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Workforce nonprofit assists underserved, veterans

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James Sessions graduated from Workforce Opportunity Services. He is now employed at Prudential Financial as a relationship manager in the information technology field.
James Sessions graduated from Workforce Opportunity Services. He is now employed at Prudential Financial as a relationship manager in the information technology field. - ()

James Sessions credits a local nonprofit for equipping him with occupational skills that paved the way for career success.

“I was jumping around from job to job and using my friends to have a job,” Sessions said. “I had a bachelor’s degree already and rejoined the military. I asked my sergeant for assistance.”

Sessions was serving in the New Jersey Army National Guard. He commuted from his Glassboro home in South Jersey to start at the nonprofit Workforce Opportunity Services in late 2011 at Rutgers University’s Newark campus and graduated in 2012.

He became a Prudential Financial employee in June 2012 and remains to this day as a relationship manager in the information technology field.

WOS taught him coding, project management, web page design and business essentials.

“The people I worked with were fantastic,” Sessions said. “I used my network within Prudential. I think the only major concern was we did not know what to expect transitioning from consultant to employee. Being that we were a pilot program, we were asked to mentor others. I take part in the business resource groups. It is a chance for employees to network with people. It creates a positive experience. I have been part of the vet net group for years. I help the incoming veterans. I feel the need to give back.”

Arthur Langer, a professor of professional practice at Columbia University, founded WOS in 2005. Its mission is to work with recent high school graduates from underserved communities and military veterans to develop their skills so they can be placed with New Jersey companies. It integrates hidden talent in these communities into the workforce. 

WOS recruits, educates and trains the young adults and veterans for those specific positions. Its consultants are paid while they are being trained to work for companies.

Diana Castro, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield.
Diana Castro, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield.
“Before WOS I was without any corporate background. I did not know how to set up a meeting, deal with life situations and deal with corporate situations.”

Diana Castro, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield

“Our success rate is 90 percent. When a company asks for 10 people, we provide 12 candidates,” Langer said. “The method has been incredibly successful. It allows companies to try our people. We provide health care and interest-free loans. We had a homeless veteran living in a car and moved him into an apartment. We help with removing all the barriers.”

WOS is a nonprofit 501 (C) (3) organization funded by corporations. 

“It adheres to the laws of supply and demand,” Langer said. “If they are happy, they want more.”

Langer has also developed an instrument that predicts the likelihood of people becoming successful in careers based on human development methods.

“We know that low self-esteem is a killer,” Langer said. “We tracked growth across areas that are important to organizations. I concluded that corporations are risk-averse and do not want to hire an underrepresented person.”

Diana Castro graduated from WOS and is now a business analyst with Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey.

“I am very thankful for the program in general,” Castro said. “I was able to have so many doors opened. I met a lot of great people through the program who provided me with training and gave me the tools to excel in my current position.”

She became affiliated with WOS on her last day of high school in 2009. She has also earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing from the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

“It gave me the tools to become a professional,” Castro said. “Before WOS I was without any corporate background. I did not know how to set up a meeting, deal with life situations and deal with corporate situations. Through WOS I was an analyst consultant at Horizon. I became a full-time employee when Horizon hired me from WOS in 2015. I felt like WOS gave me a chance to the corporate world. A lot of my friends have degrees but work retail jobs. Without WOS, this would probably have never happened.”

Born in the Dominican Republic, Castro moved to the U.S. at age 13 and grew up in Newark.

“At first it was tough because of cultural and language barriers, but because I had my family with me it was easier to adjust,” Castro said. 

Chuck Sevola is vice president of the Prudential Veterans Initiative in Newark and credits Prudential Chief Information Officer Barbara Koster for partnering with Langer in 2005.

“We were looking for an opportunity to tap into a talented pool,” Sevola said. “That partnership began in 2005 to help young adults in underserved communities have a path toward employment. In 2010 when our chairman John Strangfeld wanted to have a substantive impact to help post-9/11 veterans, that is when I got involved as a key architect of the program. We started working with veterans. It brings an untapped talent pool into our population.”

The economic downturn hit in 2008, causing veteran unemployment to be two points higher than the national average.

“Prudential wanted to do its part to address that,” Sevola said. “Our chairman opted to modify the veteran talent program. I led the first two cohorts of the vet talent program in 2010 and 2011 and later took over responsibility for the veteran’s initiative.”

“I talked about their transition from the military — their acclimation issues and being a resource to them however appropriate,” he continued. “I run the veterans initiative office.”

The intent is to hire all the candidates who finish the veterans program.

“I want to dispel the mistaken belief that all people who leave the military have unseen wounds like [post-traumatic stress disorder],” Sevola said. “That is not the case. That is not a characteristic of every veteran. We have a mentorship program in the veteran affinity group. Prudential has a general program and a health and wellness organization to refer veterans to the Veterans Administration.

“We have brought in 167-plus veterans and military spouses through WOS since 2010,” he continued. “It has been reinforced that veterans and their spouses are valuable. I knew that going into the program. They are often an untapped talent source as well. A military spouse has difficulty holding down a career because they are constantly moving. We have developed job portability to those spouses. They work at another Prudential location or remotely from home.

“The beauty of this program is it is highly configurable. If you want to train candidates for IT jobs, the educational component will be designed. The program is dependent on the jobs you are looking to fill. The basic model is intact.”

Prudential worked with WOS to fill 150 information technology positions.

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David Hutter

David Hutter

David Hutter grew up in Darien, Conn., and covers higher education, transportation and manufacturing for NJBIZ. He can be reached at dhutter@njbiz.com.

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