Elevate Work graduates 50th class

Over 300 students have completed workforce development program

By Mike Cullinan, Reporter

Posted online June 7, 2024 | 2:02 pm

A milestone for an 11-year-old workforce development program in Branson was reached last month as commencement ceremonies were held for its 50th graduating class.

Elevate Work is a program started by nonprofit Elevate Branson to focus on the soft skills of employment. Participants in the nine-week course learn communication and problem-solving skills, create a resume, gain confidence for interviews, and better understand wants and needs of employers.

The May 22 commencement at Elevate Branson’s campus on Gretna Road increased the program’s graduation total to 325 students, said Elevate Work Director Donna McConkey.

“I see it as a class that’s valuable to anyone,” she said, noting the program isn’t targeted toward those who are unemployed or underemployed. “The first Elevate Work class I went through, I learned a lot.”

Classes for the sessions meet twice weekly for two hours per evening, with child care, dinner and transportation available for students, according to nonprofit officials. Panel discussions involving business leaders sharing their journey to employment and building their career are part of the curriculum.

“Through that, we hope our students will see that we all have struggles and setbacks,” said McConkey, who has worked at Elevate Branson since 2020. “You don’t just wake up and become a CEO. It takes experience and a good action plan and a path to keep on going toward that goal.”

For participants, there is a $20 application fee. The program receives donations from individuals that are used to sponsor classes or cover participant fees.

Getting feedback

Early in the program, students also have an introduction night, in which they provide a series of 60-second introductions to business leaders and receive feedback on how to best present themselves.

“We do an assessment with them in the third class that kind of helps us gauge their natural talents and abilities, and then it’s plugged it into a career path when they answer the questions to the test,” McConkey said, adding the desire is to find students a job they are passionate about. “Let’s figure out what you’re kind of naturally geared toward, and then let’s encourage that direction. If you find something you’re passionate about, it makes those hard days a lot easier to get through.”

A series of 10-minute mock interviews, in which students also receive feedback, is held near the end of the program. Elevate Work partners with local employers, such as Big Cedar Lodge, CoxHealth and Silver Dollar City, which guarantee interviews with interested program graduates.

“A lot of times on that mock interview night, we see students offered positions because of having that opportunity to network with someone in that business line that they’re interested in,” she said.

McConkey said by the fourth class each student is paired with a community volunteer, who serves as a mentor in the program.

She said the mentors offer encouragement and, in many cases, become friends to the students as they help them develop an action plan.

“Everyone is required to develop an action plan of where they’re at now and where they’d like to be in six months, then identifying the obstacles that could get in their way and how they’re going to get around those,” she said.

Program origin

The mentorship aspect also is a part of Jobs for Life, a program started by a Raleigh, North Carolina-based nonprofit from which Elevate Work is patterned.

Bryan Stallings, Elevate Branson co-founder and executive director, said he was looking for different kinds of programs that could address local workforce development challenges.

“I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel and came across Jobs for Life, and it was in about 200 cities across the country, and they had the curriculum done,” he said, noting it taught soft skills such as integrity, attitude, respect for the workplace, communication and work ethic.

Stallings said the Branson program initially was named Jobs for Life but rebranded around 2020 to Elevate Work when the original name of Elevate Branson – Jesus Was Homeless Inc. – was changed to present a more inclusive and broader brand for the nonprofit.

Elevate Work’s curriculum has morphed over the years and Stallings said the program’s current name is a better reflection of its intent.

“It’s not about getting the job. It’s about keeping the job and being the best employee you want to be,” he said. “And it’s about finding the job that works for you.”

Changing direction

McConkey said Elevate Work is time consuming and not an easy program to complete.

“There’s a lot of commitment on their part,” she said. “Typically, within those first couple of classes, we have dropouts, and that’s OK. They’re just not ready. But then I contact those people that have come and see if they’re ready to try again.”

However, Elevate Branson officials say a large majority of the participants who do complete the program and graduate not only find employment but retain it.

Roughly 87% of Elevate Work graduates are still employed, Stallings said, adding the nonprofit checks in with former students every quarter to gauge their employment status, as well as any promotions achieved and their current residential situation.

“We capture all that data every quarter,” he said, noting the employment level consistently ranges between 85% and 87%. “It would be hard to find any program that has that kind of success rate.”

Chuck Mills is among the Elevate Work graduates still employed two years after completing the program. Almost as soon as he graduated from Elevate Work, he interviewed with and was hired by Chili’s Grill & Bar in Branson. He’s worked as a server at the 1150 Branson Hills Parkway restaurant since 2022.

“It’s been a significant moment in the last couple years of my life,” Mills said, adding he’s been clean and sober for the past three years. “It’s just one of the many steps that God put in my life that just really improved the overall quality of my life.”

Mills said before Elevate Work, he struggled with substance addiction for years and had criminal issues, which led to the Missouri Department of Social Services in 2019 taking custody of his three children.

“I was going to do anything I could to get them back, but prior to the Elevate Work program, I just wasn’t doing things that was where I needed to be,” Mills said, noting he previously worked as a line cook in various Branson restaurants as well as selling timeshares over the phone.

At the time he registered for Elevate Work, Mills was living in a sober living facility with 18 other men. The program helped him build self-confidence while also giving him a positive outlook about work.

While previously wanting to stay out of sight in his workplace, Mills said he now embraces interacting with people.

“It totally got me out of my comfort zone and doing something that I wasn’t comfortable doing,” he said. “It really just changed the way I work.”

While Mills didn’t line up his interview at Chili’s through Elevate Work, his confidence was strong enough that he took the initiative to pursue the job himself.

“I sold myself using what I learned in that program,” he said. “They hired me right onto the floor, and I’ve been there ever since.”

Mills regained custody last year of his three children, now 18, 10 and 6, and is looking to buy a house.

“I would not have my kids back if I hadn’t gone through that and hadn’t got that job,” he said.

McConkey said two of the three sessions for Elevate Work are complete this year, with the next set to begin in Branson Sept. 9. The program also is available through Elevate Lebanon, a licensed affiliate of Elevate Branson. Classes in Lebanon start July 9, according to the Elevate Lebanon website.