Goodwill donation drop-off locations and retail stores are ubiquitous. Less obvious is the nonprofit’s job placement services that assist job seekers with everything from resume writing, online applications and mock interviews to new uniforms and transportation.
Johanna Wagner is the assistant director for employment and veterans services for Goodwill Industries of Central Illinois. She said Gov. JB Pritzker’s March stay-at-home order forced an immediate online pivot.
“So quickly, we had to start transforming into this virtual world,” said Wagner. “It’s affected us greatly – some in good ways because we are now virtual and in person.”
Wagner said 400 job seekers are actively enrolled across the 21 central Illinois counties they serve. Goodwill Industries helped 2,601 central Illinoisans last year.
Wagner said much of the agency’s programs were in person before the pandemic. She added maintaining contact with clients virtually isn’t always easy, particularly with low- to moderate-income job seekers.
“Whether they have a computer but they don’t have internet—now they have no place to go to pick up internet or they no electronics or smart phones,” Wagner said. “How do you serve those clients? How do you help them stay connected not only with us for our services, but with employers maybe trying to get ahold of them and get back to them so they can get to work?"
Wagner said roughly 90% of employment applications are exclusively online. Goodwill Industries of Central Illinois shuttered its on-site computer labs when the pandemic arrived and shifted much of its job seeking services virtually. This, too, created new barriers for those needing assistance with online applications.
“Job applications can get very complicated,” said Wagner. “I know back in the day when I was applying for jobs you walked in, if they were hiring, you filled out a paper (application) and you would get to talk to a manager or a [human resources] person on the spot. Well, that isn’t the way it looks anymore. A lot of it’s done online and it can become very difficult for clients. They get very frustrated.”
Goodwill Industries of Central Illinois is working on guidelines to safely reopen computer labs. Wagner said case managers are now seeing clients in person, by appointment only.
A newly created electronic device rental program bridges the digital divide for some area job seekers. Local grants provided needy clients with PPE, cleaning supplies and supplemental food. Still, Wagner admitted securing a job became an after thought for some amid the other challenges of the pandemic.
“There were still employers looking to hire, but then we also knew there were lots of business closing,” said Wagner. “There were people losing their jobs, losing hours. They had to stay at home for their kids.
"So, we had to adjust to those things too – identifying where they could get food, where they could get shelter, where they could get some help on the other things. So, those were priority and work was kind of secondary because they needed to take care of these other things.”
Wagner said the job placement programs are for “all walks of life.” She has assisted first-time job seekers to engineers downsized by major employers.
Dave Grebner of Peoria sought Goodwill’s services last fall. Newly retired as a Riverfront Museum science educator, Grebner wanted to use his career skills to stay engaged in the community and make a little extra cash. Despite his undergraduate and graduate degrees and decades of experience, Grebner was having trouble landing a position.
“I’d been looking around for part-time work and being 70 – or close to it at the time – I found it difficult to find work,” said Grebner. “There’s a lot of competition out there and some places seemed to want to hire younger folk.”
Grebner worked briefly as a WCBU announcer in the late 1970’s before migrating to print journalism and then transitioning to science education. He ultimately landed a part-time position at a local Goodwill store. Grebner is thankful for the assistance.
“They care about people. They want to help the community and they seem to value what you can do, regardless of your age or race or gender. They value your skills and ability,” said Grebner
Tyler Antram was Dave Grebner’s case manager. He said COVID is an issue for nearly all job seekers, especially for those like Grebner, who’ve never had a virtual interview.
“He adapted very well to it, having done something he never did before,” said Antram. “That’s one thing we’re finding with everybody, that it’s a challenge that maybe aren’t really tech savvy or familiar with using computers. They’re really having to relearn a lot.”
Johanna Wagner, the assistant director for employment and veterans services, said the number of central Illinoisans served last year is on par with previous ones. She credits case manager dedication and old school methods for maintaining pre-COVID program service levels.
“The good ole phone came in handy,” Wagner said. “I’ll tell you we kind of get away from the phone with the texting and the emailing. But we have made more phone calls since March than probably in all the almost 11 years I’ve been here.”
Wagner said COVID wasn’t entirely bad for business. She said being forced to step outside usual comfort zones and think outside of the box yielded new opportunities that will remain post-COVID.
“COVID has brought so many things to light for us, Wagner said. “I don’t want to be all negative about it, because what COVID did for us is kind of force us to really look at other ways that we can serve more clients. I feel like we can serve a boarder audience now because we have done a lot of our stuff virtual.”
Wagner said above all success isn’t just helping someone find a job or career, it’s helping someone navigate life when they need it the most.
“If you’re hungry, you can’t think about work,” Wagner said. “If you’re in pain, you can’t think about work. If your kids don’t have anywhere to go, you can’t think about work. So, it’s real easy to sometimes to say, ‘Well, there’s tons of jobs out there. They can get a job anywhere.’ We don’t know what other barriers are out there for them, so success for us is helping somebody – helping them get to where they want to be.”
Goodwill Industries of Central Illinois hosts regular job fairs. The next one is Feb. 19 – online, of course, given COVID.
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