(Photo by Jeff Holder)
How can a government program be exercised to its fullest potential and make the biggest impact on the constituents it aims to serve?
It’s a question Career Wardrobe will be answering soon.
The 19th and Spring Garden-based organization provides free or low-cost professional clothing and related services to women and men re-entering the workforce from unemployment. What began 21 years ago with the help of volunteers in a home basement has since grown to 15 staff members serving almost 3,200 individuals in Philadelphia, according to Executive Director Sheri Cole.
The nonprofit — which also considers itself a social enterprise because it earns about 40 percent of its income from the resale shop it opened six years ago — was recently selected by the state to operate its PA WORKWEAR program in Southeast Pennsylvania. Career Wardrobe will receive an increase in state funding to expand its work in Berks, Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties.
WORKWEAR is funded by the state Department of Human Services. It offers contracts to independent agencies throughout the state to provide professional training and employment attire — the lack of which is often “a barrier to employment” — in their counties, Cole said. Career Wardrobe was one of two Philadelphia-based agencies.
When Gov. Tom Wolf took office, his administration requested proposals for organizations to run the WORKWEAR program throughout the Commonwealth, and Career Wardrobe submitted an application to run it in Philadelphia.
"We knew we could help the government achieve some economy of scale."
“We knew we could help the government achieve some economy of scale,” Cole said.
The state asked if it could expand to other counties, too. WORKWEAR providers throughout Southeastern PA will now work under Career Wardrobe’s administrative support.
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Career Wardrobe isn’t “taking over” any existing agencies, Cole said. Rather, its new oversight will allow it to track each agency’s results — numbers such as how many clients get jobs using skills they learn through their programs, for instance — that many agencies themselves don’t have the resources to track, especially the smaller, volunteer-led ones.
“We measure their outcomes,” Cole said. “We can provide statistics back to the state about what’s happening to the women we serve and who they are.”
This information will inform the government on what’s needed to grow the WORKWEAR program and how it can improve, she said.
The expansion will allow Career Wardrobe to serve 7,000 individuals, mostly in Philly, according to Cole. Altogether, only about 1,500 individuals are currently served by WORKWEAR in the other southeastern counties. This number doesn’t include the full population of everyone who could access it, though.
“We believe that there’s a disconnect between the people being served by this contract and [the total amount of people who need it],” she said.
Of 6,200 individuals in Chester who are eligible for cash assistance through the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, which requires the recipient to be a primary caregiver, only 440 were seen through WORKWEAR — about seven percent — whereas Philadelphia’s WORKWEAR program is seeing more like 30 percent of the TANF population, according to Cole.
Career Wardrobe will work to improve both those percentages by marketing its services not only through the agencies providing WORKWEAR services, but to all individuals receiving assistance through public organizations such as the state’s Employment, Advancement and Retention Network.-30-
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