Source: The New York Times: Nonprofits Provide Jobless Men With a Fitting for a Second Chance
By RACHEL L. SWARNS AUGUST 3, 2014
Felix Gonzalo, 54, left, and Troy Lewis, 48, check out their new outfits in a mirror at FEGS, a nonprofit organization that runs the program Suited for Work, which helps unemployed men get ready for job interviews.
Joseph Campbell noticed them whenever he hunted for work on the streets of Manhattan: the purposeful men wearing pinstripes or herringbone, seersucker or linen.
He admired the sleek suits, the starched shirts, the gleaming cuff links. They all signaled success and prosperity. Or, as Mr. Campbell put it: “Somebody who wants to take care of some serious business.”
Somebody else. Not him.
He didn’t have a suit hanging in the homeless shelter where he lives. So he arrived at a job placement agency last week in a black T-shirt, green canvas shorts and Nike boots. He had a job interview scheduled for 3:30 p.m. — his first in months — and he was itching to get going.
But the case managers at the agency told him he had one last appointment before he headed out, for something unexpected: a fitting, and a second chance.
Even as the economy slowly gathers steam, men like Mr. Campbell, who lack college degrees, are increasingly falling behind. Many manufacturing jobs that kept blue-collar workers afloat have vanished. And wages have plunged.
Between 1979 and 2007, wages for men under 30 with only a high school diploma fell nearly 29 percent, according to a 2011 study by Andrew Sum, a professor of economics at Northeastern University in Boston. And that was before the Great Recession and the weak economic recovery that has followed.
Mr. Campbell, who is 32 and has a high school equivalency diploma, can tell you what it’s like to feel the floor collapse beneath your feet. He lost his last job, cleaning a food court, in June 2013, then his apartment, and then the life he once knew.
He has been in free fall ever since, relying on food stamps to buy groceries and counting on friends, relatives and the New York City shelter system for a place to sleep.
As for clothes? Men in his position often turn to secondhand stores, church donations and gifts from friends and relatives. “It’s hard,” Mr. Campbell said. “Real hard.”
So when the job counselors directed him to the Suited for Work office last week, he felt as if he had stumbled into a new world. Brand-new suit jackets from designers like Calvin Klein, Perry Ellis and Michael Kors hung from the racks. A kaleidoscope of ties beckoned. Dress shirts sat neatly stacked on the shelves, their pearly buttons calling for nimble fingers.
Mr. Campbell had landed at one of the few nonprofits that provide jobless men with free suits and business attire. An array of programs provide professional clothing for women. Very few offer such services to male job seekers, according to the nonprofit staff, who say the trappings of success give struggling men the confidence they need to brave an uncertain job market.
“We really see the gear as much more than clothing; it’s a suit of armor,” said Gary Field, who runs Career Gear, which teams up with nonprofits and government agencies to provide their male clients with corporate wear.
At Suited for Work, volunteers and staff members from FEGS Health and Human Services, a nonprofit social services agency that provides job placement services and suits for its clients, guided Mr. Campbell through their boutique. With donations from companies like Men’s Wearhouse, Peerless Clothing Inc. and Nautica, they have put more than 8,000 clients in new professional clothing since the program started in 2008.
Troy Lewis, 48, who was preparing for an interview with a service hiring livery car drivers, walked out last week with a crisp white shirt, a shimmering purple and black tie, and a smart gray suit by Pronto Uomo.
Felix Gonzalo, 54, who hopes to land a job as a long-distance trucker, left with a handsome Botany 500 ensemble and a yellow paisley tie.
As for Mr. Campbell, he found a charcoal gray Michael Kors suit, a mauve dress shirt and a purple striped tie. He adjusted his collar in front of the floor-length mirror and marveled at the transformation.
He hadn’t been sure that he needed a suit for this interview. After all, the company was looking for a restaurant deliveryman, not a supervisor. But the longer he looked, the more convinced he was that he would stand out in a crowd of job applicants.
Asked how he felt, Mr. Campbell smiled: “Like new.”
With his job interview less than two hours away, the Suited for Work helpers scrambled to hem his trousers with safety pins and to replace his Nikes with a pair of wingtips.
And then he was out the door, on the subway and arriving at his job interview right on time. The company manager, who interviewed him, offered him a part-time position on the spot, for $8 an hour.
The two men shook hands on it and Mr. Campbell said goodbye.
“Nice suit,” the manager said.
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