A new business is being launched in 42,000 square feet of the Alton Center Business Park with plans to expand to more than 100,000 square feet within two years.
The business, Advanced Outsource Solutions, is the brainchild of Steve Brenegan, senior vice president of Challenge Unlimited, and Tami Anstedt, its general manager. Challenge Unlimited is a nonprofit corporation that has provided work-related opportunities to individuals with disabilities in Southwestern Illinois for 55 years. While AOS will be an independent, for-profit corporation, it is an offshoot of Challenge Unlimited, and Challenge is helping get it off the ground. Anstedt will move over to head the new company.
“It’s the first of its kind in the USA,” Brenegan said. “There is no one else that does what this is going to do.”
Challenge Unlimited has two developmental training centers — one in Swansea and one in Alton — in which they employ about 300 workers doing things like “pick and pack,” taking two or more items and packaging them together with shrink wrap for retail promotions. But Challenge Unlimited also provides employees to private businesses, organizations and governments in the areas of custodial services, food services, grounds maintenance, recycling and mailroom services.
AOS will differ from Challenge Unlimited in several ways. Because Challenge receives some state and federal funding, it is limited to hiring only people with mental handicaps. AOS will focus on a broader clientele in an effort to fill a gap in the employment fabric.
“We are going to focus on anyone who has a barrier to employment,” Anstedt said. “We’re going to focus on the disadvantaged, disabled and disabled veterans. For example, they might have a language barrier or they might be low income people — people who haven’t had the opportunity to understand what it is to have a job and have never learned the expectations in the workplace — anyone who has a barrier to employment.”
Another difference will be the type of work that AOS will take on. While Challenge Unlimited is limited to more low-skilled, manual labor, AOS employees will be working with automated equipment like conveyor belts, shrink wrap and blister pack machinery.
They’ll also be paid differently. Challenge Unlimited workers are paid on a piecemeal rate. AOS employees will be hourly and will receive some benefits. While they won’t receive the counseling and social services Challenge Unlimited provides its workers, Anstedt said that they will be more understanding than the typical private employer when situations arise.
“When they come to Advanced Outsource Solutions the expectation is that they’re going to work 100 percent just like competitive employment,” said Anstedt. “The only difference is there will be a little more empathy at AOS. There isn’t going to be any counseling but there is going to be training relative to the expectation of punctuality, professionalism and the social expectations when you go out into the community.”
The goal is to turn the hard to employ into reliable employees who can go out and get a job in the competitive arena. But, whether they stay at AOS or go out into the real world is entirely up to them.
“It’s absolutely, 100 percent their decision,” Anstedt said. “We will give them tools; we will score them; we will give them feedback in terms of evaluation on their performance; and we will encourage them to go out and get a job in the community. If we have work available, they will definitely be able to have that option to stay, but we will not be mandating anybody to stay or go.”
The space should be ready for occupancy by mid-December and Brenegan and Anstedt are actively seeking clients, responding to RFPs and making sales calls. Brenegan said that some jobs would fit Challenge Unlimited better and some would fit AOS better but they could sell prospects on the basis that the two companies could cooperate to get the job done. If things go well, he expects AOS to begin operations during the first quarter of 2015.
Brenegan said he expected there would be 10 or 12 management people for starters along with another 40 disadvantaged workers. They are projecting employment to be as high as 150 workers within two years. In addition to the 42,000 square feet, AOS has the ability to add another 25,000 square feet under its lease and has a right of first refusal on the 50,000 square feet remaining in the building.
As Brenegan and Anstedt go out pitching the new company to prospective clients, they are selling more than the ability to do the job.
“We’re adding value to companies that see employing the disabled as part of their corporate mission and social responsibility,” Brenegan said. “We’re using that as a pitch along with being able to do what they need to have done, which is meet their needs for quick production and good quality work. It’s really a unique enterprise, is what it is.”