Impact with Don Shafer: Working Gear

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Working Gear Society is known for providing workers with the clothes they need to complete their work but was tragically put out of business in February when their roof collapsed due to the snow. Peter Crawford and John Warrington, members of their board of directors join Stirling Faux to talk about what’s next.

Roof collapse ruins half of supplies for group that helps men re-entering the workforce

Source: Vancouver Sun by John Colebourn
(Photo Credit: Arlen Redekop)

A non-profit society that helps men get geared up to get back in the workforce has been hit hard by the weather.

The Working Gear Clothing Society has an office at Joyce Street and Kingsway, but the ceiling collapsed under the weight of recent snowfalls, destroying inventory and putting their program on hold.

“We are looking right now for a new location,” said John Warrington, a board member of the non-profit.

About 600 men a year are suited up to return to the workforce by the agency. All the men who visit their location are prescreened and then arrive to get a business suit for an office-type job, or things like work boots and hard hats if they are trying to get into the construction field.

“They (can) have work the next morning provided they have work boots and a hard hat,” said Warrington of many of the men who arrive needing some help to land a job. “They are work-ready and simply can’t work because of a lack of clothing. They want to be working.”

The ceiling of the Working Gear office collapsed Feb. 9, and left a large portion of the clothes and items they get as donations damaged and unusable.

The society plans to host the Gear to Give annual fundraiser in May, but with the damage to the office, getting a new location is now the top priority.

Warrington said they are hoping someone with about 1,400 square feet of retail-type space can offer them a reasonable monthly rent.

“Our big urgency is to find a new location,” he said. “Our (present) location is simply unsafe.”

He said once they get a new location they can again start taking in clothing and monetary donations. And Warrington said they are always looking for volunteers.

“Fiscally, we are sound, but we need a new location.”

Working Gear looking for industry support and boots for workers

Source: Journal of Commerce by Jean Sorensen

The 3300 block of Vancouver’s arterial Kingsway resembles a slice of Chinatown, but it is what is behind the facade of discount stores and Asian eateries that is making a difference and sending a small army of entrants onto construction job sites.

“We don’t ask where they come from. We only ask what they need,” said Jack Friebel, who is retired from marine engineering and volunteers for Working Gear Clothing Society, an eastside basement outlet that literally puts shoes on the feet of men stepping onto construction sites.

“Most people are only two or three paycheques from being on the street.”

Men who have suffered some kind of setback but want to return to the workforce and are deemed work ready by a referral agency come to the clothing store. They are outfitted free of charge with work appropriate clothing ranging from suits for interviews to jeans, hard hats, gloves, safety goggles and boots.

Working Gear operates three days a week (Wednesdays and Thursdays from 6 to 8 p.m. and Saturday 10 a.m. to noon) and is staffed by volunteers. It relies on donations of clothing and funds to survive. The registered non-profit society also operates with a volunteer board of directors.

It only takes a few moments before the first young man walks through the door. He’s lined up a labourer job on a construction site but doesn’t have work boots.

“What size?” asks Riya Sharma, who leaves a day-job at a stem cell biotech company to volunteer one night a week for two hours. He replies size 10.

That’s a problem for Sharma. There is a chronic shortage of steel-toed work boots in the size 10 to 12 range. There are smaller sizes in good condition but the larger sizes offer up a poor selection and those available are rough around the edges.

Sharma sifts through what she has, does the best she can and finally finds a pair size 10.5 that might work for him.

He takes them plus some other work gear and is one step closer to that first paycheque and new boots, a move towards an apprenticeship and a new life.

The irony is that Working Gear, whose slogan is about putting the boots to unemployment, operates with little or no support from B.C.’s construction industry.

For nearly a decade it has fought the odds.

“We have just focused on existing,” said Working Gear president Frank Kusmer, part of a group of local businessmen, professionals and lawyers who have kept the charity organization afloat, rounding up dollars at fundraisers, organizing boot drives and getting volunteers to donate a couple of hours a week to running the clothing outlet.

Each year, it helps 600 to 700 men return to jobs. It was only recently, through fundraising efforts and more individuals stepping forward, that Kusmer sees the potential to grow and expand beyond the stage of struggling to survive. It’s been almost a decade of hard work.

“It started in 2007 with a group of people who were working with men and women in the downtown eastside of Vancouver,” said Kusmer, adding these founders came from a variety of organizations that dealt with individuals from different walks of life — immigrants, First Nations, youth, hardship cases, individuals who had gone through substance abuse rehabilitation, the unemployed and individuals released from correctional facilities. The common goal was getting a job. Some had skills and even attained Red Seal certification, or had gone through courses and were work ready. But, they were broke and had no work gear.

“There was really nothing for men,” said Kusmer, adding that organizations such as Dress for Success were helping stream women back to work by providing workplace clothing.

“You can’t step onto a construction site without proper CSA approved steel-toed boots,” said Kusmer, adding appropriate work boots can be priced at more than $100. “It was a barrier to getting the job. The group started working to fill that gap.”

They began soliciting donations of work clothing, boots, jeans and rain gear but also suits and casual wear so that men could go for interviews. He points out that some of the men that come through the door have higher levels of education and just need that helping hand to return to the workplace. Strong support has come from men’s clothier Moore’s which does an annual suit drive and stocks the non-profit outlet with clothing.

But even after 10 years Working Gear still struggles on the work-gear side and steel-toed boots and rain gear are two items that fly off the shelf. BC Hydro has been a strong supporter supplying safety coveralls and boots on a regular basis. WorkSafeBC has also been a strong supporter donating safety gear and dollars.

Last year, WorkSafeBC donated $18,000 in safety gear and a stipend to help the organization pay utility and overhead costs, said spokesman Scott McCloy, who is also responsible for community relations.

“We see this as something that fits with our mandate to create a healthier workplace,” said McCloy, adding while Working Gear is small, it is highly focus and “fulfilling a need in the community.”

WorkSafeBC became involved in 2009 after its then CEO David Anderson saw a television newscast on the organization.

McCloy, who has also participated in fundraisers for the organization, said there has been some support from the construction industry but generally the work “flies way below the radar.”

The system works on a referral basis from agencies that book individuals into the clothing centre. These agencies include: ACCESS Futures, the Canadian Council on Rehabilitation, Community Employment Services (Corrections Canada), Frog Hollow Neighbourhood House, Youth Employment Services (16 to 30 years), the First Nations Employment Society, nine WorkBC employment centres or affiliates, the Union Gospel Mission, the Immigration Services Society of BC and the YWCA.

Outfitting individuals is done on a just-in-time basis, Kusmer said. Individuals are either work ready or have a job lined up and need clothing for either the interview or getting onto a job site.

Kusmer said Working Gear is actively seeking to reach out to the construction industry and could also use more volunteers from construction companies to help collect clothing and boots.

Friebel, who has been volunteering for more than three years, said the rewards for volunteering are satisfying but non-tangible.

“You have to give of yourself to really give your own life meaning,” he said.

Sharma agrees there is a satisfying sense of accomplishment.

“It is really about helping people get back on their feet,” she said.

Great Canadians: Working Gear

Source: Reader’s Digest by Susan Peters

In 2007, Stephen Flynn uncovered a dilemma. Through his job at a Vancouver employment service centre, he knew low-income men moving back into the workforce needed clothes for job interviews and construction sites. He was also aware they couldn’t afford to buy a suit or work boots without a source of income. Non-profits like Dress for Success were helping women prep for the office, but organizations providing a similar service to men were rare.
“So why don’t you set one up?” a colleague challenged him. “If I do, will you help me?” Flynn asked.

Within six months, Flynn, then 46, and a coalition of staffers from employment agencies across the city had started Working Gear. Originally run out of a cramped storage room, the charity supplies clients with professional attire, whether the men are headed to an office or a building site. Now based in East Vancouver, Working Gear’s spacious headquarters are packed with racks of clothing, shelves of boots and a change area: “We want our customers to feel like this is a store and they’re here to shop,” says Flynn.

The men who come to Working Gear for appointments – often nervous about getting suited up and reluctant to take too many items-must be referred by job counsellors at agencies like the Open Door Group. That’s where program and financial-support specialist Launa Gallant assists residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, a neighbourhood with an unemployment rate of more than 11 per cent, about twice the overall rate of the rest of the city. During the course of a year, she sends approximately 100 men to the charity for outfits that will make a good first impression on employers and boost the job seekers’ confidence levels. “By a conservative estimate, the new clothes improve our clients’ chances of securing employment by more than 80 per cent,” says Gallant.

For Andrew Fredericks, 30, the referral to Working Gear came from staff at the halfway house where he lived after being released from prison. In 2012, for an interview as a door-to-door marketer, he picked out a slim-fit grey suit, shirt and tie. He left feeling “super happy-I didn’t know I would be that comfortable or could look that good in a suit.”

Though he didn’t get the marketing job, Fredericks returned to Working Gear as a volunteer; three years later, he’s a restaurant owner and yoga teacher. “There should be more of these places around,” he says.

Open six hours a week, Working Gear serves approximately 800 men annually-and a few women who need construction duds. With Vancouver building sites running year-round, there’s work for skilled labourers, but positions in warehouses, landscaping and on sites require applicants to wear steel-toed boots, even when dropping off a resumé. The cost-$100 to $200 per pair-can be prohibitive for the unemployed. Boot drives pull in hundreds of used but useful work boots donated by large companies or members of border services, who receive new steel-toed footwear each year. Safety gear, such as reflective vests, goggles, gloves and hard hats, is provided by the government body WorkSafeBC, while many of the suits come from Moores, which runs an annual campaign to collect lightly used professional clothing from its customers.

The satisfaction of meeting a clear need keeps Flynn-who now assists elderly clients at British Columbia’s Public Trustee office-involved in Working Gear, both on the board of directors and as a volunteer in the shop. “When they see that person in the mirror, when they hear from us how good they look,” he says, “they really can visualize themselves at the meeting or on the job site.” Wearing their new clothes, the men stand tall, smile and walk out into the world.

Working Gear launches No Small Feet Campaign

Source: Miss 604 by Rebecca Bolwitt

The Working Gear Clothing Society provides trade appropriate clothing at no cost to low income men who are looking for work.

Mission statement: To relieve poverty by providing interview clothing and/or industry appropriate clothing to low income or unemployed men in search of employment.

The Society says these are men who are job ready, but lack something as simple as a pair of work boots or even a suit and dress shoes for an interview — kind of along the lines of what Dress for Success does for women. This summer they’re launching the “No Small Feet” campaign to collect 400 pairs of steel-toed work boots by September 1st, 2010.

They are looking for steel-toed work boots and shoes although they will also accept financial donations that can be used to purchase these supplies. Volunteers are available to pick up goods and donations in person July 2nd, August 6th, and September 3rd.

Donations can also be dropped off in person at Working Gear Clothing Society (87 East Pender Street) on Saturdays from 10:00am-2:00pm. Please call ahead (604) 880-5040 or email workinggear[at] to schedule a pickup or to let them know you’ll be stopping by.

Working Gear is a registered Canadian charity and monetary donations can be made online through CanadaHelps. You can follow updates about the campaign on Twitter @WorkingGear.