12 Voices: Workforce and Career: Real-life Help

For most Chicagoans, January 28, 1986, went down in history as the day of the ticker tape parade welcoming home the Chicago Bears as Superbowl XX champions. I remember it well, not only because of the Bears, but because it was my first day of work ever—and I was late!

I was so busy trying to watch as much of the parade as possible that I had broken a cardinal rule of work—punctuality. I was late for my first day as a cashier at a neighborhood grocery store. My classmate had told his boss how reliable I was and that I was looking for my first job. The owner, Ron, a tall, round-faced cheerful man, had welcomed Mike’s reference.

Ron gave me a firm scolding as I confessed that I’d been watching the Bears parade. (At least I was honest). He chuckled and said “Welcome kiddo. You have to be on time!” I can’t recall having ever been late again. I was 16 years old.

That day began 5 years of life lessons, friendships, and personal and professional development. Aside from balancing my drawer, I learned what it meant to be in service to others, responsibility, how to manage time, and effective communication. I interacted with people of different races, cultures, ages and educational levels. And I played every role in the store from cashier to bagger, deli attendant, closer, assistant manager, stocker and delivery girl. When I left for college, Ron let me return during winter and spring breaks to earn extra cash.

Today, more than 30 years later, I serve as the Chief Executive Officer of the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership, the non-profit organization that oversees the nation’s second largest federally-designated workforce investment area. My key responsibilities include managing a network of workforce development organizations that addresses business needs, while preparing individuals for, and connecting them to, career opportunities. With a budget of more than $70 million and a 70-member team, The Partnership serves tens of thousands of people every year through more than 50 agencies under our umbrella. Since our inception we have helped more than 60,000 people obtain employment with more than 2,000 employer partners.

From this unique perspective, I hope to offer readers insights into professional development, labor market trends, and the industries driving our national and local economies.

Despite the national message that unemployment numbers are falling, I know all too well the realities of communities throughout Chicagoland and the nation. African-American and Hispanic unemployment is more than 10 times that of our White counterparts depending upon age, community or gender. Young people between the ages of 18 and 24 currently experience unprecedented unemployment and disconnection from post-secondary education—an international pandemic. While everyone need not go to college, the overwhelming majority of jobs now (and increasingly in the future) require post-secondary training. And, although many factors contribute to the destabilization of our communities, none is as potent as the lack of access to a stable income (preferably along a career pathway) with which to support a family.

When I reflect on the years I spent at the neighborhood store, I am often struck by the core lesson—no matter your title, there is a value and dignity associated with the act of working. I strive every day to create and amplify opportunities for everyone to have that experience.

Would you like to see a specific work-related topic discussed here?  E-mail AboutWork@workforceboard.org.

Karin M. Norington-Reaves is the founding CEO of the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership. For more information on the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership visit workforceboard.org




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