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Sunday, 07 July 2013 17:00

Kinexus offers clues to future of Michigan Works!

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Kinexus’ Corey Carolla discusses the opportunities in manufacturing while leading career technical education students on a plant tour. Kinexus’ Corey Carolla discusses the opportunities in manufacturing while leading career technical education students on a plant tour. COURTESY PHOTO

Manufacturers in Southwestern Michigan have had access to powerful workforce development tools for years. The problem: Not many of the companies were familiar with the services the state made available to them.

That’s where Kinexus (said “connects us”) hopes to step in. The new nonprofit organization — which previously functioned solely as the Michigan Works! provider for Berrien, Cass and Van Buren counties — aims to have a bigger impact on employers in the region by focusing on a more customer service-oriented model for connecting employers with talent.

Kinexus’ hands-on strategy is to work with regional businesses to determine their exact needs for both business and workforce development. In fact, this new model is one idea being considered later this year or next year as the state looks to restructure how Michigan Works! functions, sources told MiBiz.

“(Kinexus) focuses on what keeps our clients up at night,” said Corey Carolla, director of business and industry for Kinexus. “We are trying to get at common problems and then get everyone in the same room.”

Carolla told MiBiz that a major part of Kinexus’ strategy involves having business development professionals out on the road every day talking with employers about their specific needs and problems, ranging from difficulties in attracting talent to raising capital.

In the past, most manufacturers lacked a strong understanding of what services Michigan Works! could offer, while the workforce development agency at the same time struggled to market itself effectively to industry, sources said.

Because the Southwest Michigan economy is heavily rooted in manufacturing, Kinexus often works closely with the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center (MMTC), the state’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) center sponsored by the U.S. Department of Commerce and hosted in West Michigan at The Right Place Inc., to help develop an understanding of the needs of the region’s industrial base.

“(Kinexus and MMTC) are trying to be one full team and bring the right people together depending on needs,” said Bill Small, vice president of technical services at The Right Place and director of MMTC’s western region.

Each of the 25 Michigan Works! agencies across the state behaves in a somewhat autonomous way, said Todd Gustafson, executive director of Kinexus.

Gustafson is also the chair of the Michigan Works! Directors’ Council, a group that includes the heads of each agency and meets to discuss common issues and share best practices.

Michigan Works! agencies can take on governmental, quasi-governmental or nonprofit forms, depending on how the local organization is set up. Of the three types of organizations, nonprofit groups have the most flexibility and can seek funds through the private sector, Gustafson and other industry insiders told MiBiz.

“Nonprofit is the best position to be in,” Gustafson said.

It is that nonprofit status that allowed Kinexus to shift from being a Michigan Works! agency solely focused on job skills to its current form that works on the needs of employers. Now the organization is hoping to set an example the state’s other providers could follow.

The conversations about how to better match up talent with employment needs have been happening at the highest levels of state government for a number of years.

“While the struggle to connect talent with employers is multifaceted, the primary reason employers are struggling to fill jobs is a mismatch between skill attainment and skill demand,” Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder wrote in a 2011 special message on talent to the Michigan legislature. “We are not leveraging our resources efficiently to create a talent supply that meets the demands of Michigan’s 21st century economy.”

Christine Quinn, director of the state’s Workforce Development Agency, said that a goal for her agency within the next 12 months is to begin remaking boundaries for Michigan Works! agencies based on the specific needs of the regions.

“We have gone into a demand-driven system (of talent development),” Quinn said.

Gustafson sees this approach of demand-driven development in a very similar light.

“Workforce development has traditionally been supply-driven,” Gustafson said. “In the 21st century, (workforce development is a form) of economic development. They’re the same thing.”

Both Gustafson and Carolla, in separate conversations, anecdotally talked about how in the past, Michigan Works! agencies might have had programs to train people to be hairdressers, without any thought given to whether there was any demand for people in that profession.

In an era when many companies, especially manufacturers, are struggling to find talented workers, workforce developers must focus on becoming more needs based, they said.

While Quinn told MiBiz that the state agencies are by no means going for a one-size-fits-all approach as they begin looking at how to reorganize the agencies — she acknowledged that the needs in Benton Harbor are significantly different than those in Escanaba — they are looking at many options to make regional groups better suited to fit the needs of their region.

“Kinexus is still a Michigan Works! agency but they have broadened their purview,” Quinn said. “It is our expectation that conversations (over the next 12 months) will be happening about how to make changes to be more flexible.”

In the short-term, the state is looking to strategically redraw many of the boundaries of the 25 Michigan Works! agencies, Quinn said.

The regional approach is not a new conversation within economic and talent development circles in the state. For example, the Michigan Economic Development Corp. in 2011 reorganized its service delivery model to a 10-region effort aimed to encourage more collaboration in economic development practices across the state.

While Kinexus rebranded in April, the effort really stems from years of conversations about similar operating models, Gustafson said.

It’s a model MiBiz reported on in November 2012 in an article that examined Michigan Works!’s new “Michigan Industry Cluster Approach,” which aims to take a more regional approach than the system in which many of the Michigan Works! agencies operate.

Carolla told MiBiz that Kinexus is focusing heavily on the “cluster approach.”

Read 6317 times Last modified on Friday, 19 July 2013 11:54

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