Street Talk: Diamonds in the rough


Everybody is looking for that first big break.

Now, business owners in West Michigan have an opportunity to provide it.

Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell is looking for more organizations to join his youth employment initiative, which this year has expanded to include 100 “partners.”

The Mayor’s 100 Campaign gives local businesses an opportunity to offer young people who participate in the Leadership and Employment, Achievement and Direction (LEAD) program meaningful, paid employment. The city and Our Community’s Children are seeking additional businesses to join the initiative.

Current Mayor’s 100 businesses include Warner Norcross & Judd, Cascade Engineering and SMG/DeVos Place, among others.

“Warner Norcross is proud to be associated with the Mayor's 100 Campaign and to support providing meaningful employment opportunities for young people who may not have had much exposure to a professional work environment,” said Cheryl Coutchie, director of human resources at the law firm. “The training the students receive prior to their work experience is impressive and helps facilitate their transition into the workplace. This summer, we will welcome back a graduate of the Mayor's 100 program who worked with us during high school and returns this summer as a college intern in our accounting department.”

LEAD students employed by companies like Warner Norcross go through specialized pre-employment training facilitated by OCC. This training includes lessons in civic engagement, leadership and employability skills such as résumé and cover letter writing and interview techniques. They also learn about appropriate work attire, stress management and financial literacy. Following the training, Mayor’s 100 businesses interview and hire the students at their discretion. These individuals are then employed for six months or 150 hours.

“We have definitely been impressed with the caliber of students, with everything from polished résumés, professionalism during interviews, hard working and willingness to learn,” said Sharon Darby, senior manager at Cascade Engineering. “Each student is a diamond in the rough to us, just waiting to get an opportunity to shine. It is very gratifying to see them grow and gain confidence in their abilities through their employment period.”

Businesses and organizations currently signed on for the campaign include the city of Grand Rapids, Terryberry, Grand Rapids Label, Salvation Army Kroc Center, Mercantile Bank, Express Employment Professionals, Denison Financial and SMG/DeVos Place. A major selling point for these organizations is that the city shares the cost of employing the students 50/50.

“SMG Entertainment signed on to the Mayor’s 100 Campaign when it was first rolled out five years ago, and it was a win-win proposition in that there is the salary cost-sharing,” said Eddie Tadlock, assistant general manager at SMG/DeVos Place. “But more importantly, the campaign and the LEAD program give young people the opportunity to get engaged in the workplace sooner rather than later so they can find out what the real world is like. And oftentimes, the student employees we get really grow into the positions they are assigned to work — so much so that we have six current LEAD student employees who we hired on to work with us after their initial employment period was finished.”

Businesses interested in joining the program can contact Lynn Heemstra at (616) 456-4353.

Proven partners

One business already on its way to providing meaningful work experiences to high school students is Open Systems Technologies.

“Educators and businesses have a unique opportunity to solve a global epidemic — many students lack basic skills such as communication, problem solving and critical thinking,” said Meredith Bronk, CEO and President of OST.

“No matter what industry you are in, these three areas are crucial to success. The timing is ripe for an innovative, human-centered approach, but it must be done collaboratively in order to find solutions that will lead to successful outcomes for the next generation of students entering the workforce.”

That perspective helped the Grand Rapids-based international technology company earn the Employer Partner of the Year award from Kent ISD’s Career Readiness Program.

OST will be recognized during an employer appreciation breakfast 8-9 a.m., Tuesday, May 19, at Grand Rapids Downtown Market.

Michigan Works! also will receive an award, for Community Partner of the Year.

OST has provided mentors and job shadow experiences for students interested in entering the field. The company also has taken part in Kent ISD’s Teachers in Industry series, aimed at connecting with educators and helping them become more aware of trends and labor market needs and industry practices, has hosted school tours and serves on the board of the West Michigan Tech Talent Team, which is focused on building the talent pipeline early.

“OST understands how crucial it is to connect businesses and educators early in order to keep our students at the top of employers’ go-to lists,” said Jarrad Grandy, director of career readiness. “When we listen to what employers tell us about the skills they need and we adjust our programs to meet those needs, our students graduate ready to work, and those employers have the talent they require to keep up with the demands of their industries.”

The aim of Kent ISD’s Career Readiness Program is to help students be aware of and prepare for careers, particularly in fields that struggle to attract skilled talent.

Head of the class

As principal at Kent Career Tech Center, John Kraus leads a more than 100-member staff for more than 20 career-focused programs. He also oversees the education of some 2,400 students on the center’s campus and four satellite sites.

In the four years he’s been at the helm of the Tech Center, the Akron, Ohio, native has created a leadership team for students and become known as an educator who is willing to partner with area businesses to meet the need for skilled employees.

Kraus has been named the 2015 Career and Technical Education Administrator of the Year by the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals. He was surprised with the award Friday, May 8, by Colin Ripmaster, associate executive director of MASSP.

“John has done so much in his short tenure here,” said Kent ISD Superintendent Kevin Konarska. “He’s connected students and staff, and morale has never been higher. The whole atmosphere at the Tech Center has been transformed. He’s brought in the business community and colleges, and is constantly seeking opportunities for students. His leadership is a real benefit for Kent ISD and the broader community.”

Kraus was selected for the award, given annually for more than a decade, because “it was clear to the selection committee that he is not only a visionary, but also someone who’s not afraid to roll up his sleeves and get the job done,” said MASSP Executive Director Wendy Zdeb-Roper.

“John’s energy and positive spirit have earned him the overwhelming respect and trust of his staff, students, colleagues and the community; and in today’s educational landscape, this speaks volumes of both his character and ability,” she said.

“John is the epitome of what an effective leader should be and is very deserving of this honor."

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