Municipal Government

Open Hiring, Holistic Employment & Workforce Development – A Recipe for Success in Yonkers

April 20, 2016
By Bill Hohlfeld 

Yonkers, NY – If you’ve ever dipped a spoon into any of the Ben and Jerry’s ice cream flavors that contain brownies, you can stop feeling guilty about being too self indulgent. You’ve not only satisfied the craving of your sweet tooth, you’ve helped the world become just a little bit nicer place. That was all part of the plan that Ben Cohen and Bernie Glassman had over a quarter of a century ago, and the mission they had in mind continues to grow and morph and be a positive influence in Southwest Yonkers.

Ben Cohen, from Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and Bernie Glassman, a Bhuddist monk from Riverdale who ran a small bakery, met  at a conference and went for a walk during a break. The man who firmly believed that corporations didn’t have to be uncaring behemoths with absurd worker to CEO salary ratios chatted with the man who believed we are all somehow connected, and ought to be helping one another along the path to success. By the time that walk and chat were over, it had been arranged to ship 1,000 pounds of chocolate fudge brownies to Ben and Jerry’s. To this day, the Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, NY continues to meet orders for some of Ben and Jerry’s best selling flavors, as well as other clients, offering irrefutable proof that yes, you can do quite well by doing good.

Over the years, since the partnership was begun, Greyston has continued to bake brownies and change lives. But as high a quality as those brownies are, changing lives has remained the priority. That’s evident by the company’s mantra, “We don’t hire people to bake brownies, we bake brownies to hire people.” The secret ingredient in Greyston’s  undeniable success is, ironically, a departure from some conventional wisdom. 

WDI Director, Sonja Brown and Administrative Assistant, Christine Leone Plan the Day

To begin, they use what is known as an open hiring process. What might be considered a living hell for the human resources department of most major corporations, is just business as usual for Greyston.  If you’d like to work at Greyston, you show up and put your name on a list – that’s it. When there is an opening, they call you. No high school diploma? Had trouble with the law? Battled with drug use or homelessness in the past? The key word here is past. If you say you want to work today, Greyston is willing to give you the opportunity to prove you are serious about helping yourself.

You can also forget the old adages like “ Hey, business is business,” or “Don’t make your problems my problems.” You can replace that type of thinking with slogans like “it’s ok to smile at work,” or the sign that sits prominently on the wall that states “Namaste,” which literally translates to “I bow to the divine in you.” At Greyston, the corporate culture is about mutual respect, finding a path and attaining a self defined success. In order to do that, each employee must be considered holistically. Rather than the typical compartmentalization most of us experience as employee here, parent there, tenant there, everyone is seen as an integrated
personality and treated accordingly. There is access for employees to subsidized child care, affordable housing and other counseling services. There is even a community garden available where social interaction among the gardeners is as much a part of the harvest as are the fruits and vegetables.

If you think that all this utopian benefit comes at the cost of production, think again. You don’t produce 30,000 pounds of brownies a day by sitting around and chanting. It takes work. Each new hire is expected to complete a ten month training course, receiving small incremental raises along the way.  They are expected to show up every day, be on time and complete their tasks properly. Upon completion of the training program they become not only full fledged employees, but full fledged members of Local 53 of the Bakery Confectionary Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union. Unfortunately, despite all the support services available, not everyone completes the training program. In fact, Patrick James, General Manager of Healthy and Sustainable Communities, was quite straightforward with his statistic of a 40% completion rate. Mr. Patrick, whose previous lives contain successful careers in areas as diverse as career counseling and financial services, is a realistic man who is understandably proud of what gets accomplished at Greyston. 

At Greyston, Smiling is Encouraged!

For if we examine that number under the right lens, what we really see is, in a neighborhood with well above the national average of poverty, unemployment, and dropout rates, a company who is reaching out to just that sector of the population and making a positive
impact on nearly half of them. They do all that, and still manage to sell nearly 14 million dollars of brownies a year. Those numbers are, at least in part, due to the skills acquired in private sector manufacturing by Ms. Sharon Douglas, Greyston’s current Manager of Operational Finance. Ms. Douglas can either by memory, or via a very brief phone call, produce the facts and figures necessary to demonstrate what an efficient and profitable business the bakery is. In addition to that, the General Manager, Mr. Rich Jamesley, an affable but time constrained man, cut his teeth in the food production industry while working for Kraft Foods.  In short, Greyson
Bakery has a management team and staff second to none.

Currently there are 110 full time employees at the bakery, 90 of which work in direct production. Some find a home at that level, others go on and become supervisors. There is an internal ladder. And according to the PathMaking philosophy, still others move on, and continue their journey elsewhere.  One outstanding example is that of Willie Richards. According to Ms. Moses-Taylor, who serves as Director of Workforce Learning, Training and Development, “Mr. Richards was released from jail in 2010 after serving a 24 year sentencing that had life on the end of it. Once released from prison Mr. Richards didn’t know how to deal with all the new technology that was going on around him such as using a metro card for the bus. He heard from a friend about the Building Maintenance Program that Greyston offered so he came in to see what it was about. He was able to get in the class and in 2010 he became employed with the Guidance Center where he remains until this day. He is now a citizen, off parole, can vote, and file a tax return and he owes it all to Greyston and their Staff members.” Ms. Moses-Taylor who has been involved  for many years in the workforce development for the previously incarcerated took a minute to outline some of the not so obvious problems people in that situation encounter. “It’s not just about filling out the application, it’s about coming from an environment where you don’t make eye contact, and constantly receive a message that you are worthless, and then, upon release, being told  that to find a job you must look people straight in the eye with
confidence.”  But with the right set of support services coupled with Richards’s will to succeed, good things happened. Willie completed his training period in the proscribed 10 months. He became a valued member of the team. A happy man today, he has made his path, and six years later he is still on it.

Greyston will gladly partner with other organizations that are willing to help them reach their goals. One of their most recent partners is the Workforce Development Institute (WDI) whose stated mission it is  “to develop, support and enrich New York State’s workforce.” To do so, they will work with businesses, unions, government agencies, or not- for-profits. Recently, (back in 2014) the Hudson Valley was separated into Upper and Lower regions, and Ms. Sonja Brown was hired as a new regional director.

So, Ms. Brown conducted her own outreach. She actively searched for places  among both for profit and not for profit businesses in her region where she could make a difference, and one of the places she found on her search was Greyston. Through WDI she arranged for funding which was two-fold. One component was for training. This was specific to the development of hard skills such as culinary arts, customer service or security services. The other component was for capital improvement. It allowed Greyston to purchase a Production Recipe Information Management (PRIM) system.

This software serves a variety of purposes. It stores formulas and tracks recalls. It aids in production planning monitoring usage and provides what is known in the baking industry as “traceability.” In short, it makes the bakery a more streamlined operation and that increases profitability, which of course aids in the disbursement of the host of community services that Greyston delivers.

When touring the production facility, Ms. Brown shared how valuable she thought it would be if children of school age were more often brought on field trips to facilities such as this. Besides the obvious positive effect of exciting a generation about this important segment of our economy, and introducing them to options they didn’t realize existed, it would also let them know that, as she put it,”things don’t just pop into existence out of thin air.” This was an experience she herself had when her father, once a GM employee at the Tarrytown plant, took her on a tour of that facility, back in its heyday In the conference room at Greyston, surrounded by it’s leadership team of Mr. James, Ms. Dail Moses-Taylor and Ms. Douglas, as well as Ms. Brown from WDI, it becomes nearly impossible to argue with the reasoning behind the chain of events that Mr. Glassman put into motion back in 1982. Employing technology while honoring the human spirit is not only possible, but profitable for businesses, for employees and for the rest of the community.

For more information on the Greyston Bakery and all their related endeavors, go to greyston.com. For more information on WDI and its initiatives go to www.wdiny.org.

April 20, 2016

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