People can get trapped in cycles of poverty and unemployment for myriad reasons, many of which involve systemic issues and injustices. This reality can hold back entire communities, especially marginalized ones, and keeps us from reaching our full potential on innovation and economic growth as a nation. One business innovation that addresses one root of chronic poverty is open hiring.
Open hiring is the practice of hiring anyone who applies for a job, no questions asked. People put their names on a list and get a call to start work when an opening comes available. Greyston Bakery, founded in 1982, is a pioneer of the practice and has implemented it since the company first began. Through the Greyston Foundation, the company has worked to expand open hiring and other job-development programs.
“We want to educate as many people as we can on the possibility of open hiring,” says Joseph Kenner, president and CEO of Greyston Bakery. “Sometimes, if a business is really on the skeptical end of the spectrum, we tell them to open up just one job to open hiring. It doesn’t have to be a whole department. It is low risk. It can be whatever position you think works for your organization.”
With the coronavirus pandemic exacerbating the number of people facing unemployment, open hiring could be a game changer for businesses looking to build their workforce back up and for people who need a stable income. Wider adoption of the practice could also give the economy a much needed boost, as COVID restrictions wind down. I spoke with Kenner recently as part of my research of purpose-driven businesses and to learn more about the progress and potential of open hiring.
Christopher Marquis: Talk to me about the origins of open hiring at Greyston Bakery and why the company saw this practice as an important way to combat systemic poverty.
Joseph Kenner: It was the systemic issues that really birthed Greyston. Bernie Glassman, Greyston’s founder, didn’t seek to create open hiring. That was not what he was after, that wasn’t the motivating force behind what Greyston did in its founding. What really motivated Bernie and this group of Zen Buddhists that were living in Riverdale, a neighborhood in the Bronx, was, how do we create thriving communities? How do we give people hope? Greyston was founded in 1982, and there were so many people who were unemployed and on the streets looking for work at that time, and he saw that as being an injustice, particularly since a lot of those people wanted to work but couldn’t.
Homeless people deserve justice. There were a lot of folks dealing with HIV, AIDS, who couldn’t get housing, so there was a lot of hopelessness because folks had some type of barrier that kept them out of the economic mainstream, for lack of a better term, and Bernie said, “That’s wrong. What can we do about that?” And that’s what led to the genesis of open hiring. The Buddhists were supporting themselves, raising money by baking cakes at the Greyston Mansion, which is where we got the name.
Bernie would literally start pulling people off the streets and say, “Hey, you don’t have a job, do you want to work? Do you want to learn a new skill?” And that was open hiring, that’s how it got started. I think they had talked about all the different ways they could bring folks in, and this seemed to be the best way. The skills are manual, and you can learn them on the job. All you have to do is be willing to work and show up. It’s a great way to teach people a trade or a skill.
Marquis: Through your Center for Open Hiring, you are working to expand the practice to more businesses. Why is this program important? And how is it going?
Kenner: There are 10 million folks with some type of barriers to employment, from justice issues to homelessness to substance abuse. Compare that number to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers that say there are 8.1 million job openings out there. So let’s do the math. Not to say that every one of those 10 million folks are work ready, but you can’t tell me that there’s not an opportunity here. So we look at that number, and then we look at what we’ve been doing here with Greyston Bakery and our foundation, providing workforce development and job development services. We looked at the impact we have here, and if we filled 40,000 jobs through inclusive hiring and open hiring by 2030, that computes to about $3 billion of economic impact — and think about savings from corrections, people getting off public assistance, and the income that they generate from their wages. That is a huge opportunity, and that’s only 40,000 jobs. What if we had other companies like Greyston, because providing 70 open hiring positions a year does not put a big dent in that 40,000 and certainly not in 10 million. But what if you had other employers?
There are others doing open hiring. The Body Shop is one of our partners that has open hiring. Giant Eagle, a grocery store chain in Pittsburgh, they’re doing it in their warehouse distribution center. Rhino Foods does the cookie dough for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and uses open hiring. There’s another smaller business in Rochester, CleanCraft, which is a custodial services company. So all of these companies together have provided to date about 1,200 opportunities to folks. Again, we’re not at the 2030 goal of 40,000, but there’s this huge opportunity from an economic impact and development standpoint and a social standpoint.
And there’s a business argument for this, too. Using the The Body Shop as an example: The business gets very good talent that’s going to be loyal to the company because it provided them an opportunity and decided to invest in them when no one else would. When they first did a pilot at their Raleigh, North Carolina, distribution center there was almost a two-thirds reduction in their turnover rate, and productivity, when you look at units per hour, went up about 13%. They provided 300 opportunities during this pilot. It was so successful that they decided to formally roll out open hiring. They are calling it inclusive hiring, that’s how they branded it within their organization. They rolled it out to their retail operations in the U.S. and Canada. So now the retail as well as the manufacturing side are doing open hiring in some form, and about half of those folks were not working before this program and most do not have the same type of social capital that you and I might have had that got us to where we are. They may not know how to interview very well, or they might not know how to put a resume together, or they may just not know how to get started.
We want to educate as many people as we possibly can on the possibility of open hiring. So sometimes if a business is really on the skeptical end of the spectrum, we tell them to open up just one job to open hiring. It doesn’t have to be a whole department. It is very low risk. It can be a front desk person or whatever you think works for your organization.
So, as mentioned, we want to reach the 40,000 goal by 2030, so that we can have this huge economic impact on the country because it’s good for business, it’s good for the economy, and there are some societal implications. Regarding those involved in the justice system, do you want to pay to keep somebody in this system, or do you want to liberate them through a job and have them create economic revitalization? It’s good for business, it’s good for the person, it’s good for their family, it’s good for the community that the family lives in. It’s a win, win, win.
Marquis: Tell me about the other programs that you are operating to give people job skills and help them find employment.
Kenner: So we are in the middle of an organizational revamp when it comes to those programs. We launched the Center for Opening Hiring you asked about three years ago; the center was focused on seeing that model replicated and putting together regional hubs to advance open hiring. But since 2009 we’ve been providing workforce development and training to members of the southwest Yonkers community, whether that was to become a security guard, join a building and construction trade. The plan is we are going to mold and meld all of those components into one entity, called the Greyston Employment Opportunity Center, solely focused on seeing the model replicated.
With the center, we want to also broaden our cohort. Usually we have been focused on entry level job skills. Now, we want to move closer to the mid-level skills job, so offering additional courses to get jobs like medical health professional assistant, customer service, bookkeeping and just a whole host of other things in emerging industries. Particularly in Westchester County, the mid-Hudson region, we want to provide these trainings for those emerging industries.
Another part of this revamp is we’ve changed our mission statement. Before it was “to create thriving communities through the practice and promotion of open hiring.” The new mission statement is, “We want to unlock the power of human potential through inclusive employment, one person at a time,” which is everything that we do at the bakery and at the foundation, going back to the mission that Bernie was all about.
So through this integration, the Greyston Foundation will still help folks work at the bakery and move up within that organization, if that is their path, but if they want to get some upskilling and get another certification or another opportunity, we’re going to have regional hubs to help them do that. We have the one in Rochester, and we’re going to have one right here in Westchester. It’s just going to create this open hiring ecosystem, where maybe you start at the bakery and then move to another employment partner of ours because we have all the relationships. We do the certificate training, and we do the case management to assess you and see what you want to do, what you’re good at, and what you might need to build on. Then we provide the job development services, so we train you, assess you, retrain you, and provide soft skills and essential skills training, such as resume writing, conflict resolution, and how to interview. And the idea is for you to move on to employment, whether it’s with us or somebody else—we want you to have a job, that’s the goal.
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