Jon DeWys spent four years on a local school board and has a daughter who’s a senior in high school thinking about different career tracks. He also is president and CEO of DeWys Manufacturing near Grand Rapids, a firm that has sometimes come up empty-handed while trying to hire skilled workers.
So DeWys has seen the barriers that keep workers – and businesses – from getting ahead: lack of trained workers, low-wage jobs, parents resistant to allowing children to explore a skilled trade, among them.
So roughly three years ago, DeWys’ company launched 12-week programs called “DeWys University” to train workers in welding and other skills. And then the company gave all its 100 workers a $1-per-hour raise to improve their quality of life, along with incremental increases for completing additional training.
“Our workforce development started with a crisis,” DeWys said. But he said the investments are paying off in lower employee turnover and better trained workers.
DeWys was among a dozen panelists at a conference Tuesday at the Grand Valley State University campus in Grand Rapids that focused on career opportunities and challenges to upward mobility in the state; in other words, ways to help Michigan workers get ahead.
The Center for Michigan, a non-profit “think and do” tank headquartered in Ann Arbor and Talent2025, an organization of top business leaders in West Michigan, organized the event as a way for participants and Michigan residents to exchange information, ideas and solutions. The conference was the second of three summits that explore the findings of The Center for Michigan’s public engagement report, “Getting to Work: The public’s agenda for improving career navigation, college affordability and upward mobility in Michigan.”
The report from the Center (the parent organization of Bridge Magazine) is based on the input of more than 5,000 Michigan residents this year, through 149 community conversations across the state, two telephone polls, two online surveys of employers and educators and an online panel from December through May.
New ways, new opportunities
On Tuesday, in a brisk morning of four round-robin panel discussions, employers, experts and educators explored issues from cost incentives to employer training to the benefits of hiring ex-prisoners to the antiquated opinions among some parents about sending their children to trade schools.
These issues are especially critical now in Michigan because although the unemployment rate is below the national average for the first time since 2000, wage data show that on average Michigan pay is falling and many residents are falling further away from the American Dream.
Businesses that consider moving to or expanding in Michigan are most concerned about the skill level of Michigan’s workforce, said Stephanie Comai, director of the Michigan Talent Investment Agency.
“They’re not asking about our tax structure, environmental regulations … the number one question is, ‘Am I going to be able to find the talent I need,’” in Michigan?
In the “Getting to Work” polls, some residents questioned the quality of services available through workforce development agencies, and a vast majority of workers pointed out other hurdles to upward mobility – such as not having necessary skills and too few jobs that offer a livable wage. More than 70 percent of residents agreed that basic job skills training for workers of all ages needs to be expanded; retraining scholarships for displaced workers are needed as well as are paid internships for young people.
The “Grow Detroit’s Young Talent” program was featured at Tuesday’s event because it offered job training for 5,000 young people. The youth, from low-income households, learned soft skills on how to hold a job and worked in summer positions such as landscaping and secretarial jobs that provided money for their families, said Dierk Hall, president and CEO of City Connect Detroit, a nonprofit that focuses on supporting children and families.
“Employment opportunity and exposure is necessary. The difficulty is getting employers to let the kids on site because they don’t know how to deal with 14 to 17-year-olds,” Hall said.
Duane Berger, a special project assistant in the governor’s office, said businesses have to get a better understanding of how much untrained, low-wage workers can hurt their bottom line due to high turnover.
Schools, parents need to see the connections
Virginia Krolczyk, a counselor at Utica High, said that if a student wanted to job shadow a worker or get an internship, she wouldn’t know how to help that child. She would have to refer them to another administrator who deals with the school’s work programs.
That shows how schools are stratified, she said. Children are shuttled through either a vocational or college track with too little opportunity to explore and too few counselors who know how to help them all, she said.
Kent Innovation High, a Grand Rapids school that opened in 2011 and focuses on project-based learning, was highlighted as a successful partnership between employers and schools training the next generation of workers. Brandy Lovelady Mitchell, principal of Kent Innovation High, said the school has connections to about 50 businesses.
“We will all profit by or pay for what they become,” she said of children, quoting writer James Baldwin.
Parent hurdles to training
Still, parents are a huge barrier to helping kids to choose skilled trades jobs that pay well, summit participants agreed.
David Muir, president of Paragon D&E, a manufacturing company in Grand Rapids, said his firm worked with community college officials to develop a curriculum to train workers. There are plenty of skilled trades jobs that pay $50,000 with training and about four years experience, but the hard part is finding young people to train to replace the aging workforce, he said.
“It’s very easy to get kids excited when you get them in the building. The problem is, parents won’t let them go into the building,” he said.
Kevin Stotts, president of Talent2025, crystallized the importance for collaboration among parents, schools and employers: “Ninety-five percent of the jobs in this region will require post-secondary (education). That’s where the puck is going,” he said.
Stotts also mentioned a challenge that transcended the report and the day’s discussion: the need to address low-education and high-unemployment rates among the African American and Hispanic work force.
“We need to get a fix on it,” Stotts said. “Otherwise western Michigan cannot move forward.”
Ken Sikkema, senior policy fellow at Public Sector Consultants in Lansing and a former Michigan Senate Majority Leader (who has done work for Bridge's publisher, The Center for Michigan), gave summit participants political advice on ways to get Michigan’s Republican-led legislature to address issues surrounding career upward mobility.
Further increasing the minimum wage is a non-starter in Michigan, he said, but reinstating the earned income tax credit is a possibility. The key is to frame the debate in terms of creating opportunities for upward mobility and to avoid engaging in debate about income redistribution. “If you start (conversations) at the right place, you can make progress,” Sikkema said.
Summit attendees said they left Tuesday’s conference with new information.
Tony Warren, an educational consultant in the Battle Creek area, said he would like to see a “crayons to post-secondary approach” to career opportunities that exposes elementary school-age children to options for their future.
“What needs to take place is a comprehensive understanding of what we believe is college-ready, career-ready for our state,” he said.
Jennifer Searls, career development coordinator for Branch Intermediate School District, was encouraged that progress is underway to get more career technical education in schools.
“It’s going to change and I have to be patient and participate positively in the conversation,” she said.
Gov. Rick Snyder will be among a parade of high-profile guest speakers at the final “Getting to Work” summit taking place in Lansing on Nov. 2. The discussions will focus on college value and affordability solutions.