Fayette County

Lexingtonian takes on hard-to-place employees

He grew up among Lexington's elite and once chaired Commerce Lexington, but today Guy Huguelet is pacing a packed conference room filled with people who can't get entry-level jobs.

Their issues are varied: They've been in prison. They don't know how to score an interview. They don't have the right identification, or a phone number, or reliable transportation.

They are Hispanic and African-American and white, men and women, and they want to work. Huguelet says that workers who get a second chance are often the best and most reliable workers a business can find.

Guy Alexander Huguelet III, 51, is a frenetic salesman who takes the room by storm. Every few minutes he turns to the 26 people he's counseling today and quizzes them: "Who's the most important person in this room?"

Twenty-six people respond: "Me!"

Huguelet is helping with the Lexington startup of Jubilee Jobs, a non-profit concept that was launched more than 20 years ago in Washington, D.C., to help hard-to-place individuals find jobs.

Huguelet was introduced to the organization by his friend Bill Rouse, who works in commercial real estate, and by Max Appel, key initiatives leader at Southland Christian Church, who helped with the launch in November.

"I'm going to look you in the eye and say, 'Hey, you're important," Huguelet tells the group. One man has come dressed in a blazer, but the dominant clothing choice is gray sweatpants.

Huguelet promises that the participants will get job counseling, training in conflict resolution, help compiling résumés, even interview clothes if they need them. They will get interviews.

Despite what they might have heard or seen, Huguelet assures them: "There's plenty of jobs out there."

But the participants have to commit. They must sign an agreement saying they will take any job offered to them through Jubilee Jobs. If they fail to follow up — miss a session, do not turn in paperwork — Jubilee Jobs will take them back, but they have to go back to orientation.

"We will not give up on you," he promises the orientation group.

The jobs might seem menial. They might include fields from clerical work to food service to manufacturing and might be on any shift.

The carrot at the end of this stick is this: After six months of steady employment, Jubilee Jobs will work to help the employee move up. The idea is to establish a work record and help employees make $11 to $12 an hour, which is considered close to a living wage by many wage-calculation yardsticks.

Why would Huguelet, whose father was a stockbroker and grandfather the president of Keeneland, move from the high-profile staffing service he owned — Adecco, an employment franchise he operated for 18 years and then sold — to work with entry-level workers?

Call it a belief in second chances. Huguelet said that he has struggled with alcohol and that "I don't engage in those choices any more." People in the community gave him second chances, he said, and he wants to pay that forward.

"I'm a guy who made some bad choices, and those choices have consequences, and I wasn't very employable," he tells the orientation crew.

So he no longer has a posh office with cherry furniture and windows looking out over the Beaumont shopping center and housing developments. His office in the Community Ventures building at 1450 North Broadway is tiny, windowless and chilly. A portable heater hums to one side of the desk.

Huguelet, married 24 years, has two sons, one in college, one in high school.

While Huguelet has a management contract with Jubilee Jobs, he hasn't been paid. He's not worried. A bleak economy combined with a growing network of area businesses interested in Jubilee Jobs is helping bring in job candidates.

"Jubilee Jobs is a place of hope," said Huguelet. "Jubilee Jobs is a place of new beginnings."

Among those getting a new start is Jose Garcia, who recently began working for a landscaping company. Garcia, 27, moved to Lexington from New Jersey recently with his wife, Alitash, and had served jail time for a drug offense.

He wants not just to move up in the job he has now, but to return to school to study culinary arts. First, he says, he needs to get his General Educational Development certificate.

Garcia said he is happy with his job and grateful for the five weeks he has spent with Jubilee Jobs.

"It was surprising because I'd been having a hard time getting a job, a very hard time," he said.

"I'm way past that now," he said after his fourth day at work. "I woke up. I just started a new start."