Not everyone possesses the skills needed to be a viable and competent participant in the workforce — including some people who have been on the job for years. LouAnn Bloomer, the founder and chief executive of the Danbury nonprofit TBICO, recalled sharing that observation with a bureaucrat who was confused over the skills being taught in Bloomer’s job-education operation.
“This commissioner said to me, ‘You’re teaching people to answer the telephone? Everybody knows how,’” Bloomer said. “And I said, ‘Actually, your staff doesn’t know how.’”
Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, TBICO stands for The Bridge to Independence and Career Opportunities and its official mission is to “promote personal and economic self-sufficiency through education, job training and financial literacy.” Bloomer created TBICO after she fell victim to downsizing at IBM in early 1993. An executive secretary in the company’s community relations department, Bloomer realized that many nonprofits dedicated to employment training were not approaching the subject through a private-sector spectrum.
“In business we have human capital, but in nonprofits we have human services,” she continued, adding that she began to share her opinion with anyone who would listen. “When IBM was going through changes and they decided that my critical skills weren’t critical for them anymore, someone suggested, ‘Why don’t you start a company that puts your money where your mouth is?’”
In its early years, TBICO had a strong focus in responding to the then-current welfare reform initiatives by assisting individuals enrolled in welfare-to-work programs. Over the years, TBICO adapted to socioeconomic changes and began offering classes needed in an increasingly computerized economy while also helping the growing number of veterans reintegrate into the working world. In the post-recession years, TBICO changed its scheduling to provide increased one-on-one assistance and evening classes to accommodate those who were relying on part-time work to get by.
If there has been one consistent to the TBICO philosophy, it is the encouragement of individual perseverance. “When someone comes in, employment has to be an end result,” Bloomer said. “You can’t help someone who is not willing to help themselves.”
TBICO averages between 500 and 550 program participants annually, with a predominantly female attendance. One of the most sought-after skill sets that TBICO is offering involves typing.
“Years ago, they pulled typing out of schools,” she said. “Then, it started to change, because now people are typing with their thumbs. But think of how many jobs require some level of computer use involving a keyboard. For example, if you want to be a phlebotomist, you’re going to get a typing test because you’re going to enter medical billings. A lot of employers were finding there was a real productivity issue now because people could not type. I was a little surprised — we go to different employment agencies and ask if we can get their tests to make sure that what we’re teaching is at their level.”
Another class that Bloomer emphasizes involves financial literacy, with a specific focus of creating and maintaining a feasible budget. “When people come, instead of just going over credit reports, we have spreadsheets and plug in the last three months of their debit cards,” Bloomer said. “We found one woman paid overdraft fees for six months of $1,300. She was buying coffee at $6 a cup on her debit card and was paying something like $40 a cup because of the overdraft fees.”
Many of the TBICO instructors are volunteers who are active in the business community. Bloomer noted this was an important consideration because these instructors offered more than academic theory.
“We want to bring people who have the current knowledge to come in and share it,” she said. “But we are also introducing our people to instructors that have jobs. It’s that networking that everyone talks about as being so important.”
Although TBICO does not function as a job placement agency, Bloomer said that her nonprofit can “give people certain level of skills. To me, the most important thing we can teach is how to independently learn.” However, many TBICO students are either returning to the workforce after a long absence or are finding themselves in a new corporate environment and many lack the adequate clothing expected in these settings. For this consideration, TBICO operates a “corporate closet” with quality clothing that has been donated to help women who will soon be on the job in an office setting.
“We have it and it’s available,” Bloomer said, noting that the closet was laid out as a boutique rather than as piles of clothing dumped on a table. “Sometimes you just need to shop — and if you’re here, your budget is probably tight.”
One thing that TBICO does not offer is bilingual education. “Everything we do is in English, because we can’t help someone move forward if they don’t speak English,” Bloomer said. “It may have a touch of controversy to it. My daughter-in-law is from Brazil, my other daughter-in-law is from Korea, my sister-in-law is from China. None of them can do anything here if they didn’t speak the language. None of us could.”
TBICO does not charge a fee to its program participants and Bloomer sighed when asked how the nonprofit obtains its financing.
“We don’t get federal or state funding,” she said. “I write grants, we do fundraising. We have our annual gala coming up on Sept. 8 at 18 Main in New Milford. My salary is a floating line item in the budget. We don’t give benefits. I don’t know if our budget has gone above $250,000 — it’s not even up there now. Most of my staff is retired and we do it because we believe it should be done. It’s not the type of place where you want to make money. You don’t get more nonprofit (than this). It just seems to work — we just seem to find money. And everything you see here is donated.”
Bloomer has been able to keep track of a number of past program attendees who used TBICO as a springboard to successful careers. A favorite anecdote of TBICO’s influence was passed on by one of her sons when he was making an IT presentation at a local corporation.
“A woman came up to him afterward and said, ‘I know your mother,’” she recalled. The woman “had come through my program when she was 18 and she was now the IT program manager for the company.”