A Christmas Tale: Goodwill Is Training the Jobless for Digital Careers


Ready for a feel-good Christmas tale? Consider Goodwill, which was founded in 1902 in Boston by the Reverend Edgar J. Helms, a Methodist minister. He collected used clothing and household goods, sold them in stores, and used the money for what he called “employment, training, and rehabilitation for people of limited employability, and a source of temporary assistance for individuals whose resources were depleted.”

That’s still pretty much the vision, except it’s now on a continental scale. Goodwill has stores in all 50 states and Canada employing about 140,000 people. It estimates that last year it helped 1.5 million people “build competencies, earn jobs and advance in their careers.”

The Christmas angle is that on Dec. 15 MacKenzie Scott, a novelist who became one of the world’s wealthiest people through her divorce settlement with Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeffrey Bezos, announced she was including Goodwill in a shower of philanthropy. A spokeswoman for Goodwill Industries International Inc. in Rockville, Md., said Dec. 23 that grants to the Rockville organization and 39 local, independently operated affiliates total $360 million. The number will grow a bit as seven other local affiliates that received grants from Scott reveal how much they got.

Scott’s holiday-season announcement culminated four months in which she gave away more than $4 billion to food banks, Meals on Wheels, tribal colleges, historically Black colleges and universities, Easterseals, YMCAs, and YWCAs, among other recipients. 

The donations to Goodwill will accelerate efforts to equip people for digital careers, says Steven Preston, chief executive officer of Goodwill Industries International, the Maryland-based umbrella organization, which alone received $20 million. Covid-19 has killed a lot of jobs in hospitality and food service that Goodwill alumni have traditionally filled, making it even more important for Goodwill to transition toward digital, he says. 

Some clients require training in “foundational” skills, such as how to write an email and search for information online. Others learn office apps such as word processing and spreadsheets. The most advanced are learning Python, a programming language, and Tableau, data analysis software. Goodwill has formed a partnership with Google for five levels of training, Preston says.

Before the pandemic, employers had so many unfilled jobs that they snapped up people from Goodwill even if they didn’t meet their traditional qualifications, says Preston. The employers were willing to set aside requirements for bachelor’s degrees, for example. “There’s a lot of research, if you have Job A, you’ll develop a set of skills that should lead you to be competent in Job B,” he says. Preston says he’s hoping that employers don’t fall back on old hiring practices now that the pool of applicants has grown.

Preston worked as an investment banker at Lehman Brothers Inc. and later ran the Small Business Administration, then served as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under President George W. Bush. He was also chief financial officer of ServiceMaster Co. LLC and Waste Management Inc., among other jobs. “I love running companies, I love running organizations,” he says. The Goodwill job fell into his lap when he got a call from a recruiter—just as the gift from Scott, which he calls “transformational,” was unsolicited.

Unlike many nonprofits, Goodwill raises most of its funds through its thrift stores, but with sales at those down because of Covid-19, the donations from Scott and others are welcome. Says Preston: “Americans are extremely, extremely generous, and I know many people have stepped up their giving this year, which is enormously affirming.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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