Q&A: The unique role this area non-profit is playing to help job-seekers find confidence — and the clothes that build it

As part of a series publishing this week about the skills gap in the Dayton-area economy, our team of journalists working on the Path Forward project sought out many voices. The conversation below focuses on a Dayton non-profit that works hard to help under-employed people get and keep new jobs.

Since 1998, Clothes That Work has helped thousands of people get the clothes and the confidence they need to improve their lives. We talked with Cindy Garner, CTW’s executive director, and Bill Perry, marketing and communications manager. This interview is condensed and edited for clarity.

Dayton Daily News: What’s the brief history of Clothes That Work?

Cindy Garner: Twenty years ago, the organization was created to help unemployed people who were going to have to deal with welfare reform that was going to require people to work part time to receive some form of benefits. Some 9,000 here would be affected by that mandate. A group of 13 local women we call our Founding Mothers realized this would be a barrier for people who had no transportation, no child care, often not the education they'd need, nor the clothing required for job interviews and the workplace. So they said, What can we help with? The thing we can affect is addressing the clothing needs and coaching people will need to help them get and keep a job.

Bill Perry: And the founders worked fast – they had just 18 months from the time the law was enacted to when people would need these services. Some large percentage of the people they were helping were single moms whose fulltime job had been caring for their children, and now needed to get into the workforce.

Garner: This is a really generous town; people really support non-profits here,and the arts, so well. I think it goes all the way back to the response to the 1913 flood – the community saw a need and pulled together to make it happen. It's the same with Clothes That Work – people here saw an urgent need on the horizon and responded to it.

Perry: The Job Center was just being built when Clothes That Work was starting, and we were allowed to locate here rent-free for the first year. Elder-Beerman donated the fixtures. Franciscan Medical Center paid our rent for the next two years.

Garner: We had such great buy-in from the community from get-go. At first we were just a closet, basically. The organization was entirely run by volunteers for its first three or four years.

DDN: How long has it been what people see when they come in today?

Perry: About 2008, we moved from our small corner of the Job Center to this larger space, and in 2013 we had a capital campaign — the education and training center was built and we expanded The Boutique. We made separate client service areas for men and women, and a donation processing room that even has a washer and dryer in it, to make the most of the clothing donations we receive.

DDN: Describe the mission and work.

Garner: We help under-resourced job seekers by providing them with interview-appropriate clothing and coaching, to help them gain and main employment. To have employment success –we give them the tools and the knowledge to keep the job after they get the job.

Perry: What we do is also good for employers. Employers say it costs them money to replace someone, and it's more efficient to keep and grow and an employee than to replace them.

Garner: We started out as women helping women, but in 2005 we also started serving men. Now men are 53 percent of the clients we serve.

DDN: Why, do you think?

Garner: Well, we're one of the only places that serves men this way. Dress for Success is a national organization with a branch in Cincinnati, and it's similar to what we do, but only serves women. Little old Dayton saw a need to help men as well, and it really took off.

Perry: I think our brand awareness has grown, and people realize that you don't just get clothes, you also get a coach. The coaches get 3 ½ hours of training; a client appointment lasts 90 minutes – 45 minutes for dressing them. A lot of people we help have never had a suit before, so they may not know things like how to tie a tie, how to match shoes, things like wearing an undershirt under a dress shirt.

Garner: Then we have interview coaching — why it's important to dress up for an interview, appropriate behavior like looking the person in the eye, having a firm handshake, the importance of body language, putting your cell phone away, no texting, sit up straight, no slouching, positive attitude – smile.

Perry: The importance of following up with a thank you note. We even provide a template.

Garner: We also give the client stationery. It sounds simple to many people to send a thank-you to the person you met with, but for some of our clients these may be skills they've never used before. They may not have had that behavior modeled for them. They may be coming from generations of poverty and may not know workplace norms.

Perry: And an employer is going to form an opinion of you in an interview based on how you look.

Garner: Right. It takes seven seconds to make an impression on a potential employer. I like to tell the story of a client who attended a job fair at Fuyao – we dressed him all up. There were 200 people in line the next day, but he'd been coached, had confidence, looked great. So they pulled him out of line and gave him an interview right away and he got the job. He asked, "Why me?" They said it was because he was the only person who took the time and cared enough about the job to dress for it. They said they'd thought he'd come in for a manager position. So appearance matters. Turns out he needed work clothes and boots, too. We offer three or four work outfits so that clients don't have to use their first paycheck for the clothes they need for the job.

DDN: How many clients do you serve a year?

Garner: Last year, about 1,382. Our goal is to have the capacity to serve 2,000 by 2019. With the unemployment rate going down, we still want to be able to serve more than we need to — it just takes one company leaving town the way GM did to have a whole bunch of people back at our door needing help.

DDN:What goes into more capacity?

Garner: More inventory, more workshops, expanding our programs. We're also looking to expand the services we can provide to companies, such as helping with onboarding, or bringing our workshops into your facility — say, if you were trying to get your employees onto a new dress code. We're also working on programs for high school seniors — a whole generation of people ready for the workforce who need to learn things to be successful when they get there.

DDN: How many donations do you get?

Garner: We processed 154,000 items last year. Every bit of it was used. If not interview appropriate or placed for resale in our Boutique, it goes to St. Vincent dePaul. If you would still wear it, we'd like to have it — something still comfortable to wear, but that you're just tired of. Not something musty. We do rely on the generosity of the community for every stitch of clothing we handle. We take most anything except athletic wear. Not just office clothes, but things you'd wear on a factory floor or construction site, too.

DDN: How has what you do changed over time?

Garner: Well, lots of offices are going business casual, so we've having to adjust our clothing and coaching.

Perry: There's a lot of job diversity in this town – if you're in banking, you need conservative clothes; but there are a lot of creative industries here where you'd stand out in a black suit.

Garner: One of our main programs just started in 2017 – we launched our Workplace Image Institute; that came from corporations and businesses in the community telling us they have the jobs, but not the people with the necessary soft skills to keep those jobs. People who haven't worked in an office before may not know how to properly answer the phone, or that you answer an email within 24 hours. There are all kinds of unwritten, non-intuitive rules of the workplace that we can help our clients with if they take these classes.

DDN: How are they set up?

Garner: The Workplace Image Institute is five core worshops on appearance, communication, networking, social media and "behaviors beyond the handbook," which is really business etiquette. It's definitely necessary. The first year we had a goal of 400 people going through it, but we exceeded that with 441. This year, we had 300 just in the first quarter. They're free and open to the public. We found sometimes people can't attend during the day, so we've gone offsite to increase the outreach, partnering with the Dayton Metro Library and its branches. That's important to us, getting to new populations and into new areas.

Perry: Partnerships are the way to get it done.

DDN: Just to make sure people know what we’re talking about, define soft skills.

Garner: Knowing how to work a computer is a hard skill. Soft skills are the skill set outside those described in a job description – etiquette, knowing when to answer the phone, how to dress, showing up for work when you're supposed to. If you're running late, call and say you're going to be late this morning so the boss knows.

Perry: A real big one is communication in the workplace – we have multiple generations in the workplace now; John the boomer may want a face to face meeting; Jane wants to just send a text, and Bob does everything via email.

Garner: And we've got a new generation that will under no circumstances make a phone call. It's easier for them to text, but a lot of businesses require you to be on the phone.

Perry: We work with an ongoing education committee from the business world that tells us what challenges they're facing now. Standard appearance in the workplace is one. We tell clients, if you wouldn't wear it to the grocery store, then don't wear it to work.

DDN: Are clients defensive about these things?

Garner: Not at all. By the time we get clients, they're ready to work and they want to learn. We work at lot with the felon re-entry program, and those clients really appreciate the help.

DDN: Do people know what they don’t know?

Garner: Not necessarily. But we train the volunteers to show kindness and be mindful not to make people feel inadequate. They want to get the job; they really are receptive to whatever information we provide.

Perry: We had a woman who came in who was a bit larger sized, and she was convinced we wouldn't have anything that would make her look good and mumbled about it the whole time. When the coaches were done dressing her, she looked in the mirror and screamed, "Damn, I look good!" And then she apologized. But it was so funny and sweet.

Garner: When our clients leave they're smiling, confident, 10 feet taller than when they came in the door. You really see the transformation – it's what's so good about working here. It's the coolest thing.

DDN: What do you think happened to soft skills? I don’t recall this conversation 20, 30 years ago.

Garner: I don't know. Two-parent working families, and no time to teach those skills anymore?

Perry: I see people not looking past tomorrow, fixated on the now.

Garner: Fast-food nation. Everyone wants fast, quick, now.

Perry: The cell phone was meant to complement life, not replace it. Technology can be an asset but when it becomes a replacement, you forget those skills.

Garner: And a lot of young people would rather be on the computer than interacting with others, which affects your ability at social interaction.

DDN: Do you think things are getting better? What’s the future look like?

Perry: Slowly. We're watching a pendulum shift in the workplace … on clothing, we've gone from never leaving your office without a jacket to polo shirts and now back to jackets again. Now Millennials have grown up and we're on to Generation Z, who are not like the generation before them — less glued to their phones, for instance. What everyone has in common is wanting a good job and a successful future.

Garner: The future for us is more partnerships and broadening the organization to be more regional, reaching outside Montgomery County. I think we're one of Dayton's best-kept secrets, and I'd like more people to know about us and what we can do to help them. We're Daytonians helping Daytonians.

Giving people a hand up

What are some of the biggest issues facing our community, and how can we solve them? The Dayton Daily News has formed a special team of reporters and editors to engage the community and seek solutions to three difficult challenges: the ongoing opioid epidemic, the state of the Dayton Public Schools, and how to make our economy stronger for the future. On today’s front page, staff writer Lynn Hulsey looks at how we can address the so-called skills gap and strengthen the region’s workforce.

Today's Ideas & Voices page focuses on a Dayton non-profit that works hard to help under-employed people get and keep new jobs. Since 1998, Clothes That Work has helped thousands of people get the clothes and the confidence they need to improve their lives. We talked with Cindy Garner, CTW's executive director, and Bill Perry, marketing and communications manager. This interview is condensed and edited for clarity. — Ron Rollins, Community Impact Editor

Clothes That Work

Where: The Job Center, 1133 S. Edwin C. Moses Blvd., Suite 392

Cost: Clients can pay a one-time fee of $30 to receive service, or get a referral from a CTW partner that will cover the cost of an interview outfit.

Upcoming event: CTW's annual Fashioning Futures fundraising luncheon is from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Oct. 25 at Sinclair Community College.

More info: 937-225-3778; www.clothesthatwork.org.

When our clients leave they’re smiling, confident, 10 feet taller than when they came in the door. You really see the transformation – it’s what’s so good about working here. It’s the coolest thing. — Cindy Garner, executive director, Clothes That Work

About the Author