Chris is 31 years old and comes from the Bronx. Despite having grown up in a problematic area, he successfully graduated from high school. However, he soon discovered that his high school diploma was of little worth in the real world. Chris could not go to college, nor could he find a job suited to his qualifications. He went from one job to another, until he began to experience health issues. Disheartened, Chris told his frustrations to his social worker, which is when he discovered Career Gear. This was a turning point, it changed his life. He was put on the ACCES-VR programme, which offers educational opportunities to those in need. It paid for him to go to cooking school. Chris is now a chef and lives a different life.
This is just one example of the 40,000 lives that US association Career Gear has saved since it was set up in 1999 by Gary Field, a man driven by his own personal experience. Indeed, in the ‘90s Field had problems with drugs and lived day-to-day on very few dollars. Despite those issues, in 1994 he managed to save 50 dollars to buy himself a suit for a job interview. Five years later, he had got himself a degree and started a successful career in social services in New York.
So how does Career Gear work?
It began as a simple programme, designed to help men in need by providing them with clothing suitable for attending job interviews: a simple but powerful trick for those seeking to reinvent themselves and start over.
Today, however, that programme has grown and to become a small social springboard in the US. The opportunities that Career Gear can now offer its clients are as follows:
- Job Readiness
Clients come to Career Gear from social and community agencies and services, once they have completed a professional training programme and have a job interview lined up. The volunteers at Career Gear work with each candidate, looking over their CVs, what kind of environment they will be going into and what type of interview awaits them. They offer targeted suggestions and tools that can help them overcome any obstacles they might come up against. Interview Clothing is an image consultancy service that helps them find a suitable outfit. Each client receives an outfit, personalised to the type of clothing that suits their requirements. Over 90% of the clothing Career Gear provides is new, donated by manufacturers and designers. The remaining 10% comes from individual donations.
- Professional Development Series
These are training courses. They focus on each candidate’s professionalism and emotional intelligence, giving them skills they can then use in moments that will change their lives. The study programmes can be divided into four main development categories: employment, finance, parenthood and living a balanced life. The programme is run in groups, thus creates the ideal environment for participation, discussion, responsibility, networking and support. The sessions run in the evenings and are supported by professionals who volunteer their time and knowledge to provide a meaningful experience for everyone taking part. The programme is divided into two stages and participants are placed according to their participation, skill level, commitment and the information available.
- The MAST Programme
The MAST Program (Mentoring: Advancement, Success and Transition) is a one-to-one tutoring programme, launched in 2010 and funded by the Pascal Sykes Foundation. It acts as a personalised follow-up for the Professional Development Series and the one-to-one meetings it involves have helped a huge number of participants to open bank accounts, restore their relationships with their children and make positive contributions to their communities. Professional Development Series participants are assigned expert mentors whom they meet every fortnight for at least an hour over the course of six months. Participants are assigned specific tasks, such as revising their CVs, searching for jobs online, preparing an assessment of the position, creating a weekly budget, managing credit and debt, resolving child-support orders, establishing a healthy lifestyle and working with banks and creditors.
A 2014 Johnnie Walker ad on Gary Field’s endeavours
Can a change of outfit really have such a determining influence? The answer is a resounding yes, says a 2015 study by California State University. The study drew on literature on the psychological consequences of clothing to test “whether wearing formal clothing enhances abstract cognitive processing. Five studies provided evidence supporting this hypothesis.” One confirmed that more formal attire - which we believe improves our appearance - increases our confidence. Specifically, the findings showed that clothing worn “influences cognition broadly, impacting the processing style that changes how objects, people and events are construed.”
Left: Bernard, who emigrated from Haiti to New York; right: Cesar from the Bronx, New York City
“To truly understand the benefit of this incredible solidarity project, we must look at Career Gear’s motto: ‘A suit – a second chance’. And indeed, to begin with, the initiative was concerned solely with collecting second-hand suits that the dexterous hands of volunteer tailors then altered,” says Paolo Iabichino, social communications expert and Chief Creative Officer at Ogilvy & Mather. “But it soon advanced and, in addition to tailored suits, began offering pre-interview mentoring and CV-building skills. And, more recently still, this organisation has grown to include the support of volunteer coaches who support men in need. They do this through job readiness programmes, workshops and courses in financial education, soft skills, motivation and life styles.”
And Career Gear’s achievements have not gone unnoticed. Ten years ago now, on 26 May 2009, then-speaker of the US House of Representatives honoured Executive Director of Career Gear, Gary Field, with The White House National Volunteer Service Award at the Rayburn House Congressional Office Building. Former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton then asked for a flag to be flown over the Capitol in honour of Career Gear in New York City.
More recently still, on 17 June 2014, Field was awarded the President's Volunteer Service Award at the Yankee Stadium, “in recognition and appreciation of commitment to strengthening the nation and for making a difference through volunteer service.”
Career Gear has since received further recognition by means of the Echoing Green Foundation Fellowship for Social Change Entrepreneurs, and New York 1’s “Person of the Week” and PepsiCo’s “Everyday Hero” Awards.
Career Gear has been giving people in America a second chance for 20 years now. Today it is operational in New York, Baltimore, Washington, Houston, Houston County, New Haven and San Antonio. In the next 20 years, the aim is to open a European branch. Perhaps it will come Italy, where smart suits certainly are not in short supply, but the people who might benefit from a second chance are many.