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Career Wardrobe: A Makeover From The Inside Out

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It is an unfortunate truth of modern America: your odds of being successful in life are largely determined by your socioeconomic standing. Factors like race, sex, how and where you grew up, your education, etc. are reliable indicators of how likely people are to achieve, specifically, financial security—a good job. There are of course many outliers who defy the trend—but on the whole it is sadly accurate and utterly predictable.

Career Wardrobe is a work development nonprofit for women in Philadelphia attempting to remedy this—helping people with poor socioeconomic standing defeat the odds and achieve success.

80% of Career Wardrobe’s 5,000 yearly clients are unmarried African American women, mostly in their twenties; 90% are raising at least one child under the age of ten. Career Wardrobe (CW) provides career development support for underserved women, the majority of them unemployed and living on public assistance. CW strives to provide each client with the resources she needs to succeed on her own—a nice suit and makeover, or a resume revamp, or professional communication skills. But you have to wonder how CW’s typical client ended up here in the first place. Why do the numbers predict that she is destined for economic struggle?

She lives in a struggling economy
The U.S. lost over eight million jobs during the Recession of 2007-2009. In its slow and shaky recovery, the U.S. has only regained about half of those jobs. Though joblessness still plagues the country, unemployment in Philadelphia
stands at a staggering 9.5% as of December 2013—over 40% higher than the national rate Among comparable cities, only bankrupt Detroit fares worse. CW has seen a 90% increase in demand for its services since the recession began. It’s worth noting that Philly lags behind in other economic metrics, too. The city’s median income and povery rate outrank similar cities.

She is a minimally qualified worker in a highly competitive job market
Philly actually lost mid and high-wage jobs during the recovery. The labor market is an interdependent system: When people lose their jobs, they either remain unemployed or go for the next best thing they can get. High-wage workers start accepting middle-wage jobs—setting in motion a domino effect throughout the labor force that pushes low skilled workers out completely.

She is a single mother of color
As bad as the situation is for many Philadelphians, Blacks and Hispanics/Latinos in this city are twice as likely to be poor as whites. Single moms are vulnerable, too: they head 42% of households below the poverty line nationwide. Then there is the perennial pay discrepancy—women still make $0.77 on every dollar that men do.

Why current solutions aren’t enough: Welfare’s work development programs
The state-funded Employment Advancement and Retention Network (EARN) program, Philadelphia’s—largest and costliest workforce development program—is pretty ineffective. Only 25% of the job seekers who go through EARN employment or training programs find a job within 3 months. Compare this to the fact that 49% of women who come to Career Wardrobe for dressing services secure employment within just 30 days. They’re finding stable jobs, too: 96% of those women are earning more than minimum wage, and almost half are in positions above entry level with opportunities for advancement. “We focus on finding women employment that is sustainable and long term,” explains CW’s Development Manager Rae Pagliarulo.

“What kind of job do you want?” and “What can you do?” are the two of the first questions Executive Director Sheri Cole asks every new client she counsels during their first sit down meeting. All too often, she hears the same answer: “They list the top three or four things their case manager told them they can do… And that’s it.” Pennsylvania is a “work first” state, so the number one priority is to place somebody in a job—any job—as quickly as possible. Positions in daycare, retail, call centers and reception top the list. “There are a lot of jobs that the segment of women we’re working with are not even aware exist,” says Cole. Her suggestion? “Talk to people. Figure out what’s out there, that doesn’t exist in a book.” In other words, networking.

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A Potential Piece of the Solution: Networking
“Networking” is the buzzword in the world of career services today, and there’s a damn good reason for that: 70% of all jobs today are found through networking. The professional social networking site LinkedIn has only amplified how importance it is. So on January 27, CW hosted 40 women at a daylong event, Work It!, centered on building in person and online networking skills. The event featured a special guest speaker: LinkedIn guru Susan Tabor-Kleinman, an expert in self-marketing and professional communications. “Today the reality is that people expect you to be on LinkedIn,” she says. She discussed how to portray and market themselves on their profile and make useful connections.

One Work It! attendee, Jessie Stephenson, sees the particular value of LinkedIn as a job search tool for people disadvantaged in other ways. “I like how it levels the playing field,” she says. LinkedIn is accessible to everyone and free to use, which eliminates the barrier to entry that comes with members-only professional networks, and helps women establish an online image.

Career Wardrobe’s Unique Mission and Tactics
Work It! is a testament to how Career Wardrobe’s nimbleness and autonomy as an organization benefit the women it serves. Sheri organized the event to address her clients’ lack of networking skills, and a strong desire to learn them. “If we were wholly a state run program,” she goes on, “it would be impossible to do something like today.” CW isn’t bound by the cumbersome restrictions that come attached to government funds—75% of their funding is privately raised. “It gives us flexibility,” says Sheri, “and it gives us freedom.” CW’s independence allows them to swiftly react to the evolving needs of their clients that aren’t being specifically addressed by other safety nets—and immediately begin to devise and implement innovative solutions.

While public welfare programs’ number one priority is to get women back into the workforce as quickly as possible, Career Wardrobe is able to pursue different solutions to the problem of joblessness. “We have the luxury of not having the mandate to attach women to work,” Sheri explains, “but to help them develop the confidence and skills they need to successfully transition to work.” CW tries to transform the individual woman from the inside out, so she can create the life she wants. The end goal is self-sufficiency, not a temporary surface-level fix.

“We have the ability to challenge women to see their lives differently,” Sheri explains, “to set goals and learn the skills they need to meet those goals.” CW challenges women in a way government programs usually don’t, by raising expectations and asking women to become the engineers of their own futures. “For many women who have grown up in poverty and dependent on the public welfare system,” Sheri explains, “this is a completely new experience.”

CW clients who complete the educational program commit themselves to hours of training, workshops and seminars to master skills in professionalism and job retention. In addition, CW employees support their clients with individualized attention and mentorship. Clients also have the freedom—and the responsibility—to steer their own ship. It’s a place to change not only your welfare status, but your life. And that’s not an easy thing to do.

Confidence: Making Women Over from the Outside In
Luckily, CW has a secret weapon: consultation and dressing services that facilitate transformation in a woman’s self-image, outlook, and attitude by making her look and feel beautiful. If this is getting too Cosmo-Girl fluffy for you, you ought to know: this component of Career Wardrobe’s strategy is a huge part of what makes their organization so special, and should not be underestimated.

While new clothes and makeovers are often written of as a frivolous, superficial fixes, the benefits of an internal confidence boost are very real. In her 13 years of experience at CW, Marketing and Operations Manager Heather Bennett has seen firsthand the necessity of this intangible, immeasurable factor for job seekers. “Confidence,” she says. “It always goes back down to confidence.”

Putting the confidence factor aside, there is also plenty of empirical evidence showing that we take mere seconds to form perceptions and opinions of people based on their appearances. “On a job interview, your attire makes a statement about yourself before you even open your mouth,” explains LinkedIn’s career expert and best-selling author Nicole Williams. Hiring managers don’t have much else to go on to form a first impression, so a professional, polished appearance can convey competence, self-pride, and a serious desire to get the job.

The makeover component is also a jumping off point for the multilayered transformation CW’s clients undergo. Sheri explains, “Once they get that initial referral, that opens the door to the rest of what we do for them…We take something that can be really daunting and make it fun.” Instilling confidence and comfort in someone in a vulnerable position is a smart way to prepare women to learn the tough skills—how to answer interview questions, how to conduct yourself professionally in the workplace, creating a resume, etc.

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CW is also a safe place for minority women to boost their confidence and work on themselves. “Having a place where a minority knows with certainty they are allowed to congregate removes the uncertainty that exists when they walk into a room,” explains Stacy Gordon, an expert on HR issues. Female networks can help support women in the workplace women in by facilitating confidence and empowerment.

Looking Ahead
Career Wardrobe has a vast, bright horizon. They can take any number of directions, and the future looks wide open. They plan to expand their education program. Rae explains another goal: “we’d like to become more reliant on corporate relations than government relations,” because the funds are less strictly monitored. Equally important is reaching a broader base of clients. “There are a lot more women in the city who need help than we’re seeing,” Rae explains. CW would like to find clients from outside the DPW. They plan to work more with smaller organizations in order reach a greater diversity of women.

The Takeaway
The numbers and anecdotal evidence speak to the efficacy of Career Wardrobe’s approach—so what can we take away and replicate elsewhere? We’ve taken a good look at some of the trade secrets of their success seen: a focus on professional networking and education; working with the individual; finding sustainable employment; restoring a sense of self efficacy; building confidence; female empowerment.

But in a broader sense, Philadelphia needs to find ways to bring more of the ingenuity and intelligence distinguishing Career Wardrobe to the way we approach the issue of unemployment. This means we need an increase in independent non and for profit organizations—with the freedom to craft their own unique missions and employ their own unconventional strategies. We don’t need to replace government welfare programs, but supplement them where they fall short.

There is no silver bullet solution, and Career Wardrobe doesn’t have all the answers. Joblessness and poverty are two of the most complex, widespread social issues we face in Philadelphia and across the globe. But the more we explore the solutions that are working—for somebody, somewhere—the more we learn about how to creatively and intelligently lift up our less fortunate and most vulnerable citizens: the people whom the data predicts have the lowest odds of making it in America.

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Click here to get involved with Career Wardrobe.

By Carolyn Todd

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  • Nicole Lightitup

    Wonderful piece! Career Wardrobe is the best. :) Great job Carolyn!

  • Cristo Moreno

    Many props to Omaat and Carolyn for shedding light on such an admirable group in such an eloquent way.

  • Reji Berrouet

    Fantastic article about a worthy cause. Shoutout to OMaaT for raising awareness.

  • Becky Brown

    I totally agree with Marketing and Operations Manager Heather Bennett — it really does all come back to confidence. It’s great to know that there is an organization out there helping women build up their confidence like this. Thanks, Carolyn, for shedding light on all they do at CW!

  • Megan Hughes

    This is a lovely article about a great organization. Thanks for writing it!