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At the end of a 10-month-long search, Brooklyn resident Luckiano Smith has finally found a new job. After a stint at Wildcat Service Corporation, a job readiness center located in Lower Manhattan, Smith landed a position in the bakery department at the recently opened Whole Foods gourmet supermarket on the Lower East Side.

Smith, who started working at Whole Foods when it opened in late March, is excited about her new job and sees herself staying there. “I am extremely happy – I can’t believe it’s for real,” said Smith, who said she’s impressed with the benefits package as well as the work environment.

She landed the job by way of a partnership between the growing supermarket chain and the city Department of Small Business Services, which is helping an array of businesses to fill openings with workers who visit the city’s Workforce1 Career Centers. The SBS program, which filled 349 of the 600 positions at the new Whole Foods store, placed more than 16,000 workers in jobs around the city last year – a huge increase over the 500 workers it placed in 2003.

In addition to Whole Foods, which plans to open three more stores in NYC over the next two years, the department has provided job candidate locating and screening services to companies including Chase, Citibank, Fairway, Macy’s and Time Warner Cable.

These days, SBS looks at forming partnerships with corporations and local merchants as a “business proposition” that will save potential partners both time and money, according to SBS Commissioner Robert Walsh. This shift has also included more information sharing about employment opportunities between the seven Workforce1 centers located throughout the five boroughs, where people can research jobs, attend trainings and get one-on-one job counseling. The centers are co-located with NYC business solutions centers, which help businesses with employee hiring and training.

“When we took over the system four years ago,” said Walsh, referring to the 2003 merger of SBS with the Department of Employment, “we did not have much of a product to sell to businesses. Our approach was, ‘Work with us, we’ll try hard, these New Yorkers really need jobs and you can help.’ This has changed.”

David Margalit, deputy commissioner for business development at SBS, sees the current model as an example for workforce development initiatives nationwide. “As we connect more and more people to good jobs, and as we show that using federal funds to train people has real results, we hope that this will affect the national agenda and that people will realize what workforce development can do,” Margalit said.

While SBS is willing to partner with any business that approaches it, the agency is particularly focused on companies in expanding markets – such as construction, retail, hospitality and health care – that provide above-average wages and benefits. Whole Foods offers a starting wage of $10 per hour, along with full benefits and training for advancement. And the company employs far more full-timers than most supermarkets, which rely on part-time labor, according to spokesperson Laurence Danez.

The opening of the new store on the Bowery at Houston Street marks the first time Whole Foods has used SBS’ services. The agency “reached out to us to see if they could assist us in our recruitment planning, because they have a solid, huge pool of applicants that they want to place,” Danez said. “We saw the value that we could get from the partnership as well.”

Community organizations also help SBS in its endeavors. CAMBA, a nonprofit in Flatbush that addresses the wide-ranging needs of refugee, immigrant and native residents with language, cultural and other barriers to employment, conducted employee training and screening for Whole Foods and SBS. So far, CAMBA has placed 40 of its trainees at the supermarket, and plans to place another 30 people soon.

The group’s partnership with Whole Foods will continue with the opening of the other three markets planned. According to Eileen Reilly, CAMBA’s director of workforce development, Whole Foods and CAMBA’s shared goal of employee diversity “makes the employee training partnership quite natural and lasting.”

Getting hired at the new Whole Foods store was a good thing for Anthony Vega. The Bronx resident is a cashier there, and says, “It’s a really good corporation to work for. I love this job. I believe I will retire at Whole Foods.”

– Elizabeth Henderson

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