Amy Elliott Bragg
At its heart, the Workforce Intelligence Network is about connecting the dots between workforce agencies, academic institutions, and businesses so they can share resources, develop skills and collaborate to solve problems.
It's easy (and true) to say that Michigan needs more skilled workers and trained talent. But training doesn't grow on trees; it requires an investment of time, money and resources. Where do those resources come from? Who finds them? How are they delivered?
A real-life example of what WIN can do to answer those questions is a welding training program designed for Quality Metalcraft. With assistance from WIN and other regional workforce partners, the company will be training and certifying 20 incumbent employees in hopes of landing a contract with the Department of Defense.
That might seem like a lot of work to invest in a relatively small return, but it's an elegant example of the regional capacity-building that WIN is enabling -- and the small pieces that add up to a powerful whole for the region's economy.
A partnership is born
Quality Metalcraft (QMC) is a Livonia-based design, engineering and manufacturing firm specializing in automotive prototyping, supply, and low-volume production. It employs about 350 people.
Earlier this year, QMC decided to pursue a contract from the Department of Defense. To secure the contract, the firm needs to prove that it can provide a certain number of welders certified to a specific American Welding Society standard.
QMC started out on their own, calling around to local community colleges for quotes on training programs. Once they had a few numbers to work with, they reached out to Michigan workforce agencies to see if they could find any training funding to take advantage of.
The outlook wasn't good; funding for programs like this one had largely dried up. But QMC wasn't going to give up on the contract. And now, neither was the state of Michigan or the regional workforce agencies that QMC had contacted. They saw an opportunity to keep jobs in Michigan and promote growth in the manufacturing sector.
That's when Al Lecz, Director of Workforce Development for WIN, got the call: Could the Workforce Intelligence Network help QMC find the resources it needed?
"There are so many organizations in Southeast Michigan trying to help companies and people," Lecz says. "There were so many groups that wanted to help. We just could not come up with the funding. The solution really came forward with the colleges."
Lecz, working closely with Susan Corey of the Southeast Michigan Community Alliance(SEMCA), tried Monroe County Community College first, where a welding grant from the US Department of Labor seemed like a fit. QMC didn't want to send their employees all the way to Monroe for training, so it was proposed that Schoolcraft Community College -- also based in Livonia -- might deliver the training with funding from MCCC.
Yet another hurdle: It turned out that MCCC's grant had already been allocated. But Schoolcraft was the perfect fit -- since it was close to QMC, it would minimize employee travel, and Schoolcraft's welding facilities and instruction are state of the art. Besides, Schoolcraft wanted to help.
"It means a lot to us to work with the companies in our immediate area," says Amy Jones, Director of Business Development at Schoolcraft. "We were very happy to make this work out."
So WIN and its partners focused on bringing funding in from another school to support training at Schoolcraft. That's where Macomb Community College got involved.
Macomb Community College also had a welding grant with the USDOL. To use it to fund training at Schoolcraft, QMC had to agree that its welders, upon certification, would either be promoted or given a pay raise.
QMC agreed. The program was a go. And despite the chutes and ladders, it had all come together in just under three months. The first training cohort began classes on June 4.
Building capacity for a better workforce
So far, everyone involved in this partnership is reaping benefits.
"We are under the broader umbrella of a regional engagement in workforce development," says Holger Ekanger, Director of Workforce and Continuing Education at Macomb Community College. "Working with our partners and with Schoolcraft to fund this training creates a win-win for all of the partners, for the region, and for the company, which is getting upscaling for its employees.
"It was one of those opportunities that just made sense to fund," Ekanger adds.
QMC's employees train for half-days, which allows for less disruption of the company's normal workload. After 4-6 weeks of training, employees will take their certification test -- but only after Schoolcraft's dynamic welding instructor, Rodney Johnson, ensures that they'll absolutely be able to pass it. (His pass rate is already well above average, at about 95%.)
"Rodney is so well-liked by everybody, and he's so good at what he does,'' says Amy Jones. "He called me up the other day and said, 'Hey, a few of these people need a little more time to be successful. I'm here anyway; can they just stay on?' He does what it takes to make sure people succeed."
In some ways, although the defense contract was the impetus, the training program could be worth more than new business to QMC. No matter whether the contract is landed or not, the company will gain a higher skill base and a more diverse portfolio of talent. QMC's employees will get raises or promotions, and they'll have in-demand skills they can use throughout their careers.
Furthermore, the partnership WIN developed with Quality Metalcraft could be a model for future training programs, either for QMC directly or for other businesses in the region.
"A lot of people were involved trying to find these resources to get the training to get the contract to grow the business," Lecz says. "What resources are available? Can they be applied? We didn't know how these things would fit together, but you never know that when you're trying to solve a problem. Together we saw the solution, through collaboration and communication.
"We all have to be thinking about growth and expansion," he adds. "I'm not sure in a 9-county region elsewhere in the country you'll find as much collaboration as these 9 colleges have. They're supportive, they share curricula, they make agreements – if one college is delivering a certain expertise, another college will avoid duplicating that and offer something different. We are offering regional capacity. That's really unique."
Photos by Doug Coombe. Top to bottom: A student trains at Schoolcraft Community College; Schoolcraft welding instructor Rodney Johnson; Class in session at SCC.