“In the total employment scheme of things, (it was) hardly even a rounding error.”
Bill Young is talking about the 500 jobs he created for people with barriers to employment — street kids, urban First Nations people, battered women and welfare recipients. He had made a difference in 500 lives. Yet his self-assessment was harsh, if realistic.
“It made us ask ourselves the question, how do we change the landscape?”
By the late 1990s the Hamilton businessman had become wealthy. He had built a computer business and then sold it to GE Capital. An early investment in the tech start-up Red Hat had gone through the roof. At 47 he was set for life.
“Rather than thinking, ‘Why don’t I become a philanthropist in any kind of traditional way?’ I was thinking, ‘I’ve got all this business experience. Why have we separated this world? Why can’t business and doing good be linked in some way, shape or form?’ ”
People in the social justice movement and political progressives have long mistrusted the corporate world. Business practices were part of the problem, the thinking went. When a business did engage in socially responsible conduct, it was dismissed as window dressing.
As one of a new breed of social entrepreneurs, Bill Young saw it differently. If he could find the sweet spot where doing good and commercial self-interest intersected, there was hope of making a real impact in solving social problems.
In 2001, he founded a non-profit called Social Capital Partners in Toronto.Young wasn’t just interested in analyzing social problems. He wanted to create a real-life research and development lab for solving them. Not a think-tank, but a “do-tank.”
Five years into the mission, Young had created four self-sustaining enterprises from scratch. TurnAround Couriers in Toronto, for example, recruits only at-risk youth for its bike courier and back office positions. It operates as a competitive business. But doing “only one deal a year and then having to take so long to get them to be actually profitable was hard,” Young says. He wondered, “Could we find a more cookie-cutter way to do this?”
He cast his eye on companies with a proven business model — franchises. New franchisees were usually short on start-up capital. Why not lend at favourable interest rates? In exchange the franchisee would agree to hire from a pool of candidates with barriers to employment. Local social service agencies would train them to be job-ready. The more hires, the lower the interest rate.
Active Green + Ross, a car maintenance company, signed on to a pilot project in Hamilton. Young selected social service agencies that understood “business was the customer, not just the person they were trying to employ.” The agencies would supply suitable trainees, not just available ones.
It started small. One franchisee accepted six community hires. Then another franchisee signed on, and another. Instead of doing one deal a year, SCP was soon doing four deals a month. Then one day the parent company asked to tap into the pool of the community hires, without the sweetener loans. That surprised Young. The owner of AG+R said, “You found us a labour pool we never would have access to. They’re working out. It’s the right thing to do for the community. Why wouldn’t we do it?”
Young thought, “Yeah, why wouldn’t you do it? Why wouldn’t everybody do this, if someone made it this easy.” And that is the challenge Bill Young is tackling now.
As things stand, there are hundreds of social service agencies in Canada doing essentially the same thing — helping people with barriers to employment become job-ready, then finding them work placements, often by subsidizing employers. Some agencies work with the disabled, others with new immigrants. In Toronto, there are at least two dozen agencies helping the young and jobless.
The agencies compete for grants, for clients (the jobless), and for employers who will give them a chance.
Three levels of government also offer employment services. In the federal government alone there are 31 youth employment programs spread across 13 departments.
It is a chaotic system. And it stymies large employers who want to engage in community hiring. It is so fragmented, they don’t know whom to turn to and give
up trying. They resort to placement agencies to do their hiring.
Bill Young wants to build the business case so that placement companies will tap into the pool of people with employment barriers.
“These organizations are seen as the ‘bad guys’ by community service agencies because there are some bad actors, frankly, in the placement business. But the large ones, the Manpowers or the Adeccos or the Randstads have these relationships at very strategic levels of the companies (with jobs). They are playing a very important function that no community service agency can play.
He is pitching to one of those placement firms to participate in a pilot project. “We want to show that we can deliver a person who is grateful for this opportunity as opposed to entitled to it for the entry-level jobs.” If that works, Young’s thinking goes, community services agencies can concentrate on getting people job-ready and bowout of the placement function.
It is early days in this latest experiment. Social Capital Partners will test its assumptions, make mistakes and learn along the way. But Young says the beauty of being a non-profit “do-tank” is this. When a commercial enterprise figures out how to do something better, it guards the secret. Bill Young wants to give it away.