Investigating the Missing Link: Access to Employment
Anna Migicovsky is a MBA student at SFU and a Project Coordinator with the Local Economic Development Lab. For two semesters, Anna is working with the Potluck Cafe Society, helping to refine and launch Knack – a new employment strategy for social impact hiring.
When speaking to family members and friends about my current position working in the Downtown Eastside (DTES), I always hear the following two topics come up:
- Access to Health and Addictions-related Resources
- Access to Affordable Housing
Not that these areas aren’t a priority, because they are. But I’ve added another topic to their repertoire…
- Access to Employment Opportunities
My action research with LEDlab looks at this community through the lens of inclusive economic development. Contrary to popular belief, the DTES comprises not only the East Hastings St. corridor, but seven distinct neighbourhoods including Chinatown, Gastown, Industrial Area, Oppenheimer District, Strathcona, Thornton Park and Victory Square. The DTES has been experiencing rapid change, especially in the development of new buildings (think Woodwards, Keefer Block,) and the influx of new businesses into the neighbourhood (a proliferation of juice and coffee bars come to mind). These businesses are almost entirely catering to a higher income clientele.
One of the direct consequences I’ve seen first hand is that the police are actively trying to “clean-up” the sidewalks of street vending. As my LEDlab colleague has explained in a previous blog, many low-income individuals resort to survival vending to make ends meet. This vending usually happens on the sidewalks and alleys of the DTES. As of November, the City of Vancouver and the Vancouver Police Department have been “transitioning” these activities to designated vending zones. These efforts to create a more business-friendly environment, which will then attract more upscale businesses, will continue to change the face of the neighbourhoods.
How can we make it a win-win situation for new businesses to come into this neighbourhood while creating benefits for the local community?
There are many positives that come with an influx of economic activity. The question is: how can we ensure that some of this new economic activity benefits low-income residents of the DTES?
With the new diversity of products and services, there will be new demand for human resources. Can the hiring managers be inclusive in their search for their required staff? If we approach business with an inclusive employment strategy, this can help us aspire to something greater than just gentrification.
Based on analysis of perspectives of DTES community members and my work with Potluck Cafe Society, my research recommendations are:
1) We need to educate the business owners, hiring managers and general staff
Thoughts on how to build a more vibrant and inclusive economy have already been circulating through associations like the Hastings Crossing BIA (HxBIA), whose mandate includes a clear commitment to the core principle of social inclusion. HxBIA created a program called CommunityWise in partnership with Potluck Cafe Society, Carnegie Community Action Project and LOCO BC, supported by the City of Vancouver, which addressed the need for the businesses, service providers and residents in the community to work together to address concerns about social exclusion.
The CommunityWise program consists of 3 core workshops: Carnegie Community Action Project explains a history of advocacy and activism in the neighbourhoods, LOCO BC educates on social impact purchasing, and Potluck Café Society shares their own best practices for inclusive HR management. Through participation in programs like these, we see that there are business leaders who are making the effort to create an inclusive local economy. But, this needs to happen at an increasingly larger scale in order create enough supportive employment opportunities for the residents of the DTES.
2) We need to connect these valuable, committed, capable individuals to employers in the DTES?
With Potluck Cafe Society, we have been in the process of implementing a program called “Knack” (as in, one has a knack for something). This program uses digital badges to showcase employment related skillsets.
Badges are digital tokens displayed on an online platform. Similar to a Boy Scout’s badge, these digital badges signify accomplishments such as completion of a project or mastery of a skill. The badges will be awarded to Knack earners by an authorized organization or institution (eg. Potluck Café Society, Carnegie Community Centre, etc.).
We are hoping that these ‘micro-credentials’ are a fundamental change in the way society recognizes learning and achievement—shifting from a traditional books-and-lecture to a model with multiple knowledge streams.
As many people are already actively working, volunteering or contributing in some way in the community, we want to create a system to recognize and acknowledge them for their hard work, and this makes a standard language for showing their many skills. We also want these skills to be transferable to other paid opportunities in a more diverse economic environment, like at the juice and coffee bars that are so popular in the DTES these days.
Online, we hope that Knack will be a portal for employers to post paid opportunities that recognize earned badges from the participants as a way to communicate skills and competencies. As this is a project that is developing, we are still eager to connect employers with potential employees, so please feel free to send us an email and we can speak directly with you about your request.
And Lastly, with this small blog post, I hope to broaden the conversation about the DTES to include access to employment as an important strategy for poverty alleviation, and perhaps encourage you to speak with the local business owners in your own lives about role they play in shifting neighbourhood dynamics. In order to tackle the massive underemployment in the DTES, we’ll need to contribute to a different narrative about the skills, capabilities of neighbourhood residents and take action to affirm that change.