“Our economic future is dependent on getting all people involved in contributing to the economic success of the community — rich and poor, graduates and dropouts and skilled and unskilled,” Earle “Win” Irwin, chairman of the local Workforce Development Board and CEO of Irwin Seating, told members of the Economic Club gathered at the Amway Grand Plaza Monday.
The local board is one of 25 Workforce Development boards in Michigan created in 1996 and that now oversee $10 million to $12 million in job training and work readiness programs, most of which are funded by federal dollars funneled through the Michigan Department of Career Development.
The plan is to build a career development and preparation system for both youth and adults through industry and education partnerships at state, regional and local levels.
The board delivers most services through three workforce service centers in Kent County and one in Allegan County, all of which provide job seekers opportunities to find jobs and upgrade their skills while also serving as clearinghouses for employers looking for employees.
The primary goal, as Irwin put it, is to facilitate successful transitions from school to work, from welfare to work, from unemployment to work and from work to work.
More specifically, the goals are to:
**Prepare youth for work and lifelong learning by providing career awareness, basic academic employability, technical and job specific skills training.
**Increase the number of current and future adult workers with basic academic and employability skills.
**Increase the number of adult workers with technical and job specific skills and match employers’ skills needs with either vocational, occupational or academic programs. This goal applies mainly to the unemployed and the underemployed.
**Advocate and help eliminate barriers to work, such as childcare, transportation and substance abuse problems.
**Identify key future workforce development issues and ensure their integration into the board’s goals and plans.
Irwin said the pool of available workers isn’t increasing fast enough due in part to an aging population and in part to an economy that, when strong, creates jobs at a rapid pace.
And the jobs being created demand increasing levels of skill.
“We all know that commodity products and services tend to leave the United States for places with a lower cost base,” Irwin said.
“For us to prosper, we must provide more value in our products and services. All people in our companies must continually improve their skills and their results. The Workforce Development board’s job is to engage everyone and improve their contribution,” he said. “The board’s intent is to create and sustain a workforce that has the skills necessary to maintain and enhance the economy of Kent and Allegan counties.”
Beginning in elementary school and extending through college, students should be made aware of work and careers so they can give thought to what they want to do. Students must learn to learn because there will come a time when their knowledge becomes obsolete.
A recent study by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy revealed that the state of Michigan spends $600 million annually on remedial education.
That means that for whatever reasons, students didn’t get the basic academics the first time around, he said.
“There are lots of reasons for this, but we all know that when we ask employers, they resent the fact that they have to spend their time and money on basic academic skills for their employees. They feel that’s the job of the K through 12 schools.”
Employers want employees to participate in continuous improvement of their organization, Irwin said. English as a second language (ESL), adult education, GED and basic computer education programs all are critical to creating the right foundation for job seekers.
Irwin pointed out that Rockford Public Schools has a diploma that guarantees the basic academic skills to their students, to parents and to future employers.
“This is exactly what employers think every district needs to do, somehow, some way,” Irwin added.
Both schools and employers have to let future generations of job seekers know that there are vocational training alternatives to college. As Irwin noted, only 25 percent of all jobs require a college education.
“Why don’t we value and promote all the incredible high-paying jobs out there that don’t require a four-year degree?” he asked. “We should tell our kids it’s OK not to go right into college.
“After all, look at college classrooms today; see the ages of the people there. It’s all about skill building and lifelong learning and we get it lots of places — the workplace, skilled training programs and, of course, college.”
Just as important as academic skills are employability skills, such as getting to work everyday and on time, as well as the ability to get along with people, work on a team, and be flexible and adaptable.
Irwin said the local Workforce Development board recognized from the beginning there are certain issues that can prevent a person from getting and keeping a job, foremost among them childcare, transportation and substance abuse issues.
As to childcare, employers can help by calling Kent Regional Community Coordinated Child Care to find childcare options for employees. Employers also can make pre-tax dollars available to employees under Section 125 to cover childcare expenses. Effective Jan. 1 this year, employers can take advantage of a 25 percent federal tax credit — up to a maximum of $150,000 — for assisting employees with childcare costs.
To improve the ability of people to get to and from work, the Workforce Development board has endorsed expansion of The Rapid bus system to include second shift and weekend coverage, he said.
He noted that almost half of all people using public transportation use the system to get to work and back and that the Interurban Transit Partnership that oversees the system has introduced a number of new programs to help employers solve employee transportation problems.
The toughest work barrier is substance abuse.
“It’s a huge work issue. It’s an issue for all incomes, all ages and all communities,” Irwin observed. He added that the biggest substance abuse issue is still alcohol, and 70 percent of people with a substance abuse problem are employed.
The board’s Substance Abuse Task Force has put together numerous programs to help employers and employees recognize and address the problem.
“Employers can’t afford to lose employees after they’ve trained them,” he said. “There are ways to keep employees from giving in to drugs.”