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Job sojourn: Helping people help themselves

Deseret Industries trains peopleto get the best jobs of their lives

In the economy's present plight, the adage "a penny saved is a penny earned" has never rung truer. As such, Deseret Industries, with its wide swath of incredible deals and big bargains, can on any given day be a preferred destination for shoppers of all ages.

But the magic happening at Deseret Industries won't be found hanging on the racks or sitting on the showroom floor. It's wearing a maroon vest and working for a better quality of life. It might be driving a forklift, sorting sundry shoes or putting price tags on clothing donations. Perhaps it's a single mother entering the workforce for the first time, a displaced worker or a Somalian refugee. Because miracles are happening at Deseret Industries — one person at a time — as employees build better lives for themselves via job training and self-reliance plans.

Julie Case sorts shirts at the Deseret Industries on Monday, 1/26/09 in Murray, Utah. Photo by Tom Smart
Julie Case sorts shirts at the Deseret Industries on Monday, 1/26/09 in Murray, Utah. Photo by Tom Smart Photo: Deseret News
Overview at the Deseret Industries on Monday, 1/26/09 in Murray, Utah. Photo by Tom Smart
Overview at the Deseret Industries on Monday, 1/26/09 in Murray, Utah. Photo by Tom Smart Photo: Deseret News

With 43 retail locations in the western United States and a manufacturing hub in Salt Lake City, Deseret Industries is a multimillion-dollar not-for-profit agency. However, its foremost objective can be distilled down to something as simple as giving its employees the skills they need to get a better job than they've ever had before.

"Our mission is to help people transform their lives and move forward in life by obtaining skills in whatever they need to move forward," said Bruce Harper, plant manager at Deseret Industries Manufacturing.

Justina Nayic sorts shirts at the Deseret Industries on Monday, 1/26/09 in Murray, Utah. Photo by Tom Smart
Justina Nayic sorts shirts at the Deseret Industries on Monday, 1/26/09 in Murray, Utah. Photo by Tom Smart Photo: Deseret News

Associates — that's the title Deseret Industries bestows on its employees in the training program — come from an astoundingly wide array of circumstances. Many associates are Church members referred to Deseret Industries by their home ward bishop; others are immigrant refugees funneled to the local bishops where they live by international charities like Catholic Community Services or the International Rescue Committee. Regardless, all associates come to Deseret Industries with an LDS bishop's authorization for services.

The retail locations train associates to perform a wide variety of occupations that include cashier, forklift driver, factory worker and customer service. At the manufacturing plant, associates learn how to make mattresses, build beds, work with wood and construct signage. The decision about what kind of training an associate receives is made on an individualized basis.

Moeen Hasan, from Iraq, straitens furniture at the Deseret Industries on Monday, 1/26/09 in Murray, Utah. Photo by Tom Smart
Moeen Hasan, from Iraq, straitens furniture at the Deseret Industries on Monday, 1/26/09 in Murray, Utah. Photo by Tom Smart Photo: Deseret News

"We look at what their goals are and what they want to accomplish out of Deseret Industries, what training they want, where they want to go," said Rob Golightly, manager of a Deseret Industries store in Murray, Utah. "If somebody wants to come to Deseret Industries and they want to be a forklift driver, we probably won't put them as a cashier."

At all Deseret Industries branches, full-time employees serve as job coaches to the associates at a ratio of approximately 12 to 15 associates per coach. Each associate has a custom work-adjustment plan that emphasizes self-reliance and practical job skills. Associates earn from minimum wage up to $10 per hour.

Richard Nzeyimana move carts of donated goods into the sorting area at the Deseret Industries on Monday, 1/26/09 in Murray, Utah. Photo by Tom Smart
Richard Nzeyimana move carts of donated goods into the sorting area at the Deseret Industries on Monday, 1/26/09 in Murray, Utah. Photo by Tom Smart Photo: Deseret News

Circumstances vary on an individual basis, but on average associates remain with Deseret Industries for 12-18 months. As part of the associates' training, Deseret Industries may pay for the necessary, additional vocational training an associate needs to enter a field such as bookkeeping, phlebotomy, welding or truck driving. In some instances associates are placed into a business partnership with a local business, in which case Deseret Industries will pay the wages while the associate apprentices.

Although it is at its core a charitable organization, Deseret Industries leaves nothing to chance in terms of organizational detail. In fact, processing procedures designed by industrial engineers are employed at all 43 retail locations. The efficient processing mechanism ensures that all donations are on the sales floor within one week, and that items not sold within six weeks get pulled from the racks for uses such as humanitarian donation, recycling or sale to scrap wholesalers. But the processing procedure's benefits don't end with efficiency: because it's so streamlined, the method for processing donations permits job coaches to dedicate more time to mentoring associates.

BJ Baum sorts items at the Deseret Industries on Monday, 1/26/09 in Murray, Utah. Photo by Tom Smart
BJ Baum sorts items at the Deseret Industries on Monday, 1/26/09 in Murray, Utah. Photo by Tom Smart Photo: Deseret News
Denise Huddleston moves donated items with a forklift at the Deseret Industries on Monday, 1/26/09 in Murray, Utah. Photo by Tom Smart
Denise Huddleston moves donated items with a forklift at the Deseret Industries on Monday, 1/26/09 in Murray, Utah. Photo by Tom Smart Photo: Deseret News

"Obviously, our main goal at Deseret Industries is to transform lives through working," Brother Golightly said. "But we're a process-driven organization as well. And so the back-end processing is set for efficiencies. It's set for standardization. Those efficiencies and standardization — what they do is they enable the job coaches and the supervisors to have less thought process in the work aspect of it, and more thought process in the training and the development of the associates."

At the Deseret Industries Manufacturing plant located a few miles from Salt Lake City International Airport, Brother Harper oversees an operation that not only trains 80-100 associates at a time but also churns out practical, high-value products such as beds and mattresses that will be sold new at a Deseret Industries retail location or tables to be used in LDS meetinghouses.

Scott  Mills, a production trainer in the wood shop at Deseret Industries Manufacturing in Salt Lake City, carefully cuts a piece of wood with a table saw.
Scott Mills, a production trainer in the wood shop at Deseret Industries Manufacturing in Salt Lake City, carefully cuts a piece of wood with a table saw. Photo: Photo by Tom Smart/Deseret News
At the Deseret Industries Manufacturing sleep department in Salt Lake City, production trainer David Holladay applies tape-edging to a mattress.
At the Deseret Industries Manufacturing sleep department in Salt Lake City, production trainer David Holladay applies tape-edging to a mattress. Photo: Photo by Tom Smart/Deseret News

"We feel like we make a good (mid-level) product that's family-durable," Brother Harper said. "We make what we consider to be a high-value, low-cost product. We try not to be the cheapest stuff that you can buy — throwaway particleboard furniture and those kinds of things. We make something that someone in a low-income situation could buy without spending a lot of money but also get a good return on their investment in their products."

For all the sound and the fury inevitably associated with something as big as Deseret Industries, the organization possesses an uncanny ability to maintain its focus on transforming the lives of individuals like Moeen Hasan.

An Iraqi refugee, Mr. Hasan and his family immigrated to the United States 11 months ago. He works at Deseret Industries in Murray collecting large donations and organizing furniture for sale.

"When I came here, I did not speak English," he said. "Now I speak English. I learned it here. Mr. Rob (Golightly) is very good to me. I love it here."

When Mr. Hasan, whose native tongue is Arabic, signs his name on a form authorizing his photo to be taken for this story, he carefully writes from right to left — a subtle reminder of how high the odds would be stacked against him in the job market if not for the help he's receiving from Deseret Industries.

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