First Step Employment Program Helps Women

First Step, a three-phase job training program, helps low-income women and those experiencing homelessness in New York City find employment.

For some jobseekers, finding employment is a relatively simple matter of knowing where to look for work. But for others, it’s a bigger challenge. And for those people—whether they’re experiencing homelessness or struggling at or below the poverty line—learning not only how to find work, but how to keep it and succeed at it, is key.

New York City’s Coalition for the Homeless began its First Step job training program in 1991. Today it annually serves approximately 140 low-income women and women experiencing homelessness. The women learn about First Step through advertisements in community newspapers and staff outreach in the city’s shelter system. Over a 14-week period, participants learn to create a resume, the art of interviewing, the ins and outs of Microsoft Office, and a whole lot more. But it’s not like other jobs programs, says Elizabeth Henderson, First Step program director.

“We like to think of ourselves as a holistic program, so we’re not just a job training program,” says Henderson. “We don’t just focus on computers or hard skills around resume writing and letter writing. We’re looking at both those hard skills and the soft skills, so you’re building yourself up from the inside out and you feel great about yourself.”

The course begins with a one-week orientation that allows prospective students to sample the program before committing to the 14-week class cycle. Each day looks at a different part of the program, so Monday is an overview, a tour of the facilities, and an introduction to the staff. Tuesday features career development workshops, where the women learn to solve problems and get along with coworkers. On Wednesday, they have a quick overview of the computer curriculum, which covers all the components of Microsoft Office, including Windows, PowerPoint, and Outlook. Thursday, they participate in a handful of social service-oriented workshops geared toward building self-confidence and self-esteem and goal setting. At the end of the week, each woman decides, together with staffers, whether she will move forward into the class—some may decide it’s not right for them, or they can’t commit to the 14 weeks because they are mothering young children or are uncertain that they’ll be able to be on site for all of the sessions.

But the majority press on. Henderson says the goal is 25 students in each class; of those, 70 to 80% are likely to complete the program, which is divided into three phases.

Program Structure and Success

Phase One lasts five weeks, and is composed entirely of classroom instruction. Each week includes three days of Microsoft Office training and two days of career development—resume and cover letter writing, interview preparation, office dynamics—and what Henderson calls “social services”: lessons in self-esteem and positive communication, along with yoga and Zumba classes.

Phase Two is an eight-week offsite externship for every student who completes Phase One. With various corporate and nonprofit partners, First Step is able to place students in a variety of administrative roles four days a week, based on each individual’s strengths and skill sets, but also in consideration of those elements she might want to improve. A job-readiness coordinator handles the matching.

Fridays in Phase Two are reserved for advanced computer instruction and off-site corporate days, in which a given corporation plays host and describes to program participants the kind of work its employees do, as well as potential opportunities within the company.

Volunteers play a big role in First Step. Many of them provide feedback on resumes and conduct mock interviews with the women, while others serve as job coaches. They are women who have significant experience in the world of work and can help program participants negotiate job applications, career opportunities, and networking.

“We try to set people up to be successful in the experience,” says Henderson. “We really want to look toward having a good match—for the externship but also for the mentor. We do matching [for both] in the same way. We want to make sure it’s a good fit, based on interest and personality.”

Throughout the program, every participant is partnered with a case manager on the First Step social support team. That’s someone the participant can turn to for help inside the program, but also outside it, especially if she’s encountering barriers that might keep her from completing it successfully.

The third and final phase is a week’s partnership with Madison Strategies Group (MSG), a job development firm that uses its own curriculum to help First Step participants fully prepare for employment interviews. The women are also invited to work one-on-one with MSG job developers to tweak their resumes and cover letters for specific openings. Although there’s no guarantee of employment to women who complete First Step, they are welcome to continue working with MSG until they find something.

First Step promises a “lifetime of post-graduate services, including job placement assistance, ongoing mentoring from staff and volunteers, support groups, additional training seminars, and numerous networking opportunities with alumni and business professionals.” But for some women, at the end of the 14 weeks they’re set, having parlayed externships into permanent positions with the companies where they were placed, once they showed they were capable of doing solid, dependable work.

This article was originally published to highlight the April 2015 theme of Employment.

Access more behavioral health and homelessness resources.

Publication Year

Sarah Zobel
Last Updated: 04/19/2016