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Michigan jobs program takes different approach, could serve as national model

Jun 1, 2015

The Next Idea

When the housing crisis hit in the mid-2000s, millions lost their jobs. Licensed home builder and Saginaw resident Jeff Little was one of them. 

Jeff lost his job in 2006, and soon his wife was unemployed as well. Struggling to make ends meet every month, he became self-employed and worked on and off while searching for a full-time job.

For eight years, his efforts to land steady employment were unsuccessful until he got involved in an innovative public-private partnership developed to help create long-term career opportunities.

Community Ventures, launched in October 2012 by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), helps eligible “structurally unemployed” people living in Detroit, Flint, Pontiac, and Saginaw pursue career opportunities at Michigan companies.

Jeff Little is one of more than 3,500 Michigan residents who found long-term employment through the Community Ventures program.
Credit Courtesy of mitalent.org

The program focuses on people with extended joblessness, low income, disability, limited education, or past incarceration.

The goal is to place 1,000 structurally unemployed into stable jobs every year.

To get there, the Community Ventures Team works cooperatively with local community and talent partners like Goodwill Industries, Jewish Vocational Services (JVS), Michigan Department of Human Services, Saginaw Business and Education Partnership, Detroit Employment Solutions, and others to find and screen eligible candidates.

A connection is then made with participating employers, recruited by Community Ventures and MEDC, who commit to providing full-time (at least 30 hours) long-term positions that pay living wages. In order to minimize the hiring risk, businesses receive a stipend for each participant to pay for on-the-job training.

As part of the program, local partners provide extensive post-employment support services like job coaching, transportation, workforce readiness, child care, and adult education, depending on each participant’s needs.

Last year, Jeff landed his first full-time job in nearly a decade.

Working with the Saginaw Business and Education Partnership, Jeff was identified as a good Community Ventures program candidate and was hired at Nexteer Automotive, a Saginaw-based automotive supplier.

More conventional workforce programs have focused on skills training that often doesn’t support the local employers’ immediate needs.

In Michigan, through Community Ventures, we have flipped that around by working directly with employers to ensure that participants gain high-demand skills and real jobs - jobs that set people on a sustainable path to independence.

It’s working. Nearly two-and-a-half years into the program, Community Ventures has placed more than 3,500 structurally unemployed people into long-term employment with more than 150 companies.

This unique Michigan model could one day serve as a blueprint for a national program.

So what’s the Next Idea?

There are about 300,000 people in Michigan who meet the definition of structurally unemployed, and about 16 percent of our population lives at or below the poverty line.

What if, instead of 1,000 people a year in Detroit, Flint, Pontiac, and Saginaw, we targeted 10,000 to 15,000 people across the state? Imagine what would happen to unemployment and poverty in Michigan if 15,000 structurally unemployed people started finding opportunities for themselves.

More conventional workforce programs have focused on skills training that often doesn't support the local employers' immediate needs.

Community Ventures doesn’t have to be limited to just four urban areas. It can be expanded into any area where you have people who have chronically struggled to find jobs.

The challenge now is to scale it on a statewide basis.

In his 2016 budget recommendations, Governor Snyder has asked the legislature for $10 million to continue the program in the four target communities. Expanding the program’s reach, however, will require additional funding. With state budget priorities and realities as they are, relying on public dollars alone isn’t feasible.

We have to look outside the norm.

One area we are looking at engaging is Michigan’s philanthropic community. Michigan is home to over 2,200 foundations providing hundreds of millions of dollars in grants every year.  We feel that an economic development initiative like Community Ventures that promotes social enterprise would be a good fit for the mission of any number of foundations in the state.

Another avenue we are exploring is social impact bonds. With this model, governments team up with service providers and private sector investors to create and fund innovative social programs. Investors are repaid only when the programs reach specific targets and tax dollar savings are achieved.

A third opportunity we are looking at is crowdfunding. We know that a state-led crowdfunding effort can work. Our Public Spaces Community Places initiative has had tremendous success enabling local residents, businesses and other community stakeholders to use crowdfunding to support the development of strategic projects in their communities and be backed with a matching grant from MEDC.

Today, Jeff Little is a machine operator at Nexteer.

With the help of an onsite "success coach," he is thriving in his new position and has already earned two raises. Little credits Community Ventures as a “total life change,” and getting up and going to work every day and providing for his family has instilled in him a new sense of pride and purpose.

Jeff Little’s story is about more than finding a job. It is about an opportunity to change a life for the better.

With innovative thinking, we can take the model that is working to empower people in Detroit, Flint, Pontiac, and Saginaw who previously may have lost hope of ever making a living and bring it to other communities across Michigan.

We have an opportunity to help write thousands of similar stories.

Michael Finney is senior advisor for economic growth for Governor Rick Snyder's administration and the former president and CEO of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. 

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(Full disclosure: The MEDC is a funder for Michigan Radio's The Next Idea project.