Onin is all-in when it comes to workforce development

The Onin Group works to find teammates a job for today and a career for tomorrow

Onin Managing Partner Hugh Thomas enjoys helping people find jobs that can lead to careers. Photo by Cary Norton.

The philosophy of the Alabama-based staffing firm The Onin Group can be summed up through a piggy bank that was distributed to the company’s approximately 750 employees. The bank is shaped like a small person, with the word “teammate” displayed prominently on front.

Managing Partner Hugh Thomas says “teammate” is how the company refers to people seeking employment through Onin’s services, not the more common term of “temp” that’s often used to describe a temporary worker. So, whenever anybody at Onin accidentally says “temp,” they have to put a dollar in their bank.

“We provide teammates on assignment, not temps,” Thomas says. “Temp is a dirty word for us. It means short-term. A teammate is a responsibility. We challenged everyone companywide to stop saying temp and start using teammate. That’s really changed our whole culture.”

It is a philosophy that has served Onin well since the company was formed in 1996 as a collaboration between Thomas, an Alabama native, and fellow Managing Partner Keith Phillips, who was operating a small staffing firm in Dallas at the time.

Onin — a name created by combining Thomas’ On-Staff Solutions with Phillips’ In-Staff Personnel — began with two offices in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. Today, Onin has 108 locations in 26 states, and the company staffs approximately 80,000 people each year.

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The key, Thomas says, has been to treat job-seekers as more than merely a temporary fix. Instead, the company’s approach focuses on finding a paycheck for today along with a career for tomorrow.

“We are in a position to help change lives,” Thomas says from his office in the company’s Birmingham headquarters. “The majority of people we send on an assignment for the first time are entry-level, low-wage earners. To get them into opportunities and see them progress is what drives our company.

“We get the opportunity to help somebody every day. We have seen careers develop and take people places they never dreamed of going. From living paycheck-to-paycheck to having financial security. That’s something that really motivates us.”

Onin’s early growth in the late 1990s and early 2000s coincided with the rise of auto manufacturing in the state of Alabama and the sudden need for workers in that field.

“That was huge,” Thomas says. “That led to other relationships outside of Alabama. Over the years we just kept after it, doing the blocking and tackling, and our company kept growing.”

As a result, Onin has been able to expand its offerings to job seekers over the years. In 2019, Thomas says the company created its own self-insurance program that provides low-cost co-pays on doctor and dental visits, prescription medications, eye exams and such. In addition, Onin offers paid vacations and recently began an employee stock ownership plan.

“It gives them a chance to share in the profits in the company,” Thomas says. “Offering things like that has been a large part of our success.”

Thomas says employers have various needs when it comes to using a staffing firm. Some use a work-to-hire model, others simply are seeking seasonal employees (such as retail and delivery around the holidays), and a few have open-ended indefinite requests.

“Clients use us in different ways,” Thomas says. “We develop a relationship with them and try to build a hiring program to suit their needs. For the most part our clients do the training, but we’ll have someone on site to help introduce people to their supervisor and work with them that way.”

Lately, Onin has expanded its focus beyond individual companies and is now exploring ways to improve the overall workforce participation rate in Alabama. Thomas notes that the state has one of the lowest participation rates in the county (57%) even as job openings remain unfilled and enrollment in such benefit programs as SNAP/food stamps has risen.

“We have a lot of work to do in getting people back to work,” Thomas says. “We have a great opportunity to help people get gainfully employed, become more self-sufficient and independent and have a better life. This is an opportunity we can’t squander. I’m motivated to get some change there. That’s something we feel strongly about. We have three full-time people who do nothing but that.”

Part of the problem, Thomas says, is that many high school students no longer seek any type of employment until after graduation. According to a study by the Brookings Institution, the number of students ages 16 to 19 who have a part-time job dropped from 60% in 1980 to 35% by 2020, and Thomas says that number is closer to 32% now.

“That means the majority of kids coming out of high school have never worked a day in their life,” Thomas says. “If you then throw that kid into an environment where all of a sudden they have a 40-hour work week, they’re not ready for it. There are so many kids who are woefully unprepared to go to work. That’s something we have to improve.”

In response, Onin began a Ready-to-Work program, in which students learn the soft skills needed to succeed in the workforce, then are connected to potential employers for interviews. The program began at Central High School in Tuscaloosa with 32 students, and Thomas says 28 of them were hired by businesses involved with the program. Since then, Onin has extended the program into 26 schools throughout Alabama.

“You’re seeing high school students walk across that stage at graduation and walk straight into unemployment,” says Tiffany Bishop, Onin’s regional workforce development manager. “Then you have employers who are looking for entry-level talent. So, there’s a disconnect between industry and education. This program brings them together.”

With the Baby Boomer generation retiring in droves, Thomas says the need for workforce development is vitally important and will remain so for decades. That is why he is passionate about trying to help improve the situation.

“I’m in the people business. People are my inventory. So, I need everybody working who can work,” Thomas says. “Some people don’t realize that they’re equipped for $20-an-hour jobs that are right around the corner. We have to get those two together.

“We’ve put hundreds of kids through this program who have immediately gone to work. It’s a needed bridge right now. Because once these kids see that employers want them, they realize that they can expect something more out of themselves.”

Which is something The Onin Group believes everyone should take to the bank.

Cary Estes and Cary Norton are Birmingham-based freelance contributors to Business Alabama.

This article appears in the January 2024 issue of Business Alabama.

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