Michigan launches new job program

LANSING, MI – For decades, Michigan's community colleges have been centers of vocational education. Now, during a debilitating recession, a collaborative new program promises to expand that role. Participants, which include Lansing Community College, say the Michigan New Jobs Training Program could breathe life into the state's shattered manufacturing economy. But as WKAR's Mark Bashore reports, planners want to avoid the problems of a similar Iowa program.

AUDIO: Mike Sinclair works alongside a 60-ton plastic molding machine, inside a cavernous manufacturing plant in Charlotte. About every 50 seconds, he peels off another carefully sculpted plastic product. WJG Plastics' owner and President Bill Grice, explains.

"The product Mike is actually producing here is a brand new job for an industrial consumer product, it's a filter holder, it's a brand new tool for us...he's developing it," Grice says.

Unlike tens of thousands of plastic pieces produced here in recent years, this one is not headed to General Motors or Chrysler. Grice says it's become essential to make products for other businesses.

"The ups and downs...if you don't have other business to back fill, you'll find yourself so dependent on automotive that if you have a hiccup in automotive, you'll basically strain your business," Grice says.

This filter holder will be installed in a home air conditioning unit. Grice says diversification into consumer products and medical sectors will enable his company to hire over 100 new workers over the next five years. That means finding workers with particular skills. He thinks the Michigan New Jobs Training Program can help.

The new law allows employers to team up with community colleges to train new workers on the college's dime. The process begins with new hires. Then, with money raised through bonding or other means, the college teaches them specific job skills. Half of the worker's state withholding taxes are then used to pay back the college.

But Michigan's initiative was modeled on an Iowa program that's under a cloud. In May, that state's auditor released a report alleging that 15,000 projected jobs were never created. Iowa assistant auditor Tami Kusian says long-term job tracking is at the heart of the problem.

"You don't know whether those jobs were created for one week, one month, one year or longer," Kusian says. "It's a point in time and that point in time is usually at the completion of the training."

Iowa college officials still insist the program is a success. But the state is tightening up accountability and record-keeping. Kusian says Michigan could probably avoid the same confusion with basic oversight and data tracking.

Unlike Iowa, Michigan's program doesn't require employers to maintain fixed numbers of long-term jobs. Its more modest goal is simply to teach new employees marketable skills. Mike Hansen is the Executive Director of the Michigan Community College Association. In the end, he says, planners didn't want to dictate future employment decisions to companies.

"Just because we've trained 20 new welders should not prohibit and prevent the company from becoming more efficient in other ways and other parts of their program," Hansen says.

And he says planners felt sticking to strict job targets would trigger more red tape and bureaucracy.

Hansen admits another challenge is getting what he calls the "legs of the stool" to improve collaboration. That's a triad of economic developers working to attract business to the state, workforce trainers and community colleges. He says these key players don't always work in sync, even in the same area. Dave Hollister agrees. The former Lansing Mayor heads the economic development organization "Prima Civitas:"

"He clearly has a point," Hollister says. "In the new economy, collaboration is the bottom line, and finding new ways of doing business."

Planners say the program requires coordination of these key players, and couldl in the end---accelerate collaboration.

As they diversify their products, manufacturers like Charlotte's WJG are slowly reshaping Michigan's economic landscape. Community college officials appear eager to play a greater role in that process. A coordinated, well-monitored job-training effort could shape key features of that landscape.