<span class='image-credits'>Susan Andress</span>

Families Forward: Jobs that help parents pay child support

Terry Clark's children threw him a little party recently.

They are now 18, 22 and 26. Clark, of Albion, has struggled their whole lives to pay off their child support. He's faced possible felonies for non-payment. 

This summer his kids have seen him attending classes at Kellogg Community College's Regional Manufacturing Technology Center to become a certified welder. He's already got an interview lined up with a local factory to, at last, get a decent job.

"They're very proud of that," Clark says. "It's like 'I can't believe you're actually going to school, Dad!' They were pretty happy, and when I finally completed the last class, they threw me a little party." 

Clark is the first student to complete a demonstration program, Families Forward, an effort to get jobs for parents who can't meet their child support obligations. Partners include KCC, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, and Michigan Works! of Calhoun and Jackson Counties. It's funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Eligible participants in Calhoun or Jackson Counties can become a certified welder, industrial machinery mechanic or production technician. Along with training on industrial equipment, they learn resume writing and other job-landing skills from a job coach. 

'Deadbeat'

Some in his situation face the "deadbeat dad" label, Clark knows. But really, what dads like him really need are -- 

"A second chance," Clark finishes. "So you can pay child support. You can't pay child support if you ain't making no money. I mean, you could go back and forth to jail all the time about it, but you ain't never going to get nowhere. So that's a lot of dead time, a lot of wasted time." 

Having a record of any sort can lead to a lot of job opportunities lost. Clark had to go into business himself washing cars, cutting grass, painting houses, whatever he could do to make a few dollars.

A quarter of all non-custodial parents owing child support are unable to pay due to unemployment or low-paying employment, and are unable to find resources that could lead to stable employment, according to MDRC, the nonprofit behind the demonstration program. 

"It ain't like you don't want a job, or you don't want to pay. It's like everywhere you go, they're shutting the door. So what you supposed to do?" Clark says, years of frustration in his voice.

Low-wage jobs aren't much help, Clark says, especially after incarceration. "If they're coming home to $8 (an hour), you might as well lock 'em back up! Because at the end of the week, $8 with two kids, that'll leave you with about $33.12. That's enough to get back and forth to work to get you $33.12 more. You're gonna keep bumpin' your head!"

He told his child support agent, "I'm just tired of living like this, man. I gotta hustle every three, four months to pay you $300, $400. Y'all need to help a person!"

Clark's agent referred him to the Families Forward program. He started his welding modules in May, and by August had earned certificates in arc and MIG welding. Clark has been involved in many programs, but "they still didn't help us like these people."
 
Demand for skilled tradespersons, meet motivated workers

"The big picture here, in terms of the local economy, is we have hundreds if not thousands of people like Terry who want to work hard, are good people who want to make their child payments," says Eric Greene, KCC director of public information and marketing. 

"We also have employers who have thousands of positions they want to fill right now, but they can't fill them."

To meet the demand for skilled employees, KCC's RMTC has undergone a multi-million dollar expansion, which began in 2016, with more million-dollar upgrades continuing through this summer as temporary office trailers and scaffolding show. 

"Companies are grabbing up our students before they can even graduate," KCC career coach Casey Fairley says of their trades programs.

She's talking about students who pay tuition, and those who find company sponsors hoping to create employees with more skills.

Hands-on experience

The Families Forward students are in a different situation and they have their own specific motivations. 

The program pays their way, pays for some expenses such as gas money, and helps them find other financial help. They helped Clark, a veteran of the U.S. Army, find a VA grant to get his truck running so he could make it to class. 

"Class" is a little different at the RMTC. Their trades programs are "open-entry, open-exit," meaning that a student can start any time, work at their own pace, and set their own schedule. Some finish in weeks, others need more time, Fairley says.

The Families Forward students have a strong motivation, that can also be a challenge -- they need a job to support their kids and to stay out of the courts. Five students started in the spring, but two stopped attending. They'd found new jobs just before the joining, and "were both working a lot of overtime and couldn't swing both school and work at the same time," Fairley says.

"They're really excited to be here, and they want to excel fairly fast so they can actually go out to get a job," Robert Day, assistant welding instructor, says. 

They have a positive attitude, are motivated, but, "They may be trying to go through the course a little too fast," he says. "Welding is hands-on, and the more you weld, the better welder you'll be."

He'd like students to slow down, spend more time practicing welds, and perfect their skills to "get a better-paying job.... Your hands-on skill is what your employers are paying for." 

Clark describes Day's teaching technique. "He'll even hold your hand and do it with you, so you can get the feel of it. And then he'll back up and say, 'now you gotta do it.'" Clark lets out a big laugh. "Bob! Come on, man!" 

When Families Forward produces more certified tradespersons, employers will "know that they're getting employees that aren't going to quit after a week or two," Greene says. 

Clark adds to that, emphatically, "I need the job!" 

Eligibility

To be eligible for Families Forward you need to:
  • Have a child support order in Calhoun or Jackson County.
  • Meet income guidelines. Not be receiving SSI or SSDI disability benefits.
  • Meet training guidelines.
  • Be ages 18-64.
  • Show you can legally work in the U.S.
Apply here .
Email: MDDHS-FamiliesForward@michigan.gov
Call: 517-768-6580

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.

Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist covering a bewildering variety of subjects in Southwest Michigan since 1992. He is of the age where he still hopes to impress the kids by telling them how he saw the Meat Puppets at the Club Soda in the mid-'80s. 
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