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Chapter 1: Introduction

This blog post is a DRAFT chapter for a book being published by Origami Works Foundation. We will correct inaccuracies in the final book version. If you identify any inaccuracies, please let us know using this Feedback Form.


Picture, if you will, a company. Call it EvolveEdge. EvolveEdge produces consumer and business equipment that is accompanied by software and a variety of on-site services delivered by skilled technicians. EvolveEdge employs about 250 people in Illinois - about half in Chicago, and half in suburban Cook County. 


Meet Suzanne … And Her Challenges


Now meet Suzanne, EvolveEdge’s new Chief Talent Officer. Suzanne has walked into a web of issues. 


Over its twenty-year history, EvolveEdge has had on-and-off struggles filling various open positions and retaining employees once they are hired. Suzanne has learned that since the 2020 pandemic things have gotten even worse. 


One issue plaguing EvolveEdge concerns their customer service department. Comfortably covering all customer service needs requires employing about forty customer service representatives. But often, at least seven of those positions are open. That is due to a lack of applicants, combined with the fact that after a three-month training and probationary period, many reps stay on the job for only about 9 months. 

Suzanne: Struggling with a variety of talent challenges at EvolveEdge.

Suzanne also has heavy hiring needs for the company’s new Zebra line of business. That’s one area where business is growing fast, but the technical skill set is hard to find in her current talent applicants. 


EvolveEdge also has open positions in its software development ranks. Coders are in so much demand that EvolveEdge has a hard time keeping up with salary raises and over-the-top perks that appear necessary to retain team members.  


Suzanne has the opposite problem in the LlamaDama business line, where business is shrinking. Twenty technicians with an average tenure of seven years have less and less work to do. Suzanne dreads the thought that one of her first acts at EvolveEdge might have to be a round of layoffs. 


In the meantime, Suzanne has grown uncomfortably aware that the EvolveEdge team is not very diverse. Sitting in on some brainstorming sessions that were supposed to produce innovative ideas to solve problems, Suzanne has observed an unusual level of groupthink … and she suspects that lack of innovation is contributing to falling sales revenue in some areas. 


Suzanne is ready to roll up her sleeves and tackle these problems. But she is spending all her time on emergency hiring and issues, and she feels squeezed for time. She wants to ask for more help for her own team, but she knows what the budget is, and there are no funds available for another team member or consultant. 


Meet the Talent 


Suzanne’s city is home to many people who are in search of rewarding work. Here are three of them.  


Jessica


Jessica is a lifelong Chicago resident. As a high schooler, Jessica babysat and worked a few retail jobs. She also spent some summers working for her uncle’s small business, answering the phone and helping customers use the business’s website. Jessica loves helping people, is a quick learner, and has a natural talent for technology. 


However Jessica’s career has not gone well the last few years. Jessica took a few years after high school to focus on her family, including being a caregiver for an ailing parent. Now she is ready to work full time. After her experience in her uncle’s business, she knows she could provide technical support, but when she looks up those jobs online they all require some sort of college degree. 

Jessica: Skilled and experienced, but having trouble securing and keeping a rewarding job. 

She began to apply to customer service roles after that, and was hired. But one job was a 45-minute drive. When Jessica’s vehicle started breaking down on a regular basis, she missed work unexpectedly on several occasions. She was let go before the probationary period ended. 


The next job ended for reasons Jessica didn’t really understand. Her supervisor said she lacked the skills for the job. But wasn’t there supposed to be training? 


At this point, Jessica feels frozen and frustrated and defeated. 


Jamal 


Jamal started college immediately after graduating from Chicago Public Schools with a high GPA. Burned out by a challenging final year of high school, Jamal struggled to get engaged with the core education courses required during freshman year. A variety of financial setbacks and family crises converged with his lack of motivation, so he decided to take a break from school. 

Jamal: Ready to pursue a career path that is in demand, but lacks resources to pay for education. 

Jamal wants and needs to work, so he secures a job at the local pharmacy. A year after taking a break from college, he needs a job that pays better. He is interested in computer programming, and now feels ready to continue his education. However he cannot afford to lose his paycheck, let alone pay tuition. Jamal starts investigating options at the local community college. 


Angel


Angel is currently employed at EvolveEdge as a technician in the LlamaDama business service line. That line has been shrinking for years, not only at EvolveEdge, but at all its competitors. Employees who leave generally are not replaced. Angel would like to stay at EvolveEdge, but he is uncomfortably aware that his job may not last much longer. 

Angel: Worried about being laid off, and not seeing viable ways to prepare for a different role with better prospects.  

Angel has eyed open positions in the Zebra business line. But it’s an entirely different technology and set of skills. The list of required qualifications on the job description is daunting. Angel doesn’t have the time or money to go back to school. 


Angel remains in his current position, waiting for something to happen. 


How To Bridge the Gaps  


So here is Suzanne, who needs talent. And here are Jessica, Jamal, and Angel, who need rewarding work. 


They could meet one another’s needs. But there are barriers keeping them apart. 


The right interventions could overcome these barriers. The workforce development ecosystem can provide solutions, at a cost that is either subsidized or free to employers and jobseekers. 


This book will show you why, when, and how to engage with that ecosystem to address your talent challenges. After that, we'll revisit EvolveEdge in Chapter 9. In the meantime, more about what you are about to read.


About This Book


Cities and regions all over the world engage in workforce development: Intentionally building the skills and opportunities of residents in order to meet the talent needs of local employers and the economy at large. Chicago is no exception. In fact, Chicago and Cook County boast the largest workforce development ecosystem in the United States. Hundreds of millions of dollars are invested every year. 

Workforce development aims to create, sustain and retain a viable, skilled regional workforce that can support current and future business and industry. Champions of workforce development strive to ensure that businesses can fulfill their hiring needs with skilled workers, especially those originating in talent pools that are frequently overlooked, in support of local and regional economies.  

All employers benefit from investments in the regional workforce. But some benefit more than others. We, the authors, repeatedly hear that Chicago area employers aren’t fully aware of all the ways workforce development efforts can support their businesses. Or, employers find directly leveraging workforce programs too challenging: The system is siloed. Employers don’t necessarily know how to get started, or build successful relationships in the space. If challenges arise, they are not prepared to handle them. 


So we started talking to employers who had successfully engaged with the workforce system. From them, we learned that there has been no one place where employers can learn about why, when, and how to successfully leverage the opportunities offered by the region’s workforce development ecosystem. 


We decided to tell some of the compelling stories of how engaging directly with the workforce development ecosystem can solve business problems – while making our community a better place to live. And we are fortunate to tell it with the support of the employers who’ve been there. Many organizations have leveraged the workforce ecosystem to address their talent challenges, and achieved success and satisfaction along the way. And many are willing to share their insights and lessons learned. 


This book will answer the following questions: 


  • What is workforce development? 

  • How does it work in Chicago and Cook County? 

  • When and why should employers engage with the workforce development ecosystem? 

  • What are ways to engage with an organization that can help you meet your goals? 

  • How can you launch and build an expanded talent program with one or more partner organizations? 

  • What challenges may arise, and what are ways to handle them? 

  • How can you grow your program to achieve more? 


We look forward to walking you through this journey. 


Who Should Read This Book? 


Most employers will face talent or skills shortages at one point or another. You should read this book if you are a business or talent leader who needs innovative ways to attract, select, train, and retain employees. Whether or not you have an immediate need, you are bound to have one at some point! 

“Most businesses should get involved with workforce programs at some point, given how often job needs and markets change.” Matt Bruce, Executive Director, Chicagoland Workforce Funder Alliance

The solutions offered in this book won’t solve every talent problem. But there’s a high likelihood you can save time, money, and trouble by using at least one of the solutions offered. Whatever your sector, whatever your size, there’s a good chance the workforce development ecosystem can help you.  


About the Authors


Why us? All three of us care deeply about Chicago and its surrounding suburbs, which is or has been home. And we believe in workforce development as a win-win-win proposition for employers, individuals, and the community at large. Here’s who we are. 


Dani Houchin is the Executive Director and Managing Trustee at Origami Works Foundation, which partners with community-based organizations and other entities to fund and execute projects to bridge gaps between employers seeking talent and individuals seeking rewarding work. Prior to founding Origami Works, Dani spent most of her career in performance consulting, helping organizations produce hundreds of innovative workplace learning programs. 


Tami Hillberry is a Program Officer at Origami Works Foundation. She directs a variety of projects and leads the organization's grantmaking. She has spent her career in a diverse set of roles and sectors, including office management and human resources, and was the proprietor of an online retail business for several years. Tami's unique career path has given her an ability to adapt and innovate, and she now uses that skill to help Origami Works Foundation succeed in its partnerships with Chicago and suburban Cook County workforce organizations.



Ellen Johnson is a senior consultant in workforce development. She advises local and state workforce and economic development ecosystems to support system alignment and integration, equitable workforce policy and program design, and improved workforce development service delivery. Prior to launching her consulting career, Ellen spent 12 years at the Chicago Jobs Council. 

Learn more about Origami Works Foundation. 

A Note On Sources


The content in this book is drawn from these sources: 


  • Our personal experiences with the workforce development ecosystem in Chicago and Cook County 

  • Interviews with employers who have engaged with the ecosystem

  • Interviews with the leaders of organizations that provide business services to employers, or otherwise contribute to workforce development in Cook County 

  • Books, articles, and websites on the topic


Interviewees and their organizations are cited. To avoid cluttering the text, we mostly avoided identifying books, articles, and websites in the chapters. Instead, these sources are listed in Notes and Sources (Chapter 12). 


Ready to get started? Read on.


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