UIX: Finding work in West Michigan with new tools and guidance

New technology offered by private and non-profit organizations in West Michigan is guiding job seekers to their career goals, helping returning citizens get back into the workforce, and even helping new Americans thrive in their communities.

After months of searching, Joe Bonyea is excited to have a job. But he also had fun looking for it, too.

As Bonyea makes his way out of the West Michigan Works center at 112 Franklin St. SE, he thanks his career coach for helping him find a position in trucking.

He now knows how to use a computer. He used keywords to find relevant jobs by Google search, emailed those companies, and got through to the hiring managers.

Skills like these might be taken for granted by much of the modern white-collar workforce, but they are critical to finding gainful employment.

At West Michigan Works, stories like Bonyea's are not rare. The center has logged 121 job placements since the beginning of 2018. Those include workers of all ages and skill sets — younger individuals looking for an entry-level position using the center’s computer bank, people like Bonyea who need to polish up their skills for the technological demands of the modern workforce, or an experienced neurologist who has come to the United States as a refugee, and needs help understanding a new language and certification requirements.

West Michigan Works is set up to remove the barriers between anyone looking for a job, and anyone with an open position. A touch screen kiosk in the lobby of the center helps anyone familiar with a smartphone find open positions or resources for unemployment benefits. For those who are already receiving benefits, and anyone else who could use the help, the center also acts as a basic skills training facility. Weekly workshops guide attendees through financial responsibility, building a resume, and even creating a profile on LinkedIn.

Lori Mackson, a software engineering at Mutually Human participates with employee management software and other systems for helping grow and develop staff and management relationships.

A staff of full-time career coaches walk clients like Bonyea through the process, using an online assessment to determine where the job seeker needs help improving, and what types of jobs are best suited to their talents.

Finding help, finding work

Tawana Brown is the talent solutions manager at West Michigan Works Franklin center. She oversees the day-to-day operations, "making sure that all systems are a go.”

Whether individuals arrive looking for a new job, unemployment benefits, or just to learn how to improve their career, Brown makes sure they have guidance through the process. That could involve calling on one of about a dozen career coaches she facilitates, or directing people to weekly workshops held in the classrooms at the center.

"All of our activities are centered around getting people trained vocationally, through classroom training or just teaching soft skills like how to interview well," Brown says.

Interviews are obviously an important part of looking for a new job, and the center provides a special tool designed just for helping people improve their interview skills through practice. The WEDGE platform, designed by Hope College graduate Matt Baxter and released in August 2018, provides a one-way video service job seekers can use to field questions they can expect to come across in an interview.

At West Michigan Works, a WEDGE computer is set up in a quiet room to give users privacy while they perform. During a test-run of the software, a cheerful applicant named Kelly lists the reasons why she is qualified to land a job as a music instructor. The questions flash on the screen, and she answers them while looking into the camera, as one would during an in-person interview.

WEDGE isn't used to send interview content to potential employers just yet, though it may be in the future. It's primarily a tool for interviewees to reflect, and possibly correct, mistakes they've made in answering those tough questions.

Back at the computer bank, visitors complete online surveys that help career coaches understand more about each applicant's career goals, talents, and areas with which they need help. From there, they could be directed to one of the career paths the center has been tracking, designated as being in "high demand" and offering at least $13 an hour.

As many as 30 percent of the welfare reform clients that come into West Michigan Works do not have a high school diploma or GED, CEO Jacob Maas says, and in many cases, they are not in a position to even attempt earning one without substantial remediation.

"We help them get them into a good place that they can be more successful in the long term, but that certainly starts with education," Maas says.

Part of that education is helping clients understand that the payoff can be much higher when skills are built first. Maas says one of the center's biggest challenges is guiding people who are more interested in finding a job now, to a job that may be much more lucrative for them later on. The biggest sources of competition for West Michigan Works are "Now hiring" signs, which are posted all along the South Division corridor, just a few blocks away.

Jacob Maas, West Michigan Works CEO."Longer term you're going to be better off by taking six weeks, eight weeks, 12 weeks, or even a year in some cases to learn the skills required, rather than taking a job at McDonald's for $10 an hour," Maas says.

Several of the center's programs have been converted into an apprenticeship model, allowing participants to "earn while they learn."

"It's not this learn first and then go and earn money," Maas says. "It's a work two days a week, take a day to either work or study, and then go to school two days a week. They're getting paid while they're going through it."

The cost of the training employers, as well as the worker's wages, are covered through the help of state grants, which means trainers are most often attracted from Grand Rapids Community College.

West Michigan Works staff pull data in from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and reports from local businesses to pin down wage and growth trends in the seven-county region, comprising 1.3 million Michiganders. At the same time, companies have also come to the center to compare their wages to those trends, often fostering growth by attracting workers through increased pay rates.

There are two sides to the work done at West Michigan Works, though it all falls under the umbrella of regional employment. The organization meets and guides workers and those seeking work through their journey, and collaborates with local businesses to understand more about what jobs are being offered, and what skills are required to land those jobs.

Working with tech-savvy employers

Business Solutions Assistant Manager Joe Thiry facilitates West Michigan Works' relationship with regional business partners, making sure the organization is training people up with the skills that are actually in demand.

More often than not, that involves a familiarity with new technologies.

"The majority of the companies we work with are in the manufacturing realm and the needs that they have are changing a lot, incorporating more technology into what they do," says Thiry, former IT sector lead for the organization. "Being able to use a computer is needed almost anywhere, clocking in and clocking out, even some of the advanced skills of programming different machines on a line.

Manufacturing jobs may still carry a stereotype of being greasy and grimy, but the reality is much different, Maas says. Young people are now learning critical manufacturing-relevant skills in STEM programs, and basic programming tasks are necessary in nearly every stage of product design, and employers may favor candidates who already have those skills, rather than spend money on training someone without them.

Manufacturing and trades jobs now require technological fluency in a variety of ways.

"It's hard to find employers that don't have an online application, or at least have jobseekers fill something out and email it," Thiry says. "So, just having an active email address, and having some sort of computer literacy, even setting up a LinkedIn page, those are all important things for our job seekers."

Without passing that information on to Brown's side of the organization and informing the career coaches of what employers expect, the center risks training people up to face disappointment. Thankfully, they have a lot of help.

West Michigan Works has partnered with West Michigan Tech Talent to help job seekers build those missing technology skills, all the while focusing on diversity in a field that is primarily dominated by caucasian males. From training platforms using augmented reality, to physical tools like a mannequin that "bleeds syrup," to a virtual crane that helps students get acquainted with heavy construction machinery, the center is helping the next generation of professionals find their footing.

And it's all backed up with meticulous research.

Nate Eizenga, a software engineer at Mutually Human fills out his profile on employee management software.

Wage trends, unemployment benefits data, business reports, individual assessments, immigration records, and much more are pulled in to guide West Michigan Works' offerings. The organization understands it needs to compete with the likes of Monster.com, Indeed, and the fast food restaurant down the street. There's no "easy button" to find a job, but Maas and his team are trying to make one.

"I can go into Google Maps and search coffee near me and find spots right away," he says. "You search 'jobs near me,' and you're going to get the temp agencies that are only working with a small population of the employers, typically manufacturing-based employers. Anybody else can be walking by a building that might have amazing careers and opportunities for them, and they have no idea what exists in those buildings.”


The process becomes even more difficult for those who have been incarcerated or otherwise excluded from regular employment for long periods of time.

"I can only imagine what it's like for a job seeker, particularly a returning citizen who has just gotten out and doesn't know what a cell phone is or doesn't know that you have to go online to fill all these applications."

Once you’ve found a job, keep it

Once an individual has found a job, there is then the challenge of keeping it.

A majority of job turnover occurs within the first 90 days of employment. A new software solution from Grand Rapids-based Become Unmistakable, is aimed at lowering what CEO Rob Dwortz calls the cost of confusion — the money that companies spend on recruiting and training an individual only to see them leave in three months.

Rob Dwortz, CEO of Become Unmistakable.The uMap software helps companies connect with their employees through an online database that workers use to check in on their journey through the on-boarding process. It was first implemented at Holland-based construction company Elzinga & Volkers six years ago as a paper form but has since scaled to the digital space, offering companies around the world the same benefit.

"The software collects information that relates to the needs and aspirations of the organization, performance indicators, employees responsibilities, and other fields," says Dwortz. "It also collects information that is unique and personal to the individual employee that has merit to honor those goals."

Dwortz founded his company with Elzinga & Volkers president and CEO Mike Novakoski, and Vice President of Project Development John Parker. For licensing tiers set at $1,000 for 10 licenses, $5,000 for 100 licenses, and $15,000 for 500, companies can take advantage of the digital version of E&V's original paper assessment and form deeper connections with their employees.

"It's actually become a way to manage the entire employee journey from start through retirement in a very connected way," Dwortz says. "The employer is able to customize the experience for each individual; uMap captures all that information and makes that possible."

uMap is based on the principle of "management with connection," Dwortz says. At E&V, it was initially used as an on-boarding tool before it was extended to the entire employment experience. When new hires join the company, they introduce themselves with their own uMap and through conversations with supervisors. They discuss their top responsibilities and goals and what their development needs are.

By mitigating the confusion that previously surrounded a new responsibility, Dwortz says the uMap accelerates productivity for new hires, and helps them feel more comfortable when they first walk through the door.

"I have been with seven different organizations in my career that spans 26 years," Dwortz says, "And I have never known what I was doing walking in the door for any of those roles, including being the President and CEO of the Bank of Holland."

uMap targets that initial lack of knowledge with clearly outlined responsibilities and goals, and at the same time acts as a performance management tool.

"It is a playbook for managers to manage that connection to their employees and holds them accountable to a quarterly conversation where we're balancing the needs of the organization and the needs of the individual," Dwortz says. "It really has become an operating system that we use to teach, train, and focus on creating meaningful connections.”

In practice, uMap helped E&V triple its margins since it was first implemented. Apart from increased revenue, the company has now incorporated what Dwortz calls a "Virtual Employee Waiting Room;" a place where hopeful job applicants congregate online and explain their career goals before being hired on. The waiting room has grown to accommodate more and more potential employees as E&V's reputation grows, and a lot of that growth is attributed to the uMap system.

Several large and small private and non-profit companies throughout the United States have implemented the uMap software since it was officially released on Nov. 16. The first clients of the system are based in West Michigan, but Dwortz is talking to others in larger cities out West. With its scalability, uMap is built to handle workforces from a handful to tens of thousands.

West Michigan’s workforce

As of June 2018, the unemployment rate in Michigan, at 4.5 percent, is holding steady at one of its lowest levels in the last decade.

Still, at least 30,000 people visit West Michigan Works every year. Some of them are receiving direct assistance, others are filing for unemployment. The two centers on Franklin Street and Straight Avenue don't see the high return rates like centers in smaller towns like Fennville do, but Maas attributes that to the fewer resources in those communities. Job seekers simply have more options in West Michigan.

"They can go to a coffee shop to jump on someone's wi-fi, they can find a new job search engine, or even work with the Urban League" Maas says.

With a little hustle, anyone can find a job, but with dedication and a willingness to learn, they can find something much better. New technology is making it easier for job-seekers to gain the skills they need to land those in-demand positions, and employers to connect with them once they do.


Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at [email protected].


Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.

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