A Bridges Community that adopts the Cincinnati Works model will be able attract new businesses to the community.

Not long ago I visited Cincinnati Works with Scott Miller, Karin Van Zant, and Jason Upthegrove to see how Cincinnati Works works in reducing poverty. How do they place almost 700 people a year in jobs and get an 85% retention rate while government programs have a retention rate of 20–25%? How does Cincinnati Works get those results at a per-person cost of $1,100 while government programs cost around $4,500 per person? And, most importantly, how can the Cincinnati Works model be replicated in Bridges and Circles communities?

Cincinnati Works has been recognized by The Manhattan Institute, the American Marketing Association, and Harvard Business Review as one of the nation’s top social entrepreneurs. Dave and Liane Phillips, the founders of Cincinnati Works, say that Ruby Payne’s work and Bridges constructs were both a revelation and an affirmation of what they had observed and experienced over the years. Bridges constructs have now been included in the Cincinnati Works curriculum and advancement program. Cincinnati Works staff training sessions focus on four areas: developing unique member resources, understanding the hidden rules of poverty, teaching the hidden rules of other classes, and offering an employment support specialist as a role model/mentor.

Cincinnati Works is the embodiment of a paradigm shift with which Bridges Communities are familiar—our mental model of people in poverty as problem solvers. People in poverty are, in Dave’s words, “able.” When he drives through the city and sees people on the street, he doesn’t think “lazy.” He thinks of potential: the talent, creativity, determination, and tenacity of the people who come to Cincinnati Works looking for work. He knows how hard they have to work to overcome the barriers they face to get and keep jobs.

But Dave goes beyond that. He sees the employment of the chronically unemployed and working poor as the biggest potential workforce shift since women joined the workforce in World War II. Dave’s point is that the pool of employees we need is already here; we should be going to that pool to fill the many unfilled entry-level positions we have. His frustration is that, so far, Cincinnati Works has only been able to fill 700 jobs a year when there are 5,000–6,000 jobs going unfilled in Cincinnati.

So, how does Cincinnati Works achieve an 85% retention rate? It starts with respect for the member. People who come to Cincinnati Works become lifelong members, like in a fraternity or sorority. Becoming a member of Cincinnati Works is always voluntary, always by attraction. The feeling of respect can be felt in the air of their offices and can be seen in the eyes and actions of the staff. Cincinnati Works earns the respect of the members and thereby establishes a strong foundation of mutual respect.

Bridges Communities and Circles sites are committed to supporting people as they transition. Cincinnati Works is the most direct, intentional, and organized approach to barrier removal that I’ve seen. The point of barrier removal is to help the employee stay on the job, so every barrier has to be addressed immediately. Here are a couple of examples: Cincinnati Works data shows that 60% of the members are depressed or anxious. (There is a direct correlation between poverty and depression.) That barrier isn’t removed by making a referral to an agency with a two-month waiting list. At Cincinnati Works the help is offered today by a full-time mental health expert. When the barrier to a higher paying job is ninth-grade math proficiency, the answer isn’t to enroll in a community college degree program; the answer is to have the community college prepare the person to pass the ninth-grade math test. If a member has a legal problem, the response is immediate: Cincinnati Works has an attorney on staff and a relationship with the local Legal Aid Society to take care of the legal needs of members quickly.

Cincinnati Works’ goal is to help people move to a self-sufficient wage. More than one hundred people have entered the advancement program annually, and they typically achieve a wage that puts them at 200% of the poverty guideline in five or six years. Like the Circles campaign and Bridges Communities, Cincinnati Works seeks to build social capital, stabilize the environment, and build resources.

In essence, Cincinnati Works offers the business sector a recruiting, training, and workforce development program and a full employee assistance program for new employees. It has a group of more than 60 “core employers” who hire multiple Cincinnati Works members. The employers agree to provide constant feedback to Cincinnati Works to assist them in helping members keep their jobs. The relationship with Cincinnati Works is not fee-based. A business can be a donor, but it cannot dictate any aspect of Cincinnati Works programming. For the same reason, Cincinnati Works does not accept any federal or state money.

The funding base for Cincinnati Works is from the private sector. While this will require fund-raising efforts at the local level, there are positives to keep in mind: The private sector will be attracted to this proven model, and it will bring new people to the Bridges Steering Committee. At the 30,000-foot level, Scott Miller from the Circles Campaign and Move the Mountain will be working with Dave Phillips to approach big, private funders.

The Cincinnati Works model offers the obvious: employment for Getting Ahead graduates and Circle Leaders and improved retention rates for employers. The Bridges Community model that includes all the features described in the paper “How to Develop a Bridges Community” (including the Cincinnati Works model), gives your local economic development office something to talk about. And it gives businesses that pay fair wages a reason to come to your city. This is a way to move toward creating a sustainable community.

Bridges Communities and Circle initiatives will find Dave and Liane Phillips willing partners in developing a pilot site; they are very interested in helping communities replicate the model. They are also interested in model fidelity, but they aren’t interested in franchising the concept. They know that the model has to be homegrown. Bridges Communities that are interested should begin by doing an analysis of their communities with technical assistance from Cincinnati Works to see if the conditions are favorable. Cincinnati Works does charge an hourly rate for consulting to offset the costs of the effort.

To follow up, go to www.cincinnatiworks.org. You can also stay connected to other Bridges Communities moving toward workforce development strategies that share our paradigm by checking in regularly at www.ahaprocess.com.

-Phil DeVol