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Pam Tully of Skills for Chicagoland's Future: Where Potential Meets Opportunity



Pam Tully

President & COO 

Skills for Chicagoland’s Future


Pam Tully, steering Skills for Chicagoland's Future as its President and COO, passionately channels her extensive leadership experience into unveiling the untapped potential within Chicago's underserved communities. Under her guidance, the organization transcends traditional employment barriers, focusing on the inherent possibilities each individual brings. Tully's vision propels a unique approach to workforce development, prioritizing potential and skill over conventional criteria. Her leadership cultivates strong partnerships with employers, while she advocates for candidates to rise above entry-level positions. This effort nurtures growth and opens opportunities in sectors eager for genuine talent.


What is your role at Skills for Chicagoland’s Future?


I joined Skills for Chicagoland’s future in December of 2021 as Chief Program Officer and was named President and COO in the fall of 2023. Our mission is to bridge the gap between job seekers, especially those from Chicago's south and west sides and employers. We prioritize an individual's skills, experience, and potential over traditional criteria and align with employers to ensure candidates are well-matched. Our aim is to elevate people into careers that offer growth opportunities, not just entry-level roles.


Tell me about your career progression.


My career started in the for-profit world. After earning a business operations degree and an MBA, I led manufacturing and engineering teams. After dedicating 15 years to Fortune 500 companies, I shifted gears following the birth of my children, focusing on family and volunteering, which included a role on the United Way Board. This led to a pivot to the nonprofit sector, culminating in my current role at Skills for Chicagoland's Future, where my business acumen meets my commitment to social impact.

Here, we unite around a powerful vision: to level the playing field for job access by acting like a real-world LinkedIn.

Who have been your primary mentors in progressing your career?


My career has been shared by a few key mentors—one man and one woman. They both had traits of calmness, integrity, and a strong belief in giving people the chance to grow. Following them through various job changes taught me the importance of having open conversations about both my strengths and the challenges I faced. But honestly, the biggest impact came from my dad. His experiences, shared across our dinner table, deeply influenced my understanding of corporate and nonprofit worlds, highlighting the importance of networking and personal development.


What do you feel have been your keys to success?


My success boils down to being self-aware, listening actively, trusting others, and effective communication. I acknowledge that it's okay not to have all the answers and focus instead on understanding and supporting others’ perspectives towards our common goals. I recognize that everyone has their unique approach to solving problems, and so I trust in my team's capabilities. Getting to know them on a personal level to understand their motivations helps align their goals with the organization's objectives.


Tell me what it’s like to work at Skills. What makes it special or unique?


Working at Skills is genuinely unique and energizing. My kids often notice my enthusiasm for the job and my colleagues. Here, we unite around a powerful vision: to level the playing field for job access by acting like a real-world LinkedIn. We create opportunities for those often overlooked, supported by a dynamic culture and fresh perspectives from our CEO, Bridget. We embrace change positively and have become a "Skills Squad," engaged and valued in making a real impact. 



What types of talent pools do you work with? How long do you provide support for participants once they are placed? 


We serve a broad range of job seekers in the Chicagoland area, especially focusing on the individuals who are unemployed or underemployed. Some are veterans, or individuals with disabilities, and we primarily recruit from the south and west sides. Many of our candidates hold a high school diploma or GED. Our approach is to connect these individuals with employers, focusing on fine-tuning resumes and interview skills to meet the specific needs of potential employers. While we collaborate with organizations for workforce development, we specialize in providing employer-specific guidance for the “last mile” of job placement.


What significant challenges is Skills facing at the moment and how do these relate to your goals for the next couple of years?


Our challenge at Skills is persuading employers to revise their hiring practices to recognize the breadth of talent in underrepresented communities. We strive to move them beyond traditional disqualification tactics to embrace inclusivity and accelerate their recruitment processes. We collaborate to refine these practices and highlight each candidate's potential; this makes hiring more effective. A significant hurdle is enabling employers to provide clear career advancement paths, as unclear growth opportunities often lead to higher turnover. Our mission for the next couple of years includes helping companies showcase career and benefit opportunities to make employees feel valued and envision a long-term future with them. This process involves ongoing dialogue and feedback from both candidates and employers to address workforce needs comprehensively.


How do your employer surveys generate valuable insights? Can you provide examples of questions you ask and the results you typically uncover?


In our employer surveys, we get to the heart of how they view our candidates, questioning the quality and interview readiness, from soft skills to timeliness. We're curious why they partner with us, and it's often our unique talent pool access that stands out.  We also explore if they find us proactive and if they'd recommend us. Our consistently high Net Promoter Scores confirm the value we bring, not just in filling roles but in fostering lasting employment, reflecting the positive impact of our work. Beyond using survey tools, our team has regular check-ins with our hiring partners to ensure we're aligned and allow us to address challenges directly to help get job seekers matched with the best job faster.


What types of employers do you partner with, and how do you initiate these relationships?


We partner with employers across a range of industries, from retail to healthcare and banking to manufacturing, focusing on shared values over industry or size. Our goal is to match these companies with untapped talent, while encouraging them to adapt their hiring to be more inclusive. Employers connect with us through our website, referrals, or events, and our proactive business development team seeks out those ready to embrace change. Essentially, it's about creating a network of value-aligned organizations committed to making a difference.

Our most successful employer partners share several key traits and practices that stand out: strong leadership commitment that goes beyond mere formalities and fostering ongoing dialogue throughout the organization.

What are some common challenges employers come to you with?

 

Employers often approach us with a critical challenge: filling specific roles with quality talent. They're looking for more than just filling seats; they want to connect with genuinely skilled individuals. A significant hurdle we tackle together is navigating their internal processes, especially the automatic disqualifications from their Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS). These systems are designed to narrow down the pool of applicants picking out only those who are qualified on paper. Candidates applying through us get a chance to be considered more holistically, bypassing some of the rigid filters of an ATS. 


What does the initial meeting and partnership process look like for employers, and what timeline can they expect?


The initial meeting with employers, led by our business development and employer engagement teams, involves a discussion about their hiring needs. We clarify job requirements, important skills, and the hiring timeline. This step ensures we fully understand their expectations. Following this, we fine-tune job descriptions and often enter a pilot phase, lasting 90 days to six months, to refine our approach. Our talent acquisition team then collaborates with employers to vet candidates, emphasizing their transferable skills. This process, aimed at matching the right fit for both the job and company culture, establishes a meaningful partnership.


What are some common traits or practices shared among your most successful employer partners?

 

Our most successful employer partners share several key traits and practices that stand out: strong leadership commitment that goes beyond mere formalities and fostering ongoing dialogue throughout the organization. They're open to revealing their processes and using data with us to pinpoint and tackle improvement areas. Open communication and multiple contacts within these companies ensure lasting relationships. Companies also formally commit to hiring candidates recruited by Skills which allows for precise planning and progress tracking. This mix of engaged leadership, transparency, and mutual goals underpins our strongest partnerships.


Does engaging with Skills incur a cost for the employer? If so, how is this structured?


Our hiring partners see the benefit of our work to their business, so yes, a partnership with Skills involves a tailored contribution model. Our approach considers three main factors: the industry, the job type, and the complexity of filling the position. We request a contribution from employers to support the hiring work they want us to undertake. This is not a per-placement fee, so it doesn't cover our costs in full, it complements the support we receive from philanthropic and foundation sources and allows us to continue our work. We don't charge employers for the initial pilot as we're focused on establishing a successful partnership. After proving our value, we talk contributions and ultimately aim for a win-win relationship.


What are some kinds of employer partners you’d like to connect with in the future but haven’t yet?


We dream of teaming up with local employers to drive change by relocating jobs to Chicago's underserved south and west sides. Imagine the impact if every big city employer opened just a small branch or offered roles in these areas—it could transform communities. Banking presents a vast, untapped opportunity for growth, unlike the well-served tech sector. We want to encourage shared spaces for back-office functions, which can foster employer creativity and collaboration. We want to spark initiatives that deliver real benefits to these neighborhoods.

Employers who hire entry-level talent from Chicago's historically disinvested communities deserve recognition and support.

Do you ever collaborate with other workforce service providers?


Certainly, collaboration is at the heart of what we do. We've forged key partnerships in Chicago, co-locating with PODER in Gage Park, joining forces with the North Lawndale Employment Network, and aligning with Greater Englewood Community Development Corporation and we have formal and informal partnerships with dozens more. These partnerships expand our reach and enrich the communities we work in. We're woven into a larger fabric of allies, pooling our strengths and continuously sharing insights to improve our collective impact. Working hand-in-hand with groups like Cara and the Corporate Coalition, we blur traditional boundaries, united by a shared goal to effect real change.


What, if anything, do you think should be done to support employers who hire entry-level talent from Chicago’s most challenged neighborhoods?


Employers who hire entry-level talent from Chicago's historically disinvested communities deserve recognition and support. Celebrating their efforts publicly can inspire more companies to follow suit. It's important to showcase these pioneers and highlight their successes and the positive impact they've made.


Additionally, encouraging them to share their experiences and strategies at roundtables can provide valuable insights to other employers. This exchange of knowledge not only motivates more organizations to take similar steps but also helps them understand the tangible benefits of such initiatives. It's about giving credit where it's due and using their stories to pave the way for broader change.


What impacts – positive or negative – has the pandemic had on your work?


The pandemic pushed us toward innovative solutions, like setting up local co-locations instead of relying on downtown visits. This shift dramatically improved our service accessibility and relevance, allowing us to directly address community needs. We also launched resource days in neighborhoods like Englewood, broadening our support to include not just job assistance but also essential services like housing, food, and childcare through partnerships with local organizations. This adaptation not only deepened our mission but also underscored our commitment to impactful community support, despite the challenges of the pandemic.


If an employer reading this walks away with just one thing, what do you hope it will be?


I hope employers realize there's a wealth of talent that is ready to contribute significantly right under their noses. Organizations like ours strive to connect these individuals with deserving opportunities. Every year, we manage to place 1200 to 1500 applicants. This statistic alone highlights the untapped potential that exists. This should signal to employers the dual benefit of such partnerships: meeting their needs and positively impacting the city. The message is clear: there's immense talent awaiting discovery and support. We're committed to facilitating these connections and showcasing the substantial, often overlooked value these candidates bring.

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