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OST: Service with a smile

Dan Behm, president of Grand Rapids-based, custom software developer OST (Open System Technologies), acknowledges that their employees work under high stress. "I.T. implementations are inherently stressful," he says. However, he is quick to point out they also like to have fun.

To share the OST philosophy that "employees come first," Behm wanted to create a corporate video that would tell their story. To do so, he turned to 1041East, a local production company and gave them one parameter: "Don't be like other I.T. company corporate videos." In other words, don't be boring.

The end result is an offbeat video featuring OST employees acting totally different than many corporate and I.T. stereotypes.  

Behm indicates it's been a hit. They have used it both on sales calls and as part of the employee interview process, as it shows their company strengths, as well as a workplace with a sense of humor.

OST is now in its 15th year and Behm indicates their focus is on having a corporate culture where employees and their families are the number one priority.

"If we hire the right people, they take of the customers," he says.

Behm indicates their are many new initiatives underway at OST and they are looking to add up to 30 employees this year.

Source: Dan Behm, OST
Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs Editor

Weekend brainstorm drenches area with ideas

The Factory (38 W. Fulton, Grand Rapids) was the weekend headquarters for over 70 aspiring entrepreneurs gathered for Startup Weekend West Michigan, a 54-hour event focusing on building a web or mobile application that could form the basis of a credible business.

Friday night begins with 2-minute business "pitches" followed by a crowd vote to identify 10 ventures to be developed in the next 48-hours. After voting, teams are formed and development continues through the weekend, culminating in final presentations on Sunday afternoon.  

Thanks to a tech-savvy crowd, the action reverberated through social media, becoming a trending topic on Twitter Friday night as individuals shared their excitement.

Paul Kortman, whose idea for a an online buying club was voted in the top 10, updated his family and friends "I'm in!" on Facebook. Asked to explain, Kortman replied, "This means that I now have a team of around 8-10 people who are going to help me make this dream of a software into a reality. We're going to work all weekend and show off our software Sunday at noon."

The Atomic Object blog features several first-hand accounts of the weekend, including a synopsis of the Boom or Bust story, the eventual weekend winner. The Rapidian also featured the entire voting outcome and outline of every idea on Monday morning.

The event is staged by Seattle-based, non-profit Startup Weekend. According to Startup facilitator Sterling Cross who traveled from his home of Boise, ID to the West Michigan event, the participants were much more "naturally energetic" than other weekends he has been responsible for thus far.

Cross was also quick to point out that the goal is not just having an event, but that "many of pitches continue on after this weekend."

To learn more about Startup Weekend, you can visit their website here.

(Full disclosure: the writer of this story was a team participant and one of the volunteer organizers of the event)

Source: Sterling Cross, Startup Weekend

Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs Editor

Momentum looking to invest $100,000 in five technology start-ups

Momentum, a Grand Rapids-based seed accelerator providing investments, intellectual capital and extensive mentorship to internet technology start-ups, is accepting applications for its 2011 program.

Now entering its third year, the 12-week program has evolved in terms of the programming and mentorship it provides to the aspiring entrepreneurs.

One of the biggest changes will be a more customer centric focus. Amanda Chocko, program director, says, "We found even with the best business plan, investors want to see validation there is a market for the business."

To address this issue, Momentum is incorporating "Lean Startup" practices into its programming. Lean Startup is a process developed by Steve Blank and Eric Reis that helps to quickly test market assumptions.

If you are a developer without an idea for a new venture, Momentum also made a change to their process to allow single applications from developers who are interested in working with start-ups.

To apply, candidates must submit a written application and video pitch, due by Feb. 5, followed by a submitted pitch deck and an in-person interview. The Momentum vetting committee will review the applications and contact the top candidates in early March.

Momentum was founded by Rick DeVos and is a partnership between Pomegranate Studios, The Windquest Group and a pool of over 20 mentors in all areas of business and technology expertise.

For more detailed information on how to apply, you can visit their website.

Source: Amanda Chocko, Momentum Program Director
Writer: John Rumery, Innovation and Jobs Editor

GVSU lab develops new app that combines social with shopping

Grand Valley State University has launched a new, free mobile application for the iPhone and Android combining bar code scanning software, game mechanics and social media in a retail setting.

Shop Social is an experimental mobile app built and developed by student and faculty researchers in the Mobile Applications and Service Lab in Grand Valley's School of Computing and Information Systems.

According to Jonathan Engelsma, associate professor of computing, development began last winter as students reviewed how shoppers using mobile technology use bar codas for price comparisons.

The idea for their app began when they explored how integrating more data, especially user-generated content and gaming technology similar to Foursquare, could make a more robust shopping experience.  

Their development process led them to create an application that scanned bar codes, then retrieved relevant photos from Flickr, videos from YouTube and product reviews within seconds.

The app also included a "Social" tab, enabling users to share their product interests with friends on Facebook while, through its gaming element, allowing users to earn "badges" over time.

Besides acting as a great research project, Engelsma strongly feels that this app provides a "tremendous opportunity for brick and mortars to look at mobile technology," providing more data as well as improving the shopping experience, similar to what Amazon.com does online.

Engelsma indicates their mobile and learning lab is primarily for research and learning, and would encourage companies to contact him for collaborative opportunities.

Shop Social is available at the iTunes store and the Android app is available in Android Market. For more information, you can visit their site here.

Source: Jonathan Engelsma, GVSU
Writer: John Rumery, innovation and jobs editor

Entrepreneurs gain experience and feedback during pitch nights

Four entrepreneurs pitched their ideas for businesses at The Factory on Thursday, Nov. 18, at the fifth in a series of scheduled events to promote entrepreneurism and build a "startup culture" in West Michigan.

Dan Ryan pitched Canvas Hosting, a service that Ryan says "helps entrepreneurs focus on their idea by handling the hosting process." Ryan identified their market as primarily as entrepreneurs and non-enterprise "startups."

Jason James explained his business, Michigan Film Reel, a site that was started nine months prior at a similar event. James was looking for feedback on structuring his operation as a non-profit.

The third person to pitch was Jack Slingerland of CampaignAlytics, an email tracking and analytics service. Having used other campaign services, Slingerland felt his product offered superior analytics at a more affordable price.

The eventual "winner" of the evening, as voted by the attendees, was Nathan Bashaw from Lansing. Bashaw pitched Thoughtback, a business launched at the Lansing Startup Weekend only two weeks prior.

His concept is a web application that allows a user to capture their thoughts, ideas and  inspirations digitally "when they happen," and then access at a later time for follow-up.

At the Startup West Michigan pitch night events, presenters have five minutes to pitch and five minutes for Q & A. For more information you can visit their website.

Sources: Jason James, Nathan Bashaw, Jack Slingerland, Dan Ryan
Writer: John Rumery

Local software firm CQL debuts new networking application

A new application developed and designed by local software firm CQL will be make its debut at a local networking event on Nov.11 at the DeVos Place from 6-9 p.m. 

According to Adam Clarke, the "chief alchemist" at CQL, the application was developed at the suggestion of Michael Yoder, organizer of the online networking site LinkedUp Grand Rapids.

Yoder was interested in leveraging technology to help facilitate "face-to-face" networking at large events. The application that was developed will be synced with LinkedIn, a popular online professional networking site. 

As attendees check into the event and register, information from their LinkedIn profile such as such as their name, picture, industry, employer and number of connections will be displayed on several screens. 

For individuals relying on LinkedIn for business connections, Clarke indicates the information will facilitate networking by helping to make introductions easier and creating a sense of a "who's who" in specific industries and companies. 

Clarke states that future uses of the application are being explored, but he is very optimistic about its potential, especially for conventions or other large networking events where people might know each other via an online network, but are connecting in-person for the first time.

Clarke says the requirements for this application are simple, requiring only internet access, a laptop, projector and screen to use the software.

Other businesses collaborating on this event include local branding companies Deksia and Kmotion Design.

For more information about LinkedIn Grand Rapids or this event, you can visit their group site on LinkedIn. For details on the application, contact Adam Clarke at CQL.

Source: Adam Clarke, CQL
Writer: John Rumery Innovation and Jobs Editor

Leading a West Michigan brain gain

With car sales bouncing back, especially in global markets, and an increased use of new technologies in automotive products, Zeeland, MI is rapidly becoming a career destination for engineers thanks to Gentex,a high-tech manufacturer of automotive electronics.

According to Bruce Los, VP of human resources, the company has hired over 500 people in the last year of which over 100 were engineers. Los admits that at first glance, attracting top notch talent, especially engineers, to West Michigan might seem to be a difficult task. "The vast majority of engineers we hire have job options all over the country," he says.

However, Los makes a compelling case for both working at Gentex and living in West Michigan. "Gentex has a small company feel" and the engineers get to "work on cutting edge and creative technologies."  

As one of the largest patent generators in the state, Los cites the entrepreneurial culture and the company's ownership policies at Gentex as great selling points.

"Inventors are free to work on areas of interest in a great environment," he says. "We also have stock options and profit sharing programs in place."

With 2,900 employees, Gentex hires more than engineers, and typically has line positions open. However, Los says, "We're not your parents factory," alluding to the high-tech manufacturing facility. 

Los notes that positive word-of-mouth about the Gentex culture is playing a key role in attracting talent too. He states that oftentimes, parents are telling their children who had moved away because they weren't able to find a job in Michigan about the work going on at Gentex.

Source:  Bruce Los
Writer:    John Rumery

Beyond Cool: Atomic Object’s workplace flexibility policies earn prestigious award

Cool cities need cool places to work, but it goes beyond cool for custom software development firm Atomic Object.

"Our goal is to have the best place for software professionals to work in west Michigan," states Mary O'Neill, Atomic Object's business manager.

Creating a culture to reach that goal not only pays off in increased creativity and customer satisfaction, but it also led to Atomic Object being awarded the 2010 Alfred P. Sloan Award for Business Excellence in Workplace Flexibility.

According to O'Neill, it was a rigorous application process, as she had to qualify and quantify many of their existing policies that are then benchmarked against national norms as established by the Families and Work Institute.

O'Neill cites several examples of their firm's commitment to workplace flexibility. First off, "it's about respect for employees life/work balance." Specific policies include utilizing flexibility in starting and stopping hours, the ability to work from home, assistance in purchasing laptops and generous benefits including parental leave for both mothers and fathers.

Besides helping in recruiting and retaining top talent for Atomic Object, O'Neill is also pragmatic in their approach. "Our workplace flexibility has also proven to best serve our customers," says O'Neill.

The Alfred P. Sloan Award recognizes businesses of all sizes in Michigan and across the country. According to a spokesperson from the Families and Work Institute, as a recipient of this award, Atomic Object now ranks in the top 20% of employers nationally in terms of workplace flexibility.

Source: Mary O'Neill, Atomic Object
Writer: John Rumery

Startup West Michigan builds community one “pitch” at a time

John Rumery

Downtown co-working space, The Factory, was the site of Startup West Michigan's first pitch night of the year.   Five entrepreneurs with predominantly web-based plans had five minutes to pitch their business ideas to an audience of fellow entrepreneurs and business professionals, followed by five minutes to answer any questions about their proposed venture.

For many, it was the first time they have the opportunity to stand up in front of a crowd. For others, it was an opportunity to refine their pitch for future meetings with investors, vendors or possible strategic partners as they advance their business model.

Primary organizers for Startup West Michigan are Aaron Schaap, founder of Elevator Up, and Amanda Chocko, program director for Momentum-MI.  Their hope is that events like this will help promote a "start-up" mentality in West Michigan, as well as to provide individuals with direct, immediate feedback and help them gain experience and confidence in selling their ideas to potential investors and partners.

At this event, the five presenters included:

Joe Meckley, founder of DoneLocal.com.  Meckley began his pitch with a story of frustration in finding a reliable service to get a tree removed from his property.  His idea is to create an online community of service providers that connects their work with individuals needing  that specific service.  

Jenny White is the founder of MomsinTow.com . White pitched an online community for active moms featuring a variety of resources, services and information for mothers and their children.

John Hwang pitched Inspirehq.com .  Hwang presented his vision for an online service that was an alternative to a "spreadsheet" system used by many churches and non-profits to manage their membership directories.

Jess Tomaz, co-founder (along with her husband Al) of JaiPlace, had recently completed the Momentum-MI program and used this opportunity to further refine her pitch as they prepare to secure second-round funding for their online community that promotes healthy and sustainable lifestyles.

Daniel Morrison presented his idea for LetsFondo.com.  Morrison's vision is to create a site where individuals can create and share "to-do" lists with friends and colleagues in a fun and effective way.

Besides the actual pitch and the "Q & A," everyone that attended provided written feedback and voted on who was most effective with their pitch.  On this night, Jenny White of Moms In Tow walked away with a trophy and file full of feedback about her venture.

For information on the next event, you can visit the Startup West Michigan page.  You can also visit the websites of each individual's business for contact information and to learn more about their specific venture.

John Rumery is the Innovation and Jobs Editor for Rapid Growth Media. He is an educator, board member of AimWest, WYCE music programmer, entrepreneur, raconteur and competitive barbecuer living in Grand Rapids, MI.  He can be reached at InnovationandJobs@RapidGrowthMedia.com

For story tips you can e-mail info@rapidgrowthmedia.com

Local firm specializes in designing experiences and solutions.

John Rumery

After leaving a local software firm three years ago, Joe Johnston, soon became the first Grand Rapids employee of Universal Mind, a technology company with its headquarters outside of Boston, MA and with offices in Colorado and California.  With expertise in user experience design, the Grand Rapids office soon become Universal Mind's hub for that specialty and within those three years, the Grand Rapids office grew to eleven employees.

User experience design helps create the experience a customer has with a product or service. In the case of software, it is often time making programs more user-friendly, eliminating redundant features and integrating the program with other parts of an organizations technology programs.

Johnston explains that the team at Universal Mind is roughly made up of three groups: specialists, designers and technologists.  As a team their time is spent on discovery and trying to understand how customers work with various devices.  After that begins the development and implementation process.

To showcase their unique talent, the group began the development of a consumer application that focused on creativity and collaboration.  In a relatively short time, the team developed and introduced iBrainstorm.  Launched in late July of 2010 it quickly rose to become the #3 free download of iPad applications.   Johnston estimates that there have been almost 500,000 downloads.  Although the application is free, Johnston states that the popularity and success of this program is essentially advertising for their firm and indicates that they have landed several projects because of iBrainstorm.

Beside consumer application tools, where in the last six months opportunities "are exploding" due to the popularity of the Android, iPad and iPhone, Universal Mind also works on enterprise applications that help businesses to be more efficient and effective. Johnston cites the development of better customer relation management programs as an example.  In some cases the applications they develop are used internally and in other instances an application might become a retail product for their client.   

Johnston shared a recent YouTube video that captures some of the work of Universal Mind.  Like the user experience team, Johnston is proud to state that both the video and music are local talent.

Johnston states that Universal Mind are always looking for talented people but acknowledges that finding individuals locally with a user design background in not always easy.

Source: Interview with Joe Johnston, www.UniversalMind.com.

John Rumery is the Innovation and Jobs Editor for Rapid Growth Media. He is an educator, board member of AimWest, WYCE music programmer, entrepreneur, raconteur and competitive barbecuer living in Grand Rapids, MI.  He can be reached at InnovationandJobs@RapidGrowthMedia.com.  For story tips you can e-mail info@rapidgrowthmedia.com

Deksia mines a social media niche

John Rumery

When it comes to learning about social media, there is certainly no lack of options in the West Michigan area. If you are a self-directed learner, there is wide variety of instructional materials available. A quick search on Amazon reveals thousands of books on social media.  There are a multitude of free networking and informational events, such as social media slams and lunches hosted by a variety of organizations.  There are all-day and multi-day seminars, college classes, and webinars that are readily available and can deliver insight into how to engage your customers -- all using social media.  
Sensing an opportunity to fill a space between the "free slams and lunches which oftentimes serve as an introduction," the "day-long seminars, which can be expensive and time consuming," and the lone-wolf world of webinars and books, Michael Yoder, Social Media Strategist with local marketing company Deksia, has created a series of training seminars that focus on the most popular social media platforms such as You Tube, Foursquare, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

Yoder's workshops are 1 to 2 hour training sessions, offering three different levels of instruction based on an individual's previous experience.  For example, the LinkedIn series begins with LinkedIn 1.0, a session designed for someone who has created a profile, but hasn't engaged in the process. LinkedIn 2.0 advances the user to a more rigorous use, while LinkedIn 3.0 ends with a session for "power users."  Yoder has the same progressive series in the works for the other popular social media platforms.

To deliver the training programs, Yoder and Deskia have partnered with New Horizons Computer Learning Centers, which allows participants to meet in a high-tech classroom setting.   Currently, the training is held in the Grand Rapids and Lansing locations, but if the demand warrants, the partnership also has the potential to scale into other regions where New Horizons has a presence.

Yoder feels this type of deliver system is "affordable, bite size and specialized" and will appeal to wide variety of professionals looking for a "hands on" way to learn more about how social media can be integrated into their organization's marketing mix.  Quoting Brian Solis, an author and social media thought leader, Yoder feels the reality for all businesses in the marketplace is "engage or die."   

The workshops cost $85 per session. For more information and to register, you can to visit http://www.regonline.com/CalendarNET/EventCalendar.aspx?EventID=885242&view=Month

Source: Mike Yoder, Deksia

John Rumery is the Innovation and Jobs Editor for Rapid Growth Media. He is an educator, board member of AimWest, WYCE music programmer, entrepreneur, raconteur and competitive barbecuer living in Grand Rapids, MI.  He can be reached at InnovationandJobs@RapidGrowthMedia.com
 For story tips you can e-mail info@rapidgrowthmedia.com

Lunch meeting helps individuals and businesses engage with social media

John Rumery

Lunch meetings can be as exciting as a peanut butter sandwich on white bread, but the organizers of Grand Rapids Social Media (GRSM) believe their lunches are much more interesting.  In fact, they feel they have an opportunity to raise the bar regarding the way local businesses and individuals utilize social media in Grand Rapids.

Ian MacLurg, Social Media Analyst for ArtPrize, and Joel Leo, SEO and Social Media Analyst for Pomegranate Studios, were both impressed with the format and spirit of a monthly lunch meeting, Grand Rapids Tech Lunch, that brought together a diverse community of thought leaders, programmers and software developers to discuss technology-related business issues for the region. 
MacLurg and Leo decided to organize a similar event, using the same format, but focusing on creating a business discussion surrounding the use of social media. 

"We saw the need to educate and elevate the usages of social media platforms within the city, so we started GRSM lunches as an opportunity to create an ongoing dialogue of these tools and strategies," opine MacLurg and Leo. 
The first meeting in March 2009 was held at Founders Brewery, but the series quickly moved to a new home at the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, where the luncheons have proven to be very popular, now drawing 40-50 attendees.  Not only has attendance been steady, but "with a diverse group of middle managers, business owners and interns," you get a very dynamic networking opportunity, says Leo.

Individuals with specific experiences and responsibilities for managing various social media platforms lead the presentations. Recent speakers have included Sara Lopez, the Social Media Strategist for Stremick's Heritage Food's 8th Continent Soymilk, who discussed creating content for blogs, and Aaron Carriere of Creo Productions on best practices for using video with social media.  The meetings are streamed live with the majority of video archived here. http://www.ustream.tv/channel/grsm.

After the 20-30 minute presentation, there is a short question and answer period followed by an opportunity is to break into smaller groups for further discussion and networking.    Because of the increased popularity of these events, MacLurg and Leo recruited social media consultant Donna Bova and web developer Doug Kelly to help with the facilitation and ongoing organization.  

The monthly lunches are "brown-bag," although the organizers suggest you support the local eateries surrounding the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. There is no cost to attend and they are typically held the last Thursday of the month. The GRSM blog http://grsml.wordpress.com/ identifies the upcoming speaker and also confirms the date of the meeting.  Frequent Twitter updates (@GRSML) also provide reminders of upcoming events. 

Sources: Joel Leo and Ian MacLurg, founders of the Grand Rapids Social Media Lunch.

John Rumery is the Innovation and Jobs Editor for Rapid Growth Media. He is an educator, board member of AimWest, WYCE music programmer, entrepreneur, raconteur and competitive barbecuer living in Grand Rapids, MI.  He can be reached at InnovationandJobs@RapidGrowth.com.  For story tips you can e-mail info@rapidgrowth.com

$10M investors fund in Grand Rapids will aid startups in Michigan's growth industries

Deborah Johnson Wood

Life sciences and technology, alternative energy and other growth industry startups in Michigan could soon receive an infusion of $10 million to spur business development and jobs.

Michigan Accelerator Fund 1, L.P., a new Grand Rapids-based venture capital fund, has received $6 million in seed money from the state's 21st Century Jobs Fund, a program of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. The investment jumpstarts the fund and moves it closer to its goal of having $10 million available for startups in early 2011.

"We look for Michigan-based companies to invest in. They must be startups, and must fit into life sciences and technology, homeland security, advanced manufacturing or alternative energy," says Dale Grogan of The Charter Group, managers of the fund. "We'd like to make our first investment the first part of next year, and will be willing to look at the first prospects within the next the 30 days."

Grogan credits the successful start of the fund to the collaboration of several regional partners, including Grand Valley State University, Van Andel Research Institute, Hope River Ventures, West Michigan Science & Technology Initiative, Grand Angels, Michigan State University Foundation, Right Place, Inc. and Lakeshore Advantage.

Those organizations will help the fund raise the additional $4 million from investors around the state, Grogan says.

"We're hopeful that this fund does great things," Grogan says. "We want to create Michigan jobs and we want them to be in the magic four categories, so if we can provide money to start up businesses in Michigan, and they grow and succeed, then we're doing exactly what we're supposed to do."

Interested entrepreneurs can contact Grogan at The Charter Group at 616-235-3555, or through the MAF1 web site when it launches online in September.

Source: Dale Grogan, The Charter Group and Michigan Accelerator Fund 1, L.P.; Amanda Passage, Lambert, Edwards & Associates

Deborah Johnson Wood is development news editor for Rapid Growth Media. She can be contacted at deborah@rapidgrowthmedia.com. Development News tips can be sent to info@rapidgrowthmedia.com.

Grand Rapids marketing firm launches custom software company, iPhone app for beach bums

Deborah Johnson Wood

Grand Rapids-based Steketee Greiner Co. dove headfirst into the digital marketing waters this week with the launch of a new company and the release of an iPhone 4 app for water sports enthusiasts.

SGC, formerly ContextMG, 44 Grandville Ave. SW, has formed Catalyst SGC to take over the development of customized software solutions and applications, mobile development and traditional online development for Fortune 1000 clients who want to leverage the digital marketplace.

And the iPhone 4 app, Beach Bum, advises users when weather and water conditions are right for fishing, boating, sail boarding and other water sports in any of the Great Lakes or United States coastal regions.

"It's tied into national systems and measures air and water temperature, wave height, the UV index and wind speed, and includes a synopsis of the weather forecast," says David Greiner, SGC's chief creative officer. "It has real time radar plus warnings and alerts for severe weather, and is customizable."

As for the launch of the new company, Greiner says SGC acquired another Grand Rapids firm, Access Programming Group, Inc., and brought aboard two of its programmers – one experienced in artificial intelligence, the other in application development.

"SGC has always been focused on the digital marketing space, and kept a small team of creative people and programmers," Greiner says. "It made sense to put that team out on its own as Catalyst SGC and create a new business model independent of Steketee Greiner."

Catalyst SGC has eight employees. Greiner says he hopes to build it to 10 in 2011. He says Steketee Greiner hired five people this year and gross sales are up 30 percent over 2009.

Beach Bum sells for $1.99 at the iTunes store.

Source: David Greiner, Steketee Greiner Company and Catalyst SGC

Related Articles
Saugatuck marketing firm brings 10 jobs to Grand Rapids, ready to add four more
ContextMG adds five jobs, three interns after relocating to Grand Rapids

Deborah Johnson Wood is development news editor for Rapid Growth Media. She can be contacted at deborah@rapidgrowthmedia.com. Development News tips can be sent to info@rapidgrowthmedia.com.

GRCC teams with Farmers Insurance to coordinate training for almost 1,600 new workers in Caledonia

Sharon Hanks

Grand Rapids Community College has partnered with Farmers Insurance Group to help with the coordination and training of almost 1,600 new workers the insurance company will need over the next four or five years to staff its growing Caledonia Township site.

The $5 million three-year investment in new-jobs training was approved by GRCC trustees last month. Farmers Spokeswoman Renee Kolzow says the first wave of hiring will begin in the first quarter of 2011 after the positions are posted on the company's website. The new jobs will offer a minimum annual salary around $26,500 with benefits, Kolzow says, adding that pay could be higher based on the position and the applicant's education and experience.

Most jobs will be call center positions to staff two new buildings under construction in Caledonia Township, a reported $84.4 million investment totaling more than 364,000 square feet.

Once candidates are selected, the new employees will be on Farmers' payroll while attending classes customized for their positions. While details are still in the development stages, many courses will be in such areas as customer service, safety, quality, supervision or computer software programs, according to Eric Williams, GRCC's executive director of economic development.

"The college's goal is to promote economic development from a learning perspective and increase the skills of the workforce," says Williams, adding most classes will be taught by staff from Farmers or GRCC while other experts will be brought on board as needed.

At no cost to Farmers Insurance or to its new employees, the training is possible through the Michigan New Jobs Training Program signed into law a little more than a year ago, one of the latest state incentives to upgrade workforce skills to meet the more sophisticated needs of companies. The new jobs that must pay a minimum hourly rate of $12.95.

Under the program, companies work with any of the state's 28 community colleges to design and operate the training program specifically designed to meet their needs. Companies advance colleges the required funds to get the program going and are reimbursed later through the new employees' state income taxes, a diversion that needs to be approved by the Michigan Department of Treasury, Williams says.

"We think it's more employer friendly than those (programs) in years past," he says, adding Michigan's program is based on one successfully operating in Iowa.

The partnership is the fifth training program -- but the first in Kent County -- that GRCC has customized for West Michigan companies this year, making it Michigan's leading community college for putting together new job training agreements, Williams says. Four other partnerships have been forged with companies in Ottawa County: Energetx Composites LLC, Johnson Controls-SAFT, Inc., Haworth, Inc. and Trans-Matic Manufacturing.

Sources: Eric Williams, executive director of economic development for Grand Rapids Community College; Rene Kozlow, public relations manager for Farmers Insurance Group, Caledonia

Sharon Hanks is innovations and jobs news editor at Rapid Growth Media. Please send story ideas and comments for the column to Sharon at sharon@rapidgrowthmedia.com. She also is owner of The Write Words in Grand Rapids.

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