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Boise’s glass-polishing nonprofit has hit a rough spot

Anne Wallace Allen 2015Many workers lack the most basic skills necessary to stay employed. Those skills – like showing up on time, working all day, following directions, and dressing properly – frustrate employers who say they know how to teach the job skills. They don’t know how to teach personal skills.

A small effort to turn things around for a subset of the working population has been underway since 2008 at Usful Glassworks, a Boise nonprofit that uses a glass-polishing business to teach former prison inmates, refugees, and low-income elderly people some of the skills and habits they will need in order to get a paying job.

But Usful is struggling, and is in danger of closing its doors in May.

Usful Glassworks polishes used bottles into glassware for restaurants, online sales, and stores in 24 states. The low-key operation has four and a half full-time workers and an annual budget of about $250,00. Usful made about $167,000 in glassware last year; the rest of its operating money came from donations and fundraisers.

Usful finds trainees through recommendations from homeless shelters and refugee agencies. The trainees work toward a letter of recommendation that they can show an employer as a guarantee that they know how to work.  Some are paid by other agencies; others volunteer. Fifteen to 20 trainees a day work at Usful, along with volunteers from the community. Only about 20 percent earn the letter of recommendation.

“We are actually guaranteeing the person we put in front of you will show up on time, act appropriately, and dress appropriately,” said Usful’s executive director, Carlyn Blake. “You don’t even get that if you hire from a first-level employment agency. We can guarantee that because we observe their behavior for at least three months, and most of the time it’s three to six months. We know they can’t fake it for that long.”

These workers aren’t being prepared for mid-level jobs with computers or at call centers, said Blake, who worked at Key Bank for 19 years. Struggles with English and with relating to others, and lack of computer experience, are the type of things that make them better suited for cleaning, production line, agricultural, or warehouse work. Many can only work part-time because of a physical or mental disability.

Blake works with several local companies, including Scentsy in Meridian; WIS International, an inventory management company; Bigelow Tea, which has a packing plant in Boise; and the Packaging Corporation of America corrugated cardboard plant in Nampa. In the last six months, she has placed five people, including one in the warehouse at Scentsy and another in a hotel, one in a data entry job at the IRS, another in a janitorial position at St. Luke’s Health System, and another in a job at the Boise Department of Parks and Recreation.

But like many nonprofits that rely on donations, Usful can’t make ends meet, and its future is in peril. Glassware sales pay for production and supplies, including the organization’s fire polisher; for the salaries of two people who work with trainees on the production line; and for an employee who collects glass from around town. But they don’t cover rent and utilities at the office or Blake’s small annual salary of $20,000. Blake runs the organization, carries out all the HR program management, and does the fundraising.

So this month and next, Blake will be trying to raise $250,000 to allow her to hire trained professional staff to run programs and connect with more local businesses who need employees so she can focus on fundraising. She will also be looking for a way to merge Usful with another job-training nonprofit in a way that allows for shared overhead. If neither fundraising nor a merger pan out, Blake said, Usful will probably end its run in May.

“Those are the only options that will allow us to continue to operate and look and feel like we do today,” Blake said. “If that doesn’t work, the only other option would be to close our doors.”

Anne Wallace Allen is editor of the Idaho Business Review.

About Anne Wallace Allen

Anne Wallace Allen is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.