By Jon Schuppe
EAST HARLEM — Cassandra Bailey took her seat at the front of the class, pen poised for note taking as a workshop on job seeking began at STRIVE, a nonprofit organization recruiting local residents to work at the new Target.
Bailey, who is “over 50” and has been unemployed for five years, hoped the Wednesday morning workshop would give her the edge she needed to end her cold streak. As an East Harlem resident, she was just the type of person STRIVE was seeking to boost the numbers of locals working at the neighborhood’s big new shopping mall, East River Plaza.
“I think people here should have the first priority to get a chance to work in this community,” Bailey said.
The July opening of Target at East River Plaza represents the biggest challenge in the local hiring effort, aimed at reducing East Harlem’s 17 percent unemployment rate. The mall's first two retail outlets, Costco and Best Buy, have fallen far short of goals outlined in a community benefits agreement, which asked for 60 percent of workers to come from the neighborhood.
That has put added pressure on community leaders and STRIVE to improve results. The key, they say, is getting more people to make it through the interview process.
Target says it will hire 400 or so people in an interviewing blitz from May 25 to 29. Executives expect to see about 2,000 people during that week.
Another two employers at East River Plaza, Bob’s Discount Furniture and Old Navy, are also hiring in preparation for opening this summer.
The recruiting process starts at STRIVE, which is under contract with the developers to recruit and prepare enough locals to meet the 60 percent mark.
The agreement was part of a deal in which the community board allowed the mall to accept late-night deliveries from trucks rumbling through residential streets. But the agreement wasn't legally binding, and neither of the current stores have gone past the 50 percent mark. About 48 percent of Costco’s workers live in the neighborhood, officials said, but that was after the store laid off dozens of people.
The reason the hiring numbers have fallen short isn’t exactly clear. Some community board officials say STRIVE’s original recruiting process was flawed. Others believe that people aren’t particularly interested in retail jobs. STRIVE workers have said they’ve encountered many residents who can’t read or write English, or couldn’t pass drug or criminal background checks. Many wonder if the 60 percent goal was unrealistic.
There has also been internal debate about the role of the city’s Workforce1 recruiting centers, which gathers potential workers from across New York. Local officials have pushed for a process in which STRIVE’s East Harlem referrals get first crack at interviews.
“I just want them to be more responsive to that request to have jobs filled first and foremost to the local people,” East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito said.
Tracie Abbott, assistant commissioner for workforce development at the city’s Department of Small Business Services, which oversees the Workforce1 centers, said her agency understood local officials’ interest in getting as many East Harlem residents as possible hired at East River Plaza. At the same time, her agency’s commitment is to employers looking to hire people from across in New York City.
“We can’t limit our services,” Abbott said.
STRIVE CEO Eric Treworgy said his organization is trying to improve its recruiting process, which includes keeping more than 2,500 local job seekers on a list of recruits for East River Plaza employers. “We’re working really hard to get the word out for Target and Bob’s,” he said.
That list, he added, will come in handy for years to come, as more stores open and East River Plaza workers who are not from the neighborhood leave their jobs.
STRIVE is inviting people from that list to two-hour workshops aimed at preparing them for interviews with Target. Wednesday morning’s session was one of them.
The class was led by Katherine Strickle, a two-time felon in a dark suit who, with help from STRIVE, had fought her way up from drug addiction and homelessness. For two hours, she walked about two-dozen clients through the application and interview process, giving tips on how to dress and speak and behave at work.
“These are your jobs,” she told them. “You are the community.”
When it was over, not all of the clients seemed very enthusiastic about their chances. But Cassandra Bailey, dressed in a beige-and-black herringbone jacket, black slacks and a sequined scarf, said she’d learned some things that may give her the break she needed to finally land a job.
“Even if it’s two or three days a week, it’s appreciated,” she said. “A lot of people here are out of jobs. We just need a chance.”