The Interview with Joan Abbot

Erin Rodat-Savla met with Joan Abbot, Assistant Director of BEST Hospitality Training to learn more about the organization behind the concept of “Good Jobs. Better Lives.”

Founded in 2006, Boston Education, Skills & Training (BEST) focuses on workforce development for well-paying jobs within the hospitality industry. BEST Hospitality Training combines worker training designed to meet the labor needs of hotel partners and the personal and professional goals of UNITE HERE Local 26 members. Classes include English for Hospitality, computers, and citizenship prep, as well as certification skills training in On-Call Banquet Server, Basic Culinary Skills, Food Safety, CPR, and more. Career coaches help under-and unemployed participants get quality jobs in partner hotels. Pre-employment students enroll in the Introduction to Hospitality Training Program.

As current Assistant Director, Joan Abbot, told us, “It’s a mission and program born out of personal experience…”

In 1984 BEST founder, Marie Downey, landed a job as a food server at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel. A high school dropout who grew up in poverty in South Boston, she had been working as a waitress at low wages with no benefits.

This new job – one with a collective bargaining agreement – changed the course of her life.

Well-paid and working in a beautiful downtown hotel, Marie’s view of life expanded. With the security of comprehensive benefits, she went back to school, eventually going on to earn a Master’s in Social Work that launched her 20-year career at an immigrant employee assistance program.

Marie’s life journey is the template for the approach BEST believes in: good training, good jobs, and good benefits create pathways out of poverty.

Graduates, ready to hit the job market.

That deep empathy and respect for its clients pervades BEST. From the warm, welcoming facilities – decorated with original artwork from the Art Connection and the Hammill Gallery of Tribal Art; to programs designed down to the last detail – providing training in exact replicas of hotel rooms and banquet facilities; to sincere celebrations when a BEST participant graduates from training or gains his or her citizenship.

Joan tells us, “Seeing the transformation of our students is inspiring. A student who may come in shy and insecure… later comes back standing tall, proud, confident, making more money… Finally that student can plan for his or her future.”

BEST and the TPC Grant: Creating a Culture that “Embraces the Database”

It’s no secret that hard data are the holy grail for nonprofits – proof that their programming makes a difference and warrants financial support and partnership. (Just think what a difference solid numbers make to you when reading TPC grant proposals each year!)

According to Joan, BEST has been on this data quest for a number of years, a fact illustrated by the entire website section devoted to impact data (see exhibit below). It’s a quest that can lead to some really eye-opening numbers. We had to get Joan to repeat herself when she shared the results of BEST’s “societal return on investment” study – an astronomical 678%, based on reduced social services and increased tax revenue.

The TPC grant helped BEST continue to strengthen and expand what Joan calls this “culture of data” by underwriting a graduate school co-op from Northeastern University, who serves as BEST’s data analyst. Joan shared, “Our co-op really serves as ‘data cheerleader’ – getting different departments to embrace the database.” (The next eye-opening numbers they’d love to capture? Impact on individual lives, expanding beyond the anecdotes and ad hoc stories they currently collect.)

In a stroke of serendipity, TPC Fellow Crystal Murphy recently visited BEST as part of a TPC site visit. Crystal works for the Family Independence Initiative, which tracks a client’s “Initiative Score” (aka “hustle”). This is another data piece that BEST is interested in using to improve its service delivery and share best practices with other nonprofits, community organizations, and policy influencers.

Over the course of the grant, two different students in respective semesters have served in the role of data manager, working within Salesforce (a robust customer relationship management platform) to automate reports, improve data quality, and help the team mature in its use and maintenance of the data and information.

Where will these job seekers land?

The demands for data are dynamic, changing with the policy environment, workforce environment, funders, and programming. For example, Boston appointed an ombudsman to work with the hotel workers union, hotels, and BEST to investigate workforce discrepancies between US-born African Americans and other immigrant communities. Because of the data work being done, the co-op quickly and easily created a report dissecting BEST’s job seeker enrollment and placement data between those populations. The co-op also created a report that shows, in real time, how many job seeker graduates have been placed in partner hotels and how many are still looking for jobs.

These are just two examples of data needs that pop up, which Joan said BEST wouldn’t have been able to answer easily prior to the grant.

TPC’s Personal Involvement

Throughout our relationship, Joan has never missed a chance to express her appreciation for the hands-on, supportive role TPC plays – whether for members serving as guests at BEST’s Banquet Simulation, as interviewers for Mock Interviews, or (miraculously quickly) locating and delivering a replacement TV for the model hotel room training site.

You can read about our members’ volunteer experiences in earlier newsletters Mock Banquet and interviewers at Mock Interviews. There’s still time to sign up to volunteer for the June 6 interview session.

As BEST’s liaisons, this story from member and president, Susan Benford still sticks with us…

Susan called Mock Interviews “… one of the most rewarding in all of my time in TPC.” Susan sat down with BEST student, Iesha, whom she described as, “… one of the most poised, quietly competent young women I’ve met in ages. I’ve interviewed hundreds of people in prior management roles, and outside this context would never have imagined that she was anything other than another college grad from a comfortable life.”

With the interview complete, Susan shared with Iesha that “she completely aced the dry-run.” Susan then learned that just one day before Iesha had secured an apartment, and would be moving her family—including her 10-year old son—from the homeless shelter. (Iesha’s supervisors at her hotel internship also saw her promise—inviting her to apply for a job.)

As Susan said at the time, and we whole-heartedly agree, “Does it get any better than this?”

After participating in the May interview Volunteer Day, TPC member Ilene Greenberg agrees, saying, “What an eye-opening experience to interview this veritable rainbow of BEST clients, all of whom are striving to take the next step in their careers. Their energy, grit, and poise speaks to the thorough training they have received from our grantee. I left with a huge smile on my face.” As you can see from the photo above, one of Ilene’s interviewees also enjoyed the experience. The entire group later sent us a little thank you…