Being able to earn a paycheck is worth more than money to the low-income residents trained and placed by the nonprofit Seattle Jobs Initiative.

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In Rhonda Simmons’ ideal world, the unemployment rate would be 0.0 percent, teachers would be valued above movie stars, schools would connect better with the workplace and parents would establish strong work ethics in their kids.

Lofty dreams, perhaps, but each affects Simmons’ practical job — and the people she serves.

Simmons is executive director of the nonprofit Seattle Jobs Initiative, which places low-income and low-skilled residents in living-wage jobs.

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Begun in 1997, SJI was a partnership between the city of Seattle’s Office of Economic Development and the Annie E. Casey Foundation until it became an independent nonprofit organization in 2003.

It provides job-readiness and skills training, employer connections and support services including housing and child care. Working with community-based organizations, community colleges and employers, SJI places about 525 people a year in jobs that pay on average $10.04 an hour, offer health and dental benefits and provide a chance to advance. Sixty percent of SJI clients are still on the job after one year.

Those jobs mean much more than a paycheck, Simmons said.

Seattle Jobs Initiative

For more information

On the Web:

Phone: 206-628-6975

“A job gives you self-esteem, purpose and focus,” she said. “You feel like you’re connected to something. You are a role model. A job lays a foundation for a family so kids see what it means to work. You feel constructive. You have a skill.”

Most people want to work, she said, so her mission is to offer them information and a chance to get into the game.

“A lot of people don’t believe they can,” she said. “But everybody who is able to qualify and has skill sets deserves the opportunity.”

To that end, SJI offers training in pre-apprenticeship construction, office work and light welding, and a health-care program is in the works.

As the economy has changed, so has SJI. “When we started our first training in 1997, we were riding high,” Simmons said. “We would finish an office-skills class of 24 students, and before training was over, we would have at least 15 people placed. But after 9/11, maybe five people are placed. Big companies dried up. Most of our clients go to small business now.”

Plus, SJI used to run 17 training sessions a year, Simmons said. Now, when the need is greater, there is funding for only seven.

That makes her job today more relevant and more challenging. Simmons draws on a vast stack of skills she’s developed over more than 20 years in the human-services industry.

“Working with people is what I know how to do,” she said.

Starting out

For a while there, Simmons wanted to work with bugs. Her aunt worked with a real live entomologist, which sounded awfully cool to “a little nerdy kid who liked science.”

Before long, though, Simmons discovered there’s a big gap between liking something and making a living at it.

She bridged that gap, after a couple of early sidesteps.

Simmons was born in Berkeley, Calif., in 1962. Her father was a longshoreman; her mother worked as a teachers’ aide and counselor. The oldest of six children, Simmons baby-sat and nurtured her inner work ethic.

“Work has always been a part of what I’ve done,” Simmons said.

She found her first “real” work — an office job — through a summer youth-employment program. She saved the money for school clothes.

When she was a high-school junior, Simmons worked at a burger joint in an upscale Berkeley neighborhood. She could handle 20 patties at a time on the grill.

They called her “Burger Mama.”

“It was my first real-life work experience,” Simmons said. “I had to clock in. I got moved up to weekend/day manager. I learned a lot of things I took for granted. Looking back, I had a lot of responsibility.”

She left Berkeley in 1980, bound for the University of Alaska on a basketball scholarship. There she became a star, one of the team’s top scorers and rebounders.

She left college after three years and took a job at a Sears discount outlet in Anchorage. Then she followed a teammate to a job at a group home for disabled young adults.

“That was my first venture into structured human services,” Simmons said. “I had a cousin with severe cerebral palsy, and I wasn’t intimidated or afraid of the hands-on work. I connected with the residents. A lot of friendships developed. There were lots of connections, but I never thought much of it.”

“I wanted to be in charge”

At 28, Simmons returned to school to finish her bachelor’s degree, at The Evergreen State College, Tacoma branch. (She later earned two master’s degrees, in social work and public health, at the University of Washington.)

“I was working full time and was much clearer,” she said. “I liked what I did, but I wanted to make more money, do it differently. I wanted to be in charge.”

After consulting for SJI, Simmons became its executive director in 2002. “In this part, I get to work with the other side — employers and community colleges,” she said. “I get them to look at these people not as a problem. We all have a story, and we need to be mindful of that.”

Simmons now has a staff of 18 — and the support of a nine-member board. “All the board members are extremely happy with what she’s doing and consider her to be a real asset to this organization,” said Tony Lee, an SJI board member and advocacy director of the Fremont Public Association.

“We’ve gone through a big transition, a very difficult transition. It’s a very complex organization in terms of functions she has to do. I’m always amazed at how difficult her job is. She pulls it off.”

“She also knows an awful lot,” Lee said. “I’m always amazed by her sort of encyclopedic knowledge about everything going on in this complex field. And she’s very visionary. She really wants to make training programs, support services and advancement opportunities a model for the nation for this very hard-to-serve population.”

Most SJI clients are 30 to 35 years old, Simmons said, and “for every person we get to, we’ve touched three more.” Most clients are people of color. Many are ex-offenders. Some have few skills; others have none. Many simply are not prepared to work, and some are not even ready for training. She worries we might be setting up future generations for the same fate if schools, parents and society don’t step up to the plate.

“I run a business, and one of the No. 1 things I face is work ethic,” said Simmons, who on “slow” weeks puts in 50 hours at work.

“I’m amazed at how much I have to deal with that. Parents can be much more purposeful as role models. In today’s workplace, kids see parents telecommuting and taking advantage of other less-traditional modes, but we can’t lose sight of the importance of being on time, of respect, communicating effectively, showing good judgment. You’ve got to work hard for what you want. The new economy doesn’t mesh with instant gratification. Kids aren’t used to working to get up the chain. There’s something innately wrong with that.”

Our schools need a boost, too, she said.

“Schools do the best they can with what they have, but they are not set up for what they have to deal with now,” Simmons said. “Kids are not prepared. Until we do something dramatic — like [Seattle’s] Aviation High School, which offers hands-on work to kids interested in the aviation industry — small school-to-work programs are not enough.”

Speaking of elephants

Simmons’ corner office in the old AAA building on Sixth Avenue North near Seattle Center overlooks Experience Music Project. The radio is tuned to soft jazz, a wicker basket brims with lollipops, and framed blues art hangs on a wall.

On one corner of her desk stands a stuffed gray elephant — the metaphorical “elephant in the room.” It’s a tactile reminder that if something needs to be said, someone should say it.

Cue the elephant.

Money, Simmons said, is a problem — not just where it’s spent, but how it’s spent.

“We’re now facing a situation where jobs are either high-end or low-wage,” she said. “The low-wage jobs would be OK, if we valued them.

“We need to put more value on things that deal with us as humans,” Simmons said. “You will pay a movie star $20 million a picture, but you won’t pay a teacher who works with your child $30,000. Even the best schools don’t pay them $100,000. That’s off-base.”

Still, in a less-than-ideal world, Simmons has met with real success. She makes her living at something she likes.

And she is making a difference.

In 1991, she worked with a young man in a drug and alcohol group. Recently, he recognized her at an Old Navy store and told her he’s doing fine — he’s a truck driver and father of three.

“Those always make you feel good,” Simmons said. “You don’t usually see the fruits of your labor. You plant the seeds so they can grab onto them down the road. You just try to plant the strongest seeds you can.”