In the months before Colorado was seized by the coronavirus pandemic — a time when there was 3 percent unemployment — employers often complained that committed workers were in short supply.
Since COVID-19, there are clearly plenty of people hungry for work and fewer jobs.
A Denver woman has plenty of workers trained and waiting to be hired. Unlike many job recruiters, Helen Young Hayes searches for talent in homeless shelters and government housing developments, people with potential who may have been overlooked because of their living situations.
Hayes’ company, Activate Workforce Solutions helps connect the disenfranchised with work. She calls her plan “people centered.” Many of their clients have been laid off or have faced tough times and need a second chance.
“We actually act as a bridge, connecting great talent from untapped populations to great employers with full-time, full-benefit career path opportunities," Hayes said. "Our mission is to help people achieve economic freedom through the dignity of work.”
One of Hayes’ success stories is a single mom who immigrated from Africa. The woman, who was living in Warren Village, had a degree in engineering, has an MBA and recently completed her Masters in information technology.
“Being an immigrant, she was underemployed, working at the Amazon warehouse part-time,” Hayes explains.
The woman is now working full-time, making five times her income at one of Denver’s largest employers. Her two children are headed for college.
Hayes’ own parents were Chinese immigrants. Her father brought the family to Starkville, Mississippi during the civil rights movement in 1965, where he took a job as a professor at Mississippi State University.
“Being the first Asian-American girl in my high school was life-changing for me. My parents modeled hard work, a love of education … and I was blessed to have the best role models that one could have,” she tells Colorado Matters. “In one generation my family went from being financially penniless to having four kids graduate from Yale. I really am the embodiment of the American Dream.”
Growing in the South during that time, she saw the inequities African Americans were going through. She turned this experience into a career. In March, Activate Workforce Solutions announced a partnership with a company called Colorado Concern, a group that represents 130 CEOs from around the state from companies like Coors and Denver International Airport.
Jared Kelley, 26, is another of Hayes’ clients. He says he was “at my wit’s end on how I was going to be able to get a solid career” when he was at the Denver Rescue Mission.
Kelley, a recovering heroin addict, is now two years sober and says his early years were out of control. In early 2018, he was in legal trouble and spent some time in jail. Through lifestyle classes at the Rescue Mission and then Hayes’ training, he is now working as an apprentice electrician.
“I love the company I work for, and in 16 months, I’ve paid off 65 percent of debt I accrued before I got into the Denver Rescue Mission,” Kelley said. “That was a huge, huge thing for me. When I started this I had nothing. I don’t have everything, but it’s in sight.”
Finding the potential within the marginalized population is what Hayes calls her “superpower.”
“Jared is one of my favorites. He’s a hard worker, he’s honest and tenacious. When we met him he had been working 16-hour days at the Mission. He was putting in extra time in work and therapy classes,” she said. “Here is a man who was hungry for an opportunity and ready for a challenge.”
Encore Electric president and CEO Willis Wiedel has hired 5 of Hayes’ clients.
“I personally feel strong about giving people an opportunity when they want to change their lives,” he said. “It’s that person who wants to work hard, has character and has core values.”
Hayes says she and her clients are poised to come out of the pandemic swinging.
“COVID brought everything to a grinding halt. We feel the burden of our mission even more urgently than we did before,” she said. “We are now poised to match talent when the economy re-opens when our employers are ready to hire.”