Jacora Seymore needs a job. Larry Harb needs an employee. Both have tried meeting their needs -- so far without success -- through the Michigan Works program, the network of agencies charged with matching Michigan’s unemployed with employers.
Seymore, a single mother, who receives public assistance to support her two young daughters, fills out job applications at a Michigan Works office in Grand Rapids every weekday. “I’ve put in a ton of applications,” she said, “and I don’t know why I don’t get called back.”
When Harb decided to hire a bookkeeper for his Lansing-area insurance agency, he first turned to Michigan Works. He’s still looking for a qualified applicant -- and said he likely won’t try Michigan Works again.
“It’s not my first choice for a job search, let’s put it that way,” Harb said. “It’s probably my last choice. As a small business owner, it’s tough to find good people. I’ll argue there’s not a lack of jobs, but a lack of skilled workers.”
Seymore's and Harb's experiences were echoed by a key small business leader, who said Michigan Works isn't playing a proper role in matching employers and employees, and by a state audit report that found insufficient evidence to assess whether Michigan Works actually works.
Gov. Rick Snyder acknowledged the “talent disconnect” in a Dec. 1 special message calling for an overhaul of Michigan’s work force development programs, including Michigan Works.
“Today, too few workers have the skills needed to meet the demands of employers in the new economy,” he said. “Despite an unemployment rate (at the time) of 10.6 percent, thousands of jobs remain unfilled in Michigan.”
Michigan Works was created under the Engler administration in the 1990s as a network of regional agencies. About half the Michigan Works agencies are affiliated with local governments, and the rest are private, nonprofit agencies.
Each of those 25 agencies, with about 100 service centers all over the state, operates independently, administering a variety of programs, including a job search service for the unemployed; the No Worker Left Behind program, which provides training for the unemployed and for workers who want to find better jobs; and the Jobs, Education and Training, or JET, program, under which welfare recipients are required to seek jobs. In fiscal 2010, Michigan distributed almost $450 million in public funds to the agencies.
Historically, Michigan Works has focused on the unemployed person, not the employer, as its primary customer, Snyder said. He directed the state’s Workforce Development Agency and Michigan Works “to shift their efforts to a demand-driven employment strategy,” training and placing workers in the new skilled jobs of manufacturing, energy, healthcare, information technology and agriculture.
“A lot of people would come in and say, ‘I want to be a truck driver,’ or ‘I want to be a beautician,’ and we would train them for those jobs,” said Elliot Forsyth, a former software executive appointed last April as chief operating officer of the state’s Workforce Development Agency, which oversees Michigan Works. “We’ve changed the agenda to say, ‘We’re going to put people into jobs that are in demand.’”
If that effort is to succeed, it will require changing the perceptions of some employers that Michigan Works is the employment agency of last resort.
“If you talk to a small business person, most of them believe the Michigan Works system is not the place to go for new employees,” said Rob Fowler, president and CEO of the Small Business Association of Michigan. “My perception is employers are hiring people. They’re just not going to Michigan Works to get them.”
In a recent unscientific survey of its members, SBAM found that 70 percent of small business owners who responded said they don’t use Michigan Works when seeking new employees. Their comments were scathing:
“I need highly skilled help. They offer a giant list of wannabes.”
"Have tried them in the past and received no qualified candidates, but many useless resumes.”
“Too many unqualified people. This agency of government is just one more way that they waste my tax dollars.”
“We used to, but after calling some of the candidates and being told they make more if they receive unemployment and work under the table, we stopped wasting our time.”
Auditor: Not sure if Michigan Works works
A report released by the Michigan Auditor General in July found problems in the state’s management of the Michigan Works agencies. The major conclusion was the state simply did not have the data to show how effective Michigan Works is in training and placing the unemployed in jobs.
The state should create a continuous quality improvement program to monitor how efficiently the 25 Michigan Works Agencies are spending the $375 million a year in federal funds they receive, the audit recommended. Some Michigan Works Agencies spent very little on training job seekers, the audit found.
“In many cases, Michigan’s changing work force requires additional education and/or training to become marketable in the current economic environment,” the auditors wrote. “As a result, we would expect participant-direct expenditures to make up a significant portion of (Michigan Works agencies’) expenditures. However, we noted that some MWAs expended as little as 3 percent, 4 percent and 12 percent of program funding on participant-direct activities.”
Because the Michigan Works agencies technically are not part of state government, the Auditor General could not directly audit their books. As a result, State Rep. Anthony Forlini, R-Harrison Township, introduced a bill that, if approved, would allow the Auditor General to review each Michigan Works agency’s records.
“What I found incredible was the amount of money that was going to bureaucrats and not going where it was supposed to go,” said Forlini. “My problem was there was very little scrutiny, very little oversight.”
Forsyth, the new Workforce Development Agency COO, agreed that not all Michigan Works agencies are performing up to standards.
“With 25 different organizations, the truth is we have some that excel, and, likewise, I can tell you we have some at the other extreme,” he said. “We need to get on the same page strategically as to where the state should go, and that hasn’t been done with Michigan Works. I think it’s fair to say the Michigan Works system needed to focus much better on its customers, to be more efficient with its dollars and be more outcome based.”
Luann Dunsford, CEO of the Michigan Works Association, said most Michigan Works agencies meet or exceed federal standards. For example, 94.9 percent of adults who completed a Michigan Works program in 2010 found jobs in the following quarter, she said.
Many of those jobs, however, were part-time, making it difficult to determine how many workers found well-paying jobs in the new economy. Part of the problem is the Michigan Works Association is a nonprofit organization that provides technical support and training for the 25 Michigan Works Agencies, but has no control over their operations.
“When you ask me, is the system effective, I say, ‘yes,’” Dunsford said. “Is it perfect? No.”
Michigan's 'JET' still at gate
One Michigan Works program that is far from perfect is the JET program, created under the Granholm administration to help welfare recipients find work. All public assistance recipients are required to participate in the JET program.
Under federal guidelines, 50 percent of welfare recipients must participate in JET’s work-related activities. Only 27 percent of the state’s welfare recipients meet that standard, Dunsford said, adding that her association had warned from the start that the JET program would not meet federal participation requirements.
In 2007, the federal government penalized Michigan$24 million for failing to meet that standard, but recently reversed that decision. In 2008, the federal government withheld another $32 million -- a penalty that still stands.
The Snyder administration and Michigan Works are redesigning the JET program to meet the federal guidelines, Dunsford said, noting that a recent change in state law limits any individual’s lifetime welfare benefits to 48 months.
“My concern is we don’t have time to squander to help these people,” she said.
That’s also foremost on the minds of welfare rights advocates. Michigan Works needs to place more emphasis on educating the unemployed, said Marian Kramer, co-chair of the National Welfare Rights Union.
“If the jobs program has been so successful, why haven’t they found jobs for all these folks?” she asked in her Detroit office, filled with people soon to lose their welfare benefits. “People are coming in here facing eviction. You’ve got a whole generation of people who never had a job. The market is demanding people who need to be educated for these jobs, and they’re not getting it.”
That description fits Jacora Seymore, the single mother of two. She has a high school diploma and little work experience. She fills out eight job applications a day at a Michigan Works office so she can continue receiving public assistance, and she volunteers at a Grand Rapids charity that gives clothing and furniture to low-income families. Her spotty work record in fast-food restaurants and retail stores, which she attributed to lack of transportation and child care, makes her less than attractive to potential employers, she acknowledged.
As a child, Seymore, now 24, was in and out of foster care. She was homeless for a time and spent 30 days in jail for retail fraud. She recently got out of a domestic crisis center and is living with an aunt while struggling to support her 5-month-old and 2-year-old daughters.
In a year and a half, she will reach the 48-month lifetime limit for receiving public assistance, unless she finds a job first.
“Hopefully, I will find a job, and I won’t have to be on it (public assistance),” Seymore said. “You can see it’s not enough to survive on.
“I’ve heard people complaining about not wanting to get up and go to work. I’d love to get up and go to work. I really need a job -- especially with two kids. You feel like you’re failing your kids.”