Franklinton social-enterprise call center awarded up to $500,000 in grants to train workers
By Carrie Ghose – Staff reporter, Columbus Business First
A social enterprise call center in Franklinton that aims to build career paths out of poverty has been approved for up to $500,000 in job-training grants toward 300 jobs – the largest award yet in a three-year-old Franklin County workforce initiative.
Fortuity Calling LLC will be reimbursed training costs in stages as it moves customer support workers up through the ranks until they hit $15 an hour, under the agreement commissioners approved Tuesday. (The county defines a living wage as $14 an hour for a family of four.)
In conjunction with nonprofits, Fortuity also is surrounding its trainees with other supports, such as on-site child care and job-readiness coaching.
“We feel this employer, if this project goes the way we think it will, will be a model for other employers to follow,” said Michael Salvadore, workforce navigator at the county Economic Development and Planning Department. “It will help people enter the middle class.”
If the incentive required hiring at $15 an hour right away, the program would exclude many people now near the poverty level, said Fred Brothers, co-founder and CEO of Fortuity and Uprising Capital LLC, which provides funding to nonprofits and social enterprise.
“This incentive patterns what really happens,” Brothers said. “You can actually go hire folks that have lower levels of skills.
“It’s a stair step to raise them to the next level of skills – invest, walk, invest, walk, invest, walk – that’s how you get them out of poverty.”
The call center's parent company, Fortuity Holding LLC, is renovating a medical office building and attached parking garage it purchased last year at 750 Mt. Carmel Mall, next to Mount Carmel West. Hiring should start in summer, Brothers said.
The company deliberately chose a site along the most frequent bus routes so that it's accessible to workers in Columbus' lowest-income neighborhoods.
Fortuity also is lining up corporate clients, trying to persuade them to re-shore work that might now be overseas.
“This is an opportunity to make deliberate choices about their sourcing,” Brothers said.
Fortuity is investing $12.5 million, including $4.8 million in the building. The county projects creation of 200 to 600 jobs over five years, with total payroll of $2.1 million after two years.
The grant is divided into tiers: Fortuity receives up to $2,000 per worker to support training, the first $1,000 when hiring or raising a full-time employee at $11 an hour, $500 when the hourly wage raises to $13, and the final $500 at $15.
The county created People Works grants to encourage private sector employment of people receiving one or more forms of public assistance, so that they can earn enough to lose eligibility. Past grantees have received the reimbursement based on retaining trained employees for 180 days, but this grant is based on promotions and raises.
“We designed a unique reimbursement structure for this program to incentivize the company to do what they say they’re going to do,” Salvadore said.
Fortuity has to document that before hiring, the worker was making less than double the federal poverty level – $11.67 an hour for a single person and greater than $15 an hour for a family of two – and show its payroll records.
Hires need to show some history of work experience, even if that's been in low-wage jobs such as retail or housekeeping.
“If somebody comes to us with those kinds of jobs, at least we know they have the aptitude and willingness to work regularly,” Brothers said. “The only thing you can screen for is: Does this person have a track record of working?”
Demand is high in Central Ohio for skilled customer support, Salvadore said, and unique among such employers, Fortuity is OK with other call centers poaching its workers as their careers advance.
“They have consciously built this business to do that,” he said.
Traditionally, economic development focused on construction and overall hiring but wasn’t tied to workforce development, county Economic Development Director Jim Schimmer said.
“Today, economic developers really have to be cognizant that there is this intersection (with) community development," Schimmer said.
“We are finding ourselves more and more … engaged in directly working with companies to try to work out training situations just like this one,” he said. “This group of commissioners have challenged their staff to work more on poverty issues."
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