The pandemic could have been a major step back for StepUp Durham, a non-profit that provides free employment readiness training, personalized job coaching, employer referrals, and supportive services to job seekers in Durham County. Instead, StepUp Durham’s overall job placement rate improved by 20% during the pandemic.
Low unemployment is a contributing factor with the June jobs report showing 4.3% unemployment in Durham County. But StepUp Durham’s Program Director Tim Wollin believes this improvement can also be attributed to the adoption of new strategies and technology to make the program available in an entirely virtual format.
“Transportation is one of the biggest barriers for participants in our program, a third of whom are in housing transition, staying at shelters or halfway houses,” said Tim. “By making our training and support accessible online this year, we’re making it easier for people with children or other commitments to stay engaged with us between the end of the formal training and job placement.”
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StepUp Durham has helped over 500 people find employment in industries including warehouses, retail, food services, and healthcare. The majority of participants are unemployed and facing significant employment barriers including homelessness, lack of a high school degree, and former incarceration. Throughout the pandemic, StepUp Durham participants used Zoom to attend trainings and one-on-one sessions with employment counselors.
Participants could also practice their interview skills with Talk Hiring, an automated mock interview tool. Talk Hiring offers realistic yet automated mock interviews that users can complete on their own time on video or audio-only via a web browser or phone call. After each interview, users receive recordings and an overall rating of their performance in addition to feedback on dimensions like pace, volume, and use of filler words.
“On average, StepUp Durham’s participants saw a 76% improvement comparing their performance in their first and last mock interviews,” said Harris Osserman, CEO and Founder of Talk Hiring. “I started Talk Hiring to serve populations that generally don’t have college degrees, and StepUp Durham was our first customer. Thanks to their critical feedback early on, we’ve added several features including improved tech-accessibility, Spanish language support, and opportunities to answer questions about gaps in employment and justice involvement.”
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Cashmere Bentley went through StepUp Durham’s virtual training program in May last year. She had to leave her last job when her car broke down and had been unemployed for six months. When the program ended, Cashmere interviewed for an administrative role at StepUp Durham and is now a workforce development coordinator.
“Talk Hiring helped me realize that I’m an ‘um’ person and that I talk fast when I get nervous. The tool gives very specific feedback on certain habits that you wouldn’t get at such a granular level from an in-person mock interview,” said Cashmere. “Talk Hiring coupled with all of the focused training in StepUp Durham’s boot camp helped me see the power of teaching people simple skills for employability. I’m proud to now be a part of furthering StepUp Durham’s mission to make the training for these skills more accessible in our community.”
This fall, StepUp Durham’s four week training program will be back in person and participants will have the option to meet in-person or virtually with their employment counselor for as long as they need to find employment.
“The pandemic forced us to make changes that ultimately improve the accessibility of our program for the people we most want to help,” said Tim Wollin. “Going forward, we plan to offer a mix of in-person, boot camp-style training with ongoing virtual support.”
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