It is Wednesday afternoon, and the group of job counselors and volunteers at Genesis Jobs Inc. in Baltimore is running down the list of this week's clients.
There's a former TV and radio producer who has struggled to regain his full faculties after being beaten into a coma that lasted a year, a 45-year-old ex-convict who wants to become a physical therapist, a day-care worker who wants an office job but at 25 has never been on a job interview, a security guard at a hospital who would like to work in medical records. And, oh yes, a former New York Yankee.
This, clearly, is not your run-of-the-mill employment agency. Instead, the tiny 9-year-old nonprofit agency has struggled to advance its mission by learning to act and work like a business, much as many of its clients need to learn about how the business world works so Genesis can help them.
"It's an economic-development model," insists Emily Thayer, Genesis' founder and executive director. "It's not a human service agency. . . . People who are in the congregations Saturday and Sunday make decisions Monday through Friday. Their concerns for the [community] can be translated from a prayer for the unemployed into action, to go from being wishful to being useful."
There are contradictions at Genesis as old as the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. The agency is rooted in a sense of caring mission, yet the group sitting around the conference room in the Episcopal church parish house that houses Genesis in Remington also shows the flinty sternness of people who would tell you to straighten up and fly right.
No one more so than Ms. Thayer. The fortysomething former community activist for Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), a church- based civic group that works on behalf of poor people and neighborhoods, strong of chin and steady of gaze, insists that people who want Genesis' help must show up on time for three appointments and apply for jobs on their own. They must also pass reference checks before Genesis will show them its own job listings.
"There are only two promises we make," she said. "We will work with them as long as it takes to find a job, and we will help them keep looking."
Genesis emphasizes helping people build skills, both work skills and especially job-seeking skills. In many cases, they also must teach clients -- a significant minority of whom have so little experience that even the small-scale corporate world can seem like an alien culture -- that they can master the nuances of getting along and building a fulfilling work life.
"When I got here, I learned people haven't had the advantages we've had," said William Somerville, a retired USF&G; Corp. vice president and Genesis Jobs volunteer counselor.
"Many have no idea where to start. They have no idea what they have to offer. They don't have a true sense of what being employed means."
Even the chump-change jobs come alive in Ms. Thayer's eyes. McDonald's? Hey, she says, if you survive lunch hour at McDonald's, you've shown cash management ability, customer service and poise under pressure. She can build on that.
As Mr. Somerville speaks, he is sitting under a bulletin board filled with Polaroids of Genesis' clients. Most are young and black, but not nearly all. Ms. Thayer's mission is not only to help people find entry-level work, it's also to help them overcome their sense of "otherness."
"We haven't adapted [the program] to some class of 'those people,' " she says adamantly. "Everyone finds jobs the same way. We've just tailored it to a different level."
Once, Lena Blagg found herself on that level. Before the 34-year-old secretary went to Genesis in 1985, she had worked at what she calls "odd jobs." But she could type, she had been to a computer school, and she wanted to work.
"I didn't really know how to look for a job. I wanted to be in an office, but I had no office experience," she said. "I did a lot of the footwork myself [but] they were a good leaning post to hold on to. . . . I purchased a home. It's a lot more financial stability."
Getting it right
Genesis exists for much different reasons than a for-profit company, but its tactics are copied from the corporate world it prepares people to navigate.
At the heart of its operation is a network of about 300 companies, from hospitals to warehousers to big law firms, on which Ms. Thayer and the small staff lean for everything from jobs to donated carpet for their office. The whole operation runs on $165,000 a year.
The program begins with an orientation, then works through interview coaching, resume preparation, and interview follow-ups.
Because Genesis sends people to interviewers familiar with Genesis, the network gives them liberal feedback on where unsuccessful job candidates went wrong in their interviews. That, and a lot of support designed to keep people from getting discouraged, helps candidates get it right the next time.
After clients land jobs, Genesis stays in touch for up to a year to help them get over the hurdles that can discourage those new to the work force.
One thing notably absent from the approach is government funding.
"We know how the real world works," Ms. Thayer said. "It's not caught up in red tape. . . . We're here for people who will say yes -- not no, not maybe, not we've never done it that way before."
The goal is to make clients as self-reliant as Genesis is itself. And that is one of the attractions to the corporate network partners, said James R. Eyler, managing partner of Miles & Stockbridge, a downtown law firm that has hired half a dozen Genesis clients.
"I'm very impressed with the organization because it fits my philosophy of putting effort into helping people help themselves, instead of throwing money at a problem and not getting your hands dirty," Mr. Eyler said.
Mr. Eyler said that while most Genesis clients either have little work experience or have had trouble moving beyond entry-level jobs, there are a lot of different reasons why even very capable people have trouble finding work.
Ms. Thayer said Genesis' challenge as it enters its 10th year in business is to begin growing from its small Remington base. The Remington center served 768 people in its last fiscal year, and 215 people landed jobs.
"We've spent 10 years getting this into operation; we need to spend the next 10 years expanding it," Ms. Thayer said.