From clothing supplier to economic social justice program, nonprofit upgrades workforce support programs

COURTESY PHOTO: DRESS FOR SUCCESS - The Oregon chapter of Dress for Success pivoted from providing suiting to skilled trades workwear — and amped up its available digital training courses.Clothing options for workwear have significantly changed over the past two years with the rise in mobile jobs and the Great Walkout — and nonprofit Dress for Success has pivoted with the times, too.

Dress for Success saw many clients increasingly struggle to balance caregiving and their job since the beginning of the pandemic, often making the hard decision to quit work entirely when schools and daycares close. The Oregon chapter of Dress for Success is led by executive director Sarah Rothenfluch.

"Women are taking on the primary caregiving role often because statistically, women are making the lower wage in the family," Rothenfluch told the Business Tribune. "They are the primary caregiver. They are the ones staying back as we see schools closing again and daycares shutting and all of that. While there was growth in jobs and women were doing better, sadly it is falling back again a little right now."

Women, whom studies show generally bear a higher caregiving role than men and tend to have lower salaries for the same work, are burning out faster than men in this new normal, according to economic research from the McKinsey Global Institute in a 2021 study on women in the workplace. Often, the burden extends to nonbinary folks, as well.

One in three women considered leaving the workforce or demoting their careers over the last year, McKinsey found.

The Oregon chapter of Dress for Success has pivoted its strategies over the past two years. When it used to collect donated suits to help set up clients for successful job interviews, now the organization focuses on offering three main things: work clothes, a fast-track training course, and a professional group after clients get the jobs.

"As we know, not that many people wear suits to work anymore," Rothenfluch said. "For skilled trades for example, we want to make sure we can offer overalls and canvas clothes, we want to have steel-toed boots, warm outdoor jackets people can work in, and heavy gloves. You don't want to get a job and have to spend hundreds on clothing."

Rothenfluch took on the executive leadership position at the nonprofit in May 2021, after working for other nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity and spending 12 years at OPB. COURTESY PHOTO: DRESS FOR SUCCESS - Sarah Rothenfluch, executive director of the Oregon Dress for Success chapter.

Rothenfluch also said new nursing scrubs are also high in demand right now, as the healthcare industry sees an enormous rate of turnover and need. Dress for Success still offers virtual fittings with stylists who match clients to their preferred shape, color, size, and need, all packaged for clients to come pick up at their convenience.

"What we really need to see growth in, specifically for women, is growth in these higher-skilled, higher-paid positions and helping point women and nonbinary women to those places where they might not have originally expected to go," Rothenfluch said. "That's really where we need to see growth right now — not even the number of jobs, but the ability to sustain those jobs through these ups and downs, and the ability to find the higher-paying, higher-skilled living-wage jobs, where they can become self-sufficient and grow as individuals and families, as opposed to just maintain."

As for the training courses, they cover anything from resume-building to LinkedIn to Zoom. One-on-one consultations can help a client figure out other career options for their skillset and broaden their opportunities.

"Sometimes it's easy to forget not everybody is completely proficient at computers, there are lots of different versions of digital divides," Rothenfluch said. "With skilled trades, someone might not even know where to look. What websites do you go to, where do you look for apprenticeships? Sometimes it's as simple as that."

Once the clients successfully land their jobs and are working more than 20 hours a week, Dress for Success adds them to a professional women's group that meets monthly to discuss challenges, how to advocate for yourself and how to manage finances.

"There's a whole gamut of things we offer," Rothenfluch said. "We need to be there for women and nonbinary people where the opportunities are, and we need to open door to provide ideas and thoughts about how to get into higher-paying, higher-skilled positions."

According to Dress for Success, the nonprofit helped about 1,100 clients with employment during 2021, and 1,115 in 2020.

"It's really important for us to get out the word that women and nonbinary individuals need to be really looked at when it comes to the workforce, and where they are in the workforce, and the roles and responsibilities they are taking on, and how they're benefitting," Rothenfluch said. "When we talk about helping one woman, we're not actually helping one person — think about what that looks like to their child when suddenly, they feel proud of themselves. That pride and financial independence impacts way more than that one woman getting to work, it's about the whole big picture."

Connect, spring clean or volunteer

• Local businesses are partnering with Dress for Success, like Dovetail Workwear which sends work clothes to the nonprofit — but it is also a great resource for businesses looking to hire new talent.

• People can volunteer or donate.

• Dress for Success also appreciates financial donations.

• Learn more on their website

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