Cascade Alliance

Embracing Working Goals in California

Art Taylor and Jason Prasad at the DR3 Woodland mattress recycling plant in Woodland, California . (Photo by Chris Pietsch)

We were pleased to see the James Irvine Foundation’s recent announcement of a new funding focus in California. Announced in December, it recognizes the distance between quality family wage jobs and low-income workers. The foundation announced two initiatives designed to reduce the barriers for those who want to work and are working, but lack the opportunity to move up to jobs with better wages, while also recognizing the need to support workers in low-wage jobs, who often have no voice at the policy table.

The St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County, which operates three recycling projects in California, has been working in this arena for many years, hiring people who have been long-term unemployed for a variety of reasons – homelessness, recent incarceration, drug or alcohol addiction – and getting them settled in entry-level work that allows them to build both the soft skills and hard skills needed to advance. But we don’t stop there. We also create opportunities for these employees to move up in our organization because of our preference for hiring from within. We have found over the years that looking for the right person who can be trained has much better long-term results for us than hiring from outside the organization with a goal of finding someone who already has the management skill set we seek.

We have four strategies for bringing along entry level workers so that we can promote them:

Start where they are: Low-wage and unemployed workers are often living in one of California’s 30 rural counties. Uprooting them to go work in major urban areas is often counterproductive, and fails provide an overall economic development benefit to the rural communities lacking jobs. That’s one of the reasons we located our second recycling facility in Woodland California, back in 2015. We knew the largely agricultural area could benefit from another type of job opportunity. Today our facility employs 25 people working in wages that are above minimum wage and with access to company-provided health benefits.

Get them on that first rung of the ladder: In vulnerable populations, work history is one of the most important things to getting on the ladder. For those who have been unemployed for some period of time, just getting that new line on the work-history portion of their resume is a big step. At the same time, making it clear that there are more steps on that ladder within the organization – a line worker can become a forklift driver, can learn to repair the heavy equipment, can move into data entry, can be supported while he trains to get a commercial driver’s license, can be an assistant facilities manager. We are vertically integrated within our organization and our newest employees can see because our managers share their personal stories of growth showing that there is an upward trajectory for them. That picture that leads this post? That’s our site manager Jason Prasad. He started as a line worker in 2015. Today he overseas all of our California operations.

Maintaining a culture of the common good: In some work environments, the culture is exploitive but we have found that our business thrives when our staff thrives. When the line worker sees the executive director working on the materials sorting line, and the stores director cleaning the bathroom, and the operations manager helping unload the truck, it shares a message that all the work matters. Because we use the profits that our social enterprises generate to support the most vulnerable in our community with a variety of social services – shelters for those who are homeless, food pantries, affordable housing, financial services training to name a few – our employees know that their efforts contribute to the community.

Collaboration: Our social enterprises are successful because we collaborate with others. We work in the waste-diversion and materials management streams and to be effective, we need to partner with private industry; city, county and state officials; policy-makers and advocates; funders and other nonprofits. Sometimes these collaborations come in the form of formal contracts that allow us to create jobs or hire clients of another agency. Sometimes they are informal networks that help us and others stay abreast of opportunities and challenges in the market place.

We applaud the James Irvine Foundation for focusing on better careers and fair work in California, and look forward to their success in growing a diversified pool of talented workers and developing the partnerships that improve advancement opportunities for workers. As we prepare to expand our operations into Fresno, we’ll be intrigued to see how that location, a pilot priority region for the Irvine Foundation, develops.


-Terry McDonald, Executive Director of St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County, Inc.