PORTAGE — Isaiah Erskine has faced tough odds for most of his young life.
Born into a dysfunctional family situation, Erskine faced serious challenges in his formative years, bouncing around from house to house and from one family member to another.
“I got taken away from my parents when I was really young,” Erskine said of his upbringing. “First it was my mom, then I got taken away from my dad. Then I lived with my grandparents. Then my grandpa passed away, (and he) was the one who paid all the bills. Then my grandma started doing meth. Then I was taking care of all of them, all the tweakers and everyone who was coming into the house.”
While Erskine hated school at first, he eventually found a home at Portage Community High School, where teachers took the time to listen and help him sort through his personal troubles. Still, as he approached graduation, Erskine thought his job prospects seemed slim.
But it turns out he was an ideal candidate for Portage-based Mann+Hummel USA Inc. The automotive supplier, which manufactures a variety of composite plastic air induction components, recently launched a partnership with Portage Community High School to mentor students like Erskine and provide them with a structured career following graduation.
In many ways, Erskine was the impetus to begin this program, said Vice President Kurk Wilks.
“He was the one that got us thinking about the mentorship program,” Wilks said.
Mike Hinga, a personal friend of Wilks and a behavior interventionist at Portage Community High School, told Wilks about Erskine, a 16-year-old junior at the time, and asked if there were any open positions for him.
“When I talked to Mike, he talked a lot about Isaiah and said this kid has pulled himself out of a pretty tough situation and just has an incredible work ethic,” Wilks said. “That’s not a given these days, and we have a number of associates that come in and in the first few weeks it’s obvious that this isn’t their environment.
“We really want to find someone who finds the value in what we do. From our perspective, it’s looking for young adults who are interested in creating a career, but aren’t afraid of starting out in the manufacturing environment.”
The program paired Erskine and three other members of Portage Community High School with team leaders from Mann+Hummel, who acted as mentors. The mentors would regularly contact Erskine and the others to see how they were doing in their home life and in school. Once a month for three months, the students would also job shadow their mentors on the shop floor.
Mann+Hummel partnered with OnStaff Group LLC, a temporary employment agency headquartered in Portage, to help administer the program. The students start out as OnStaff workers until they reach a set number of hours and qualify for employment at Mann+Hummel.
For Erskine, being involved in the mentorship program helped him finish out his high school career on a strong note, knowing that he had a job lined up at the end of the year. He said the program also helped him escape his turbulent past.
Now four months into his job and living in his own apartment, Erskine is considering his future at Mann+Hummel. He said he wouldn’t mind becoming a team leader and training other young people, similar to how his mentors helped him. He also is thinking about attending college courses under the company’s education reimbursement program.
While Erskine has thrived under the mentorship program, the other students in his cohort have since left or were fired.
Although the program has met with mixed success thus far, Mann+Hummel executives say they plan to continue offering it during the next school year. For the manufacturer, the program is as much about tapping into a new pool of talent as it is a social enterprise aimed at providing young people a leg up out of poverty.
“The program did only help one person, but that’s one more person that we’ve helped out of a bad situation,” Wilks said.
Community high schools provide an alternative education environment for students with challenging backgrounds. Put another way, the one common denominator that most children in community high schools share is that “typically their home life sucks,” Hinga said.
The teachers and administrators at Portage Community High School take a more proactive role in their students’ personal lives, giving them adults to confide in.
The trouble comes as students approach graduation, according to Hinga. When the structure at school they’ve relied upon comes to an end, many students often start to feel lost, he said.
“They’re going to shuffle through the job market,” Hinga said, referring to what happens to many students after they graduate from community high schools. “They’re going to go from job to job to job, because there is no direction. Everyone has told them that you want to be ready to go to college, and they’re not ready to go to college.”
Sources interviewed for this report believe mentorship programs that train high school students for careers in the trades can help fill that lack of structure following graduation, particularly for students who remain unprepared for college.
“There are more Isaiahs out there,” Hinga said. “They don’t have the opportunity to walk into the job situation as (much) because everyone is telling them (to go to) college. That’s not an achievable goal, whereas this is a way to build a career and you don’t need college. College can come later.”
Made in Michigan: Portage-based Mann+Hummel USA Inc. launched a mentorship program this year to hire students enrolled in Portage Community High School, an alternative education provider aimed at youths with troubled backgrounds. For the automotive supplier, the move marks both a strategy to access an untapped pool of talent and a way to help struggling people out of tough situations. For the students, the program provides a steady job in a promising career and stability once they graduate.