Michigan Works! programs offers employment support and career exploration for young job seekers

Finding a job isn’t an easy task when your professional resume is lacking in job experience. First-time job seekers are often in a bind – they need a job, but without previous job history or references to aid in their search it can be a difficult barrier to cross.

Serving more than 3,200 job seekers regionally, Macomb/St. Clair Michigan Works! has many programs in place offering support for young workers such as these including the Foster Care Summer Employment and the Young Professionals programs.

Liane Allen, Michigan Works! Young Professionals Outreach and Recruitment Specialist, says youth programming helps teens and young adults get real-world experience in different careers and helps identify where their aptitude and abilities meet.

The Young Professionals Program assists participants with high school completion, tuition assistance, G.E.D. prep, vocational training, Associate degrees, resume development, career exploration, interviewing/work clothes, transportation, paid work experience, and on-the-job training.

Allen works with connecting young people to resources to help educate, empower, and employ eligible 16-24 year olds and says community partners and employers often refer participants to Michigan Works! youth services.

“Perhaps it will be a local training school that has identified a young person who is interested in becoming a professional truck driver, earning that CDL License, and is not able to self-fund the training,” Allen says. “They’ll refer them to us, see if they’re eligible for our services and if we can help them pay for that training.”

The organization also works closely with local high schools, guidance and counseling staff, community colleges, and relies strongly on the community for outreach. MI Works! also partners with local employers and companies, providing wages for young employees during a limited amount of hours. On-the-job training agreements can offset half of a young employees’ wages for a limited time as well. This can help those new to a workforce or industry learn on-the-spot, and advance to a more permanent position.

“In the end, our goal is always to get young people to work, so the more employer training partners, the better,” Allen says.

Sometimes it’s just a lack of experience that sets young applicants apart from other seasoned employees, not necessarily that the skillset is missing entirely, says Allen.

“A lot of young people will say, ‘How can I get a job when every job requires some level of experience?’,” she says. “We’re really putting them in front of an employer, saying ‘Can you be the one to give them that experience?’ and we’ll help offset those wages.”

Since 2010, the Macomb/St. Clair Michigan Works! has partnered with the St. Clair County Department of Human Services (DHS) for the Foster Care Summer Employment Program. Allen says it has served 428 youth throughout that time, providing them with opportunities for paid summer work. This past summer, she says five youths participated in the program.

“They might only know what they don’t want to do,” she says. “We’re connecting them with employers or work opportunities where they could picture themselves making this a career path, or at the very least, having something to put on their resume, earning a good hourly wage for the summer, have a little financial independence, and explore different opportunities available in their community.”

Michigan Works! pays all of the wages and helps connect young people with a job that is a good fit for the individual applicant. The program can also assist employees with uniform requirements like non-slip shoes, interview dress clothes, or specific apparel. Coaching applicants with soft skills before the interview process is also an important role of the program, along with workplace etiquette, says Allen.

It’s not just the job itself that Michigan Works! helps with though. Allen says transportation is another important aspect that can be a barrier to getting a job.

“Does a young person need a bike to get back and forth from work? That’s something we can also help with,” she says. “Maybe we have an employer that’s within walking distance, but it’s not a good fit … It’s really connecting them by aptitude, interest, and physical location to the employer.”

Allen says the program also helps organizations and nonprofits that often rely on volunteers.

“This is where we’re able to give the young people that would do a lot of the work the volunteers would do, but they’re getting paid so that commitment to show up and really put in the time is there,” she says. “You can depend on these young people to be there, as far as a more limited availability from traditional volunteers that help them throughout the rest of the year.”

Partnering employers have included local organizations and nonprofits such as Mid City Nutrition,  Friends of the St. Clair River, Mitch’s Landing Marina-Black River, Harbor Impact Ministries, and YMCA of the Blue Water Area.

“Sometimes, these young people have themselves been at Mid City Nutrition relying on that meal as their one big healthy meal of the day,” Allen says. “It’s kind of cool when that connection is made and now they’re able to give back.”

In addition, a brand-new opportunity was created within the Michigan Works! Port Huron Career Center office where the program participant worked in a receptionist/administrative role.

“We were able to create that opportunity right here, which I love,” Allen says. “We should put our money where our mouth is. We’re asking other employers to create these opportunities, so I think it’s wonderful that this year, we created that opportunity on our end.”

The goal is to empower young people to be strong, impactful employees, something Allen says is successful.

“I know that it works because so many of our employees will say, ‘Wow, I could really see this young person being an asset in our organization, and if they didn’t have a plan, I would keep them.’,” she says.

After this past summer’s program, Allen says the Director of Mid City Nutrition was definitely hoping to hire the young employee who had been working with Mid City Nutrition for at least four summers.

“She said if she didn’t plan to join the military, she would have kept her and trained her to be her Kitchen Manager,” Allen says. “That’s huge. She would have created a paid position for her to be able to stay on full-time.”

Students who are referred by their DHS worker can participate in the program for consecutive summers. Many are repeat participants, and Allen is proud to see the workers grow as both young people and professionals.

Darrin Koester, St. Clair County Maintenance Director.The St. Clair County Maintenance Department was another new employer to participate in the program this past summer. Darrin Koester, St. Clair County Maintenance Director, says his experience with the program has been enjoyable.

“He was a great help to our team, and a joy to have around,” Koester says of the employee whose job duties were cleaning, sweeping, trash pickup around the grounds, leaves, trimming bushes, and more. “In the maintenance field, we do so many different things, so we tried to give him a little taste of everything.”

Throughout the summer, Koester says each day he saw the young employee improve.

“He learned, he applied it, and was a bit more self-motivated and driven at the end,” he says.

Typically, applications roll in during April or May, and the goal is to hire employees after school lets out around June. Employees typically work during the summer, although some can stay part-time on nights or weekends.

Allen says the hourly workweek varies for students, some work near full-time, and others have less availability.

“We would not turn someone away if they had a limited number of hours that they’re available,” she says. “What would be most important is identifying that availability and making sure they’re showing up consistently and working during that time.”

Students can contact Michigan Works! throughout the year to learn more about the Young Professionals Program, but the Foster Care Summer Employment Program is available by DHS caseworker referral only. Employers who are interested in signing up for the program can reach out to Allen at lallen@macomb-stclairworks.org or Patricia Niro-McCoy at pmccoy@macomb-stclairworks.org for more information.

Read more articles by Sarah Spohn.

Sarah Spohn is a Lansing resident, but every day finds a new interesting person, place, or thing in towns all over Michigan leaving her truly smitten with the mitten. She received her degrees in journalism and professional communications and provides coverage for various publications locally, regionally, and nationally — writing stories on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, community, and anything Michigan-made. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert, or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at sarahspohn.news@gmail.com.