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It still feels like the 1940s for working women, Kelly CEO says as company hits 75 years

Detroit Free Press
Oct. 2, 2021
Carol Cain

It was 75 years ago Oct. 7 that Kelly opened its doors in Detroit as a staffing company to help women, displaced by men returning from World War II, find jobs.

Decades later, the company started by William Russell Kelly with its “Kelly Girl” focus connecting companies in need of clerical assistance, has been transformed as it has helped millions of women — and men — find jobs as scientists, engineers, IT specialists and more.

Along the way, the Michigan-based company has racked up some interesting history of its own as it impacted the lives of many, including:

  • Gene Simmons, the 72-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Fame lead singer of KISS, worked as a Kelly Girl, as they were called back in the day, after he graduated from high school as he excelled at typing and stenography.
  • Actress Loretta Swit once worked as a Kelly Girl before hitting the big time playing Maj. Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan on  the iconic TV show “Mash.”
  • Muhammad Ali hired Kelly employees to sell programs during his overseas promotional boxing tour in Europe.
  • Bob Hope was assisted by a Kelly temp during a fundraising project for a new USO Building in San Diego.

Kelly’s imprint is equally impressive today as the company operates in over 25 countries and employs 370,000 people. It assists 75 of the Fortune 100 companies with talent needs and Kelly posted revenue of $4.5 billion in 2020.

William Russell Kelly died in 1998 at the age of 92 but the firm’s legacy of workplace innovation continues.

Peter Quigley has worked at Kelly 18 years and served as president and CEO since 2019. Kelly continues to adjust to  workplace and societal needs.

There’s little doubt Quigley understands the plight of working women.

Growing up in New York, he watched as his mom, Amy Quigley, was forced to raise four young children by herself after his dad walked out. She had not worked outside the home.

It was difficult but she juggled and worked four part-time jobs as they went though some lean times. She got her real estate license and later purchased the company she once worked for.

Quigley witnessed the importance of meaningful work for employees and obstacles companies sometimes put in their way. In advance of the anniversary, I posed a few questions ( answers are edited for length).

Question: Tell me about Kelly and its focus on women? 

Answer: Kelly has blazed trails for women since 1946 when William Russell Kelly founded the company and pioneered the staffing industry. Russ sought to connect women, who had kept America’s economy moving forward during World War II and suddenly found themselves replaced by returning servicemen, with work in Detroit’s booming business districts. Essentially, our company was born out of a misalignment in the labor market of the 1940s. Back then, the postwar economic boom was just beginning, and companies had more positions available than workers to fill them. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? While the challenges of the 1940s are different than the ones we face today, both eras required new ways of thinking.

We’re proud to have been recognized by Forbes as one of America’s Best Employers for Women. Seven in 10 (71%) of our more than 7,000 full-time internal employees are women and 65% of our new hires in the United States were female in 2020. Our U.S. leadership ranks are 39% female, three of our five business units are led by women, and half of our executive leadership team is made up of women. In addition, 35% of our board are women.

Q: How has the situation facing working women evolved? 

A: Back then and today, women suddenly found themselves being pushed out of the workforce. In the 1940s, women were replaced by returning servicemen. Today, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed women out of the labor market. Nearly 3 million American women have left the labor force during the pandemic. Many women, particularly mothers of young children, have been furloughed or laid off. Many others have had to choose between showing up at front-line jobs or caring for their children. Nearly 1.6 million moms of children under 17 are still missing from the labor force. At Kelly, we’re committed to making work as accessible as possible and welcoming women to leadership roles at clients and within our corporate ranks.

Q: How is Kelly adjusting to the changing job market?

A: We understand we have a labor shortage and a good jobs shortage. There’s an urgency mismatch between employers’ immediate hiring needs and what job seekers are looking for. The “Great Reset” is underway: Though the delta variant is slowing the economic recovery, the dynamics today are less about managing COVID or enticing workers away from unemployment benefits, and more about the need for long-term, structural changes.

We’ve found that today’s workers are bringing their heightened consumer expectations to work, which is creating blind spots for organizations that ignore this. As much as consumers don’t tolerate bad experiences with products or services, talent won’t tolerate a bad work experience.

Many employers don’t really understand what workers want. About 1 in 5 North American business leaders say they don’t know what job seekers want in a post-COVID work environment, according to our research.

The biggest reason workers are staying home is they can’t find jobs that suit their current circumstances and lifestyles. At Kelly, we understand talent wants flexible hours and job sharing for better work-life balance, work-from-anywhere options, training and career advancement opportunities, well-being programs, great pay, including daily pay options, and safe and comfortable work environments.

Q: Tell me about Kelly’s Equity@Work focus?

A: Another crucial conversation we have with clients is about removing barriers to work. Companies make it too difficult for “hidden workers” to access work. We have had conversations with clients about unjust background screening practices, outdated drug screening policies, unnecessary four-year degree requirements, overly complicated onboarding processes, and biases against veterans, neuro-diverse talent and opportunity youth.

With that in mind, we’ve launched several programs to help companies access hidden workers: Kelly 33 connects talented job seekers who have a nonviolent, nonrelevant criminal background with employers in need of their skills; Kelly Discover places job seekers on the autism spectrum, as well as opportunity talent, in IT roles with companies; and the Kelly Certification Institute offers apprenticeships and upskilling opportunities to professional and industrial workers, as well as training and certifications to contingent workers interested in scientific and clinical positions.

Q: What do you think Kelly’s founder would say about the company today?

A: I’d like to think that Russ would be proud of the company Kelly has become. We’re 75 years old and throughout our history have had to reinvent ourselves. What hasn’t changed is our noble purpose of connecting people to work in ways that enrich their lives. That’s what drove Russ to found Kelly and what led him to pioneer the staffing industry, and it’s what drives our pioneering spirit forward as we develop new solutions for clients and break barriers for talent.

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