Columbus Works follows its job placement clients for months after they get jobs to offer support and ensure all is going well.

Even in times of “full employment” like these, more than a third of able-bodied adults are jobless. For one reason or another, they’ve given up working or even looking for work, and they’re no longer counted in government statistics.

Those are the people Columbus Works wants to lift back into the job market for good. The 4-year-old nonprofit agency does more than land jobs for chronically unemployed residents of Central Ohio. It works to keep them in jobs—and out of poverty—through long-term connections with employment coaches, life coaches, legal assistance, financial counseling and other help.

“We work with people who not only are economically in poverty, but they’re impoverished of hope,” says founder and CEO Beth Gifford. “We don’t care why someone’s in poverty. We just say if you come to us voluntarily and you want to change your life, we will journey with you.”

It’s a five- to seven-year process, so even the first cohort of Columbus Works participants who started in late 2016 is still part of the program. But so far, so good: More than two-thirds of clients who’ve signed up for the free services are still using them, and more than eight in 10 people who’ve gotten jobs through Columbus Works are still employed.

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Gifford says 538 Columbus Works clients have earned about $5 million, and she has calculated a “payback” of $1.5 million through the taxes they and their employers have paid and the government assistance they no longer need. In 2019, she says, more than half the agency’s clients earned twice the federal poverty level of about $12,000 for a single individual.

Central Ohio must re-engage its residents who’ve checked out of the workforce not just for their benefit but for its own as well, says Gifford, a former HR executive, whose experience includes carrying out corporate decisions about which communities got jobs and which communities lost them. “I traveled with consultants looking for sites to close and move to for no other reason than the local labor market. It wasn’t tax abatements. It wasn’t space. It wasn’t local laws. It was the labor market, available talent,” she says. 

“If companies cannot hire, they will stop coming and they will leave.”

New Columbus Works clients spend their first five days in job-readiness classrooms—they’re in Franklinton, on the South Side, in Weinland Park and in South Linden—getting help with their resumes and interviewing skills. Participants must take drug tests and are referred to treatment if they need it. The program offers help with daycare, transportation and other needs. Coaches help people find jobs and guide them as they work in them.

Eighty employers have hired people through Columbus Works. All must offer health benefits that meet standards set by the Affordable Care Act. The organization’s own benchmarks include income levels that move clients off food stamps, Medicaid and other government assistance.

Rebecca Pyfrom had been out of work for three years with medical problems when she entered the Columbus Works classroom in October 2018. “I had just given up on finding a job,” she says, “and I had pretty much given up on myself as well.”

Within two weeks she had to choose between two offers and took a job with a JCPenney call center on the East Side. In March, she’ll start a new job as a driver with Greyhound. She’s off Medicaid and food stamps and recently bought her own car for the first time in four years. She has shared all the good news with the Columbus Works coach who has been with her since the beginning.

“They gave me my self-esteem back,” Pyfrom says.

Gifford calls the Columbus Works method “high-touch,” involving 100 hours of training and coaching during the first year of participation. It’s expensive, too, she acknowledges. It costs an average of $2,400 per year per client, and the money comes from donors such as the United Way of Central Ohio, the Columbus Foundation and other donors. The program also receives a small grant from Franklin County. But the community gets back $5,500 per employed person, she says.

“Our philosophy is everybody has hope. Everybody has potential. Everybody has a future,” Gifford says. “They just might need somebody to ... help them realize that. That’s what we do.”

Bob Vitale is a freelance writer for Columbus CEO.