Published in Nonprofits
The Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation received a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor for its Youthbuild program. The Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation received a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor for its Youthbuild program. COURTESY PHOTO

Nonprofit programs address barriers to employment in West Michigan

BY Sunday, March 01, 2020 03:00pm

Increasing prosperity and the decade-long economic expansion have provided a record number of jobs in Michigan, yet people who want to work are still facing barriers to employment. 

Now, business owners and local nonprofit organizations are coming together to tap into those segments of the workforce that have yet to benefit from the surge in job opportunities. 

The labor shortage in Michigan has stifled growth in the state’s top industries, including manufacturing, agriculture and hospitality. Out of every 100 people in the labor force, more than 96 of them have jobs. Economists call the situation “full employment,” meaning virtually all who are able and willing to work are employed.

Yet, untapped pockets of Michigan’s workforce are still looking for employment and unable to access the jobs available, according to Debbi Coleman, transportation business development specialist at Hope Network

“We get calls and emails from people looking for jobs every single day,” Coleman told MiBiz.

Hope Network’s Wheels to Work program provides transportation to and from work for people in West Michigan. Because the average monthly cost to own a personal vehicle is more than $400, a lot of workers simply can’t afford to drive themselves to work, according to Coleman. They must then rely on other modes of transportation like public buses, which don’t always run in industrial areas where employers are based, nor do they always operate during second and third shifts. 

“Our biggest need is those people who live in the inner city that are going into manufacturing positions and do not have any access to public transit because of their shift,” Coleman said. 

The Wheels to Work program covers all of West Michigan, but the largest concentration is in Grand Rapids and the surrounding areas. People who use the program are picked up at neighborhood-based hubs and dropped off directly at their workplace. 

Although the program was started with seed funding from Heart of West Michigan United Way and from the Meijer Foundation, the program was designed to be self-sustaining. Costs for the rides are split between the employer and employee. 

According to Coleman, employers are willing to bear the brunt of the expense because the program provides a significant return on investment relative to labor costs, which often account for a large portion of total overhead costs. 

Of the 50 businesses that participate in the Wheels to Work program, 20 percent have seen an increase in production and 82 percent report an increase in attendance, according to a survey conducted by Hope Network. Coleman said 40 percent of participants in the program reported that they would not be able to continue working their current job without Wheels to Work. 

The program sees hundreds of new riders every quarter and provides about 12,000 trips per month, a number that will significantly increase this year because of an expansion to industrial areas in Muskegon, according to Coleman. 

“People want to work,” she said. “They just need a way to get there.” 

Demonstrating need

Since 2016, the U.S. economy has added nearly 7 million jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, historically and at present, employment opportunities are not spread evenly across the population. 

For example, between January 1972 and December 2019, other than in the aftermath of various recessions, the African American unemployment rate has stayed at or above twice the white unemployment rate, according to data from the Center for American Progress. In fact, the only time that the African American unemployment rate was significantly less than twice the white unemployment rate was during the Great Recession.

Furthermore, while the overall unemployment rate hovers around 4 percent, the youth unemployment rate in West Michigan is around 20 percent, according to Justin Beene, founder of the Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation (GRCCT). 

The Center for Community Transformation was recently awarded a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to extend its Youthbuild program, which helps youths from neighborhoods in southeast Grand Rapids earn their GEDs as well as a nationally recognized certificate in either construction or hospitality.

“We want to make (Youthbuild) as effective as possible, both to meet the needs of the industry as well as build on the strengths of our young people,” Beene told MiBiz

A significant portion of the program’s participants are youth of color, and the need is clear. Although the Youthbuild program only accepts 20 people at a time, about 90 people apply each cycle, according to Beene. The average age of participants is 19. 

“We can’t even take them all and it shows that there are actually lots of young people who need to finish school and who are interested in maybe going into the trades,” he said. 

The program partners with private companies like Wolverine Building Group Inc., Building Bridges Professional Services L3C, Feyen-Zylstra LLC and Nugent Builders Inc. to place people who have completed the program into jobs. However, even with many job openings in the construction and hospitality industries, Youthbuild still faces challenges when connecting participants to careers.

“There are a lot of CEOs who have had a ton of interest in working with us and partnering, but when it comes to the foreman and the project manager, maybe even HR manager, having the same level of passion and grace, that’s a bit different,” Beene said. “We’ll see a lot of young people who we place who have to deal with sexism or racism in the workplace.” 

Relationships matter

Relationship-building is the key to connecting people to careers where they will thrive, according to Beene, who said he gets frequent calls from employers who need to fill jobs but don’t necessarily want to commit to ongoing mentorship or community building. 

“We have lots of businesses and lots of people who really do care, but our (community’s) methodology hasn’t always worked,” he said. “We get a lot of phone calls of, ‘hey, we could hire 10 people right now,’ but the challenge is it’s not that simple. We need you to come and build relationships with these young people beforehand and that’s a shift, but employers know they have to start doing something a little different.”

The heightened presence of local companies for groups of people who are looking to join the workforce will ultimately give those businesses access to untapped talent, according to Beene.

“The opportunity in developing these partnerships is really to have a presence and some name recognition to get out and build relationships before they’re needed,” he said.

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