are moving faster into permanent job offers with benefits.
"Prior to COVID, I would say the average job for entry level was $10 to $12 an hour," said Juanita Johnson, Advance Memphis' director of employment development. "2021 is totally different. Our average jobs now started at $13 to $15 an hour for entry level workers on first shift. We have jobs that pay $18 to $19 on second shift. And this is, this is just entry level type work."
Clarence Hamilton graduated the Work Life program in February.
"As soon as I graduated, I had a job waiting for me the very next Monday," he said. "I'm still at that job, and I'm a lead person now. I'm really, really succeeding because of the skills that I learned and am applying at my worksite."
At the beginning of class, Hamilton was starting over. He was living with family members and sleeping on the couch. But in his first 90 days of employment, he earned a $3 raise, completed forklift certification, and got his own apartment. Now, he says he has another company trying to recruit him his current company has made it clear they want him to stay. In the meantime, he volunteers for overtime whenever he can.
Johnson said that Advance Memphis will help their clients with whatever goals they have, including going to college or trade school, but most of their clients just want to get to work.
As for the types jobs offered by their employment partners, most are warehouse and other blue-collar jobs. When asked how she'd respond to someone who said blue collar work shouldn't be their goal if they want to improve their lives, Dees recalled her own blue-collar roots. Her father is a retired sanitation worker and her mother is a waitress.
"He did get some people who would question maybe importance or level of dignity of his job, because he worked in sanitation," Dees said of her father. "But as his daughter, I can say that his work was extremely valuable. There was dignity in it, and he provided for our family, and helped provide for a college education for my sister and I, and that's probably what he would say he's most proud of."
"We can't continue to place a higher value on college or the trades or people who go to work immediately out of high school," she continue. "We need to first understand and acknowledge the dignity of work as a whole. I believe how God created us, each with unique skills and strengths. I believe there's inherent dignity in all of these jobs."
Clarence Hamilton poses outside of the Advance Memphis office at 769 Vance Avenue. He is a graduate of the organization's Work Life program, is currently enrolled in their Faith and Finance program, and is employed through the Advance Memphis Staffing agency. (Sarah Rushakoff)
From Classroom to Workplace and Beyond
Advance Memphis' Work Life course teaches mostly soft skills that can be applied across professions, like conflict resolution, resume writing, workplace communications, and interview skills. There's a focus too on mental health with topics like healthy coping mechanisms and processing trauma.
"One of the lessons is identifying traumas in our life and how sometimes, if we don't process some of that trauma and cultivate healthy coping mechanisms, then that can hold us back in the workplace," said Dees. "There's science behind that, and how our brains are rewired to process differently when we've experienced trauma.
The organization also offers classes on personal fiances and entrepreneurship, as well as a forklift safety certification that can earn their graduates a bump in starting pay or make them more competitive in their job hunt.
Underlying all their work is faith and prayer.
"We start from a foundation of [belief] that we're all created with unique skills and strengths, and that work is good—that we were created to work and contribute to our communities and families and that there's dignity in going to work," said Dees.
Hamilton is currently enrolled in the Faith and Finance course, where he's learning about planning and budgeting for longer-term goals.
"In five years, I see me owning my own house and driving my own car and just being my own independent person. I see it happening before five years. It seems like it's gonna happen really soon," he said.
Roberto Smith also graduated the job training program and Faith and Fiance course. For Smith, like many of Advance Memphis' clients, his biggest barrier to employment was a felony record and no job history.
"They offered me a chance," he said of Advance Memphis. "When you go try to put in an application and tell them or mark on your application that you are convicted felon, a lot of people tend to look sideways towards you. But they gave didn't mind that. They gave me a shot as long as I was willing to do what I had to do."
Smith said Advance Memphis was willing to move him through temp placements to find a job that worked best for him; they didn't just stick him somewhere because they needed a body.
"They kept me busy," he said. "Before my employment, I was really involved in the streets because I had too much time. They gave me a peace of mind because now, the majority of my day is going to productive work."
He also said they restored the faith he'd lost during his incarceration. Smith said that, aside from his faith, the thing that stuck with him most from the work readiness course was professional communication and code switching.
"Sometimes you have to understand you have to switch to being a little more professional. You had to be a little more professional. They taught me how to be able to distinguish the difference," he said.
Smith said he hopes that Advance Memphis expands outside of South Memphis because people in other parts of the city, particularly North Memphis, need the opportunities Advance provides.
"I'm from South Memphis. I was born and raised mostly in South Memphis, and I know a lot of people in South Memphis. I do believe it's very much needed in South Memphis," he said. "But at the same time, I have stayed in North Memphis, and I know a lot of people from out that way. They don't have a problem, that I know of, out that way that helps people like Advance Memphis helps people in South Memphis."
Clarence Hamilton displays his diploma at his Advance Memphis Work Life class graduation. L to R: Advance Memphis Educational Development Manager Bryce Stout, Hamilton, Hamilton's nephew, and Johnathan Adam, former program manager. (Advanced Memphis)
The Employer's Dilemma
As an employer, Advance Memphis is feeling the same pressures of the labor shortage as other companies.
Advance Memphis Staffing operates two warehouses that hold fulfillment contracts with some of their employment partners and sends people to work on-site with other companies. One warehouse is located on Suzette Street in the South City area of South Memphis, near the organization's headquarters, and the other is on South Bellevue near Elmwood Cemetery.
Dees said that in 2020, about 60% of the organization's revenue was generated through its staffing and outsourcing services. Dees lists this as a positive, but it also means that they need most of their graduates to go to work post-class or they can't meet their partners' expectations or generate needed revenue.
Still, Johnson said their first responsibility is to the well-being and success of their graduates, and they understand the complexities of their employees' decisions better than most.
Yes, some people just don't want to work, but most are facing hulking roadblocks including a lack of transportation or childcare, homelessness, trauma, domestic violence, or health conditions that make it dangerous to work in the pandemic.
In some cases, families would lose government assistance and make less money if they work full time. Johnson said it's not a matter of not wanting to work; it's about doing what's best for one's family.
"Not all of our folk are just lazy and shiftless and don't want to work. There are so many struggles," said Johnson.
Johnson there are also frequent issues with a lack of trust and hope.
"When you've been beaten down all your life and every turn is a brick wall, you just feel hopeless. I think is is just hopelessness. One of our goals here that's an unwritten and most of the time unspoken goal is to give some hope to people when they feel like this—everybody is against them, there's no way out," she said. "I think [hopelessness] one of the barriers that a lot of our people deal with day to day."