A year ago, Rob Avery was unemployed — and had been for months.

A former contractor who had always tinkered with old vehicles, he had wanted to work with cars, but never saw how that fantasy could come to fruition.

Now, matched with Gillis Ford auto center in Shelton by the Advantage Employment Partnerships division of Exceptional Foresters Inc. as a jack-of-all-trades, he indeed has the job of his dreams.

“The year being off was kind of hard because I’m a person who likes to go and go, so it was pretty rough,” Avery said. “But through EFI, I found a job and a company that are perfect for me. I got down here and I’ve enjoyed it ever since.”

Owner Bob Gills said the decision to hire Avery was an easy one to make.

“After his first two weeks (of unpaid assessment), I knew I wanted to hire him, but I didn’t have a position available,” he said. “And when I did, I called him right away.”

Building bridges

The EFI Partnerships program, which bridges the gap between workers who are disadvantaged in some way and local businesses, has been carving out a growing employment niche in the South Sound since 1957. It’s also the only job placement agency of its type in the state to provide both vocational and residential services — meaning that disadvantaged workers can find employment and housing through the company.

Based on referrals from the Department of Social and Health Service’s divisions of Vocational Rehabilitation and Developmental Disabilities, the program serves about 125 people and employs 96 workers throughout the region.

Most of the participants are 18 to 40 and about 60 percent men.

The program’s success, said Vocational Services Director Earl Campbell, is the result of the time his staff devotes to assessing workers’ skills and employment desires — as well as their commitment to combing the community for unique job opportunities.

“Our vision is based on finding out where our customers would like to work, which tells us the types of employers that we should go out and meet,” he said. “We already have hundreds of partnerships because of our interaction with the business community.”

Creating careers

At Shelton Health and Rehabilitation Center, caregiver Pattie McKinney is another EFI success story. Also out of work for months, she was placed at the center for assessment two weeks ago and, like Avery, loves what she’s doing.

“I really enjoy it, especially talking to people and getting acquainted with them,” McKinney said. “I love to be around people and to listen. Building relationships and trust is at the basis of what we do here.”

And she just might get a full-time job, Campbell said.

That’s because McKinney, who has never worked in rehabilitation or with the elderly, took part in the job training and coaching sessions that are part of the Advantage program — and she’s taken her lessons to heart.

“We’re not here to do everything for the client but to give them the skills to get and keep a job and to stay ahead,” said EFI Residential Services Director Steven Gehrke. “That’s what it’s all about.”

In addition to on-site training, the program’s employee prescreening system is another perk for potential employers.

“Talk about cost savings. Some of our clients have never worked before and that’s a huge barrier because employers generally want someone with three to five years of experience,” Campbell said. “Others have a criminal background — and (a client with) a felony is one of the hardest to place. But some companies will work with that because they see that someone has done their time and now really wants to move on ahead and be successful.”

Employer engine

Campbell also said that unlike standard job-matching agencies, EFI’s Advantage program hasn’t been affected by the economy because it can plug workers with unique talents and time flexibility into a variety of job outlets that benefit both parties.

Businesses that have hired EFI workers during the past half-century run the gamut from factories to meat-packing plants to car dealerships to the State of Washington, as well as Safeway — one of the program’s biggest supporters throughout the South Sound.

“We do niche marketing — things that employers didn’t know that you can do and we’ve been placing people all along,” Campbell said. “We go out and build relationships with local businesses to create a potential match that will meet everyone’s expectations.”

Adele DuPont, admissions and marketing and public relations director for Shelton Health & Rehabilitation Center, who previously worked with participants in EFI’s Advantage program at Shelton’s Holiday Park, said the organization has indeed been doing that since its inception.

“I’ve worked with more than 30 EFI customers at Holiday Park and many of those clients followed me up here,” DuPont said. “And a lot of them are still my close personal friends.”

Center Executive Director Lee Ayers said that while this was his organization’s first time using a referral from EFI, “I’m sure we’ll do this again.”

Further horizons

In addition to expanding its vocational capabilities, EFI CEO Carol Boyd said that the company is spreading its residential wings as well — particularly throughout Thurston County — to provide complementary job and housing services.

“In 10 years, we hope to have 10 houses in Thurston County, as well as to double those on the vocational projects — and to have enough work for them,” Boyd said. “We know what we’re doing and we want to expand.”

But expansion isn’t limited to a single geographic region.

“We could easily double what we have now in Mason County,” Gehrke said. “Whatever is needed — we can fill that need.”

Which means that EFI will be adding more jobs of its own as its housing and vocational divisions progress. However, Boyd said those looking for work with the organization need special skills.

“To have a job in this industry, you just have to love people and have a desire to help people,” she said. “In most people’s minds, this type of work equates to babysitting, so it tends to attract younger workers. When they realize what it really involves, they either have to sharpen their skills or go away. But we have been lucky. A lot of our workers came in not knowing what to expect, and without big skills — but they loved it and they stayed. Now a lot of them have been with us for more than 20 years.”

Debbie McHargue, assistant director of EFI’s vocational services, grew up in Shelton. She’s witnessed the company’s transition, as well as its service to disadvantaged and disabled workers throughout the region.

“Coming from someone who has been here all the time, working with a company that has been here all the time, I can tell you that it’s about putting two and two together,” she said. “We’re not the only agency in this industry, but 80 percent of this type of client comes to us because of how we present ourselves and what we present — and our reputation.”

Continuing trend

As for Avery, who looks forward to each day on the job, his future includes training to be a mechanic for Gillis.

And his job success is just one story that spurs EFI’s employees to keep expanding their reach throughout South Sound counties.

“It’s not very often you get to have an opportunity to help people — it’s the satisfaction of having a purpose,” Campbell said. “We really believe in building relations with employers — and when they have a need, figuring out how to fill it.”

Boyd echoed that sentiment.

“The community needs to know that we have, and will continue to have, some of the best workers they’ll ever see,” she said, “and some of the most dedicated ones they’ll ever find as well.”

Writer Holly Smith Peterson can be reached at hpeterson@BusinessExaminer.com.