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‘First responder’ rescues the jobless from pandemic’s despair

Skills for Chicagoland’s Future, with increased funding, is building a presence on Chicago’s South and West sides.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker addresses supporters of Skills for Chicagoland’s Future during an event Friday at the Hyatt Regency Chicago.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker addresses supporters of Skills for Chicagoland’s Future during an event Friday at the Hyatt Regency Chicago.
James Foster/Sun-Times

When I last checked with Marie Trzupek Lynch in early April, she was dealing with the calm before an expected “tsunami.”

She is the CEO of Skills for Chicagoland’s Future, one of the area’s foremost resources for the unemployed and underemployed. When the economy was slamming shut in the spring and people began hunkering down to avoid the coronavirus, she was surprised more people weren’t immediately reaching out for help getting a job.

Lynch theorized people had a stay-at-home mindset and weren’t aware her organization was working remotely. Others, she said, may have been content with the enhanced payments for unemployment insurance that were then available. In some cases, the extra $600 a week from the federal government meant people could get more money on unemployment than from working.

“Once shelter-in-place goes away, we’ll be getting a tsunami of people coming through our doors,” she said then.

How did that work out? Lynch told me last week her prediction came true. She doesn’t see demand for job assistance abating, with unemployment still at crisis levels in many sectors. The enhanced unemployment benefits have run out, many face a threat of eviction for overdue rent and now COVID-19 is roaring back, having outlasted our patience and attention spans.

From March to October, Skills placed 731 people in work with mostly mid- to large-size companies, Lynch said. These are the employers the group has a direct connection to, serving as an extension of the corporate human resources department.

The advantage is job seekers who work with Skills get an insider’s edge against other candidates. After coaching and resume help, Skills can vouch for the candidates, a recommendation that goes a long way with hiring managers.

“We see ourselves as the emergency responders for the unemployed,” Lynch said.

She said the group’s work brings many positive moments, such as a few days ago when 12 Skills clients were in its downtown office completing the paperwork for starting as patient care technicians at Rush University Medical Center.

The overwhelming proportion of clients are Black or Latino, Lynch said. It’s been the perverse habit of this pandemic to hit vulnerable groups the hardest. With that in mind and despite the tough times for many nonprofits, Lynch is mapping out an expansion of services.

Details were unveiled Friday at the group’s awards celebration honoring corporate sponsors, a limited-capacity affair at the Hyatt Regency Chicago where the speakers included Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

To supplement its downtown office, Skills has added a location at 815 W. 63rd St., part of the Greater Englewood Community Development Corp.’s shared space for nonprofits. It’s also fundraising for a location in Austin, Humboldt Park or North Lawndale, West Side areas highlighted in Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Invest South/West program.

Pritzker lauded the group’s impact.

“The sheer creativity and successful execution that you’ve demonstrated over the years in finding new ways to bridge access gaps and connect willing workers with opportunity in this pandemic is truly impressive,” he said. The governor said its “work has changed so many lives for the better.”

Lightfoot provided congratulatory remarks via a recorded video.

Lynch said with grants from the city of Chicago, JP Morgan Chase and other corporate support, Skills has increased its annual budget about 5% to $7.1 million and added three people to its own staff, bringing the total to 42.

One goal is to expand job counseling for new college graduates.

Among those the organization helped over the summer was a mid-career client, Audra Williams, a 48-year-old Southeast Sider who found herself not getting enough hours in catering and restaurant management.

She said she “stalked job boards” for weeks but got nowhere. Skills helped her connect her background in customer service to different settings. Since June she’s been working at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois’ new operation in Morgan Park, handling inquiries from medical offices. Referrals from Skills accounted for one-third of the location’s initial hires.

Audra Williams
Provided

“The group provides a very welcoming environment,” she said. “With their corporate partnerships, it’s an amazing opportunity for skills advancement.”

Job seekers should make the group’s website, scfjobs.com, their first stop.

Along with Blue Cross, Ulta Beauty and the Chicago Urban League were honored Friday for their assistance to Skills.

For Lynch, the tsunami continues, but she’s grateful to the corporations and foundations that have helped her group contend with it. She said if Congress is listening, it should do its part as well and pass a new stimulus package that will prevent further woe.

“There must be some form of relief that targets individuals, governments and small businesses,” she said.

“It’s essential that we as a country don’t turn our backs. We’ve got to take care of our neighbors.”

Marie Trzupek Lynch, CEO of Skills for Chicagoland’s Future, speaks Friday at the Hyatt Regency Chicago.
James Foster/For the Sun-Times