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Jeran Culina   ·  

How Michigan helped businesses by eliminating barriers to training

To highlight the innovative work of state advocates across our network, BLU is beginning a series of state policy blogs that will uplift the work of our business partners. Blogs will focus on the process of how business leaders came together with other stakeholders to support funding and/or policy changes that allow for more equitable opportunities for workers and businesses engaged with the workforce development system. 

This blog ties into the work of National Skills Coalition’s campaign to Create a Resilient Equitable Workforce System. To create a truly inclusive economy, we need to transform our workforce system from an underfunded system to one that is adequately resourced to deliver high-quality skills training that helps small businesses who hire locally and invest in their workers and advances racial equity and pathways to quality jobs. 

Problem: Workers can face barriers to training opportunities that lead to good jobs. Not only do people need training that fits with their work schedule, but they also need consistent childcare and transportation that facilitates completion of training programs/credentials. Michigan, like many states, has varying demographics depending on geographic location,and skills training programs have to be flexible enough to meet the needs of workers and businesses. For the pastseveral years the state of Michigan provided pilot funding to solve for the barriers of workforce participation including through the clean slate pilot (CSP), healthy MI plan, business resource network (BRN), etc.  However, each pilot program was designed to serve the unique needs of a different audience which meant workforce development boards (which are charged with meeting the skills training needs of workers and businessesstruggled with adequately serving specific populations as they had to maneuver the braiding of several funding sources depending on the current barriers the workers faced. Due to the lack of sustainability in funding it became hard for employers and workforce boards to best serve new pipelines of talent over the long term. 

Solution: In 2021 the state of Michigan through the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, Workforce Development (LEO-WD) identified $9.7 million in penalty and interest dollars through theirgeneral-purpose funds (unrestricted funds) to support the Barrier Removal Employment Success(BRES) program. BRES supports the employment and reemployment of underrepresented audiences and the removal of barriers to employment. The funding allocated support foractivities that are not eligible or feasible under another funding source such as those listed above. Activities could include assisting returning citizens in expunging their criminal records, supporting the childcare needs of students in training programs, paying for on the job training programs necessary for employer upskilling needs, etc. The funding is meant to be utilized for workers in training programs. There are no income restriction levels or employment requirements for participation in this program. Examples of targeted populations for this funding include returning citizens, the Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed (ALICE)* population, refugees, students in the MIReconnect program, etc. The BRES program was developed with consideration for the concerns and efforts detailed in the 2022 LEO-WD Poverty Task Force Report, including housing, transportation, and childcare.  

For several years, NSC partners in the state of Michigan have advocated for additional funding for wrap around supports for skills training programsAlthough this was not a legislative policy change,advocacy from our partners in the state pushed the labor department to shift funds to better serve the needs of workers and employers in the state.  

Michigan SkillSPAN led by the United Way of Southeastern Michiganand the Michigan BLU Affiliate (the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce) will continue to champion the need for additional funding to ensure support servicesindividuals need to complete training programs (like childcare, transportation, housing, etc.) are funded at adequate levels. 

How it works: Federal dollars are often limited and unable to be used for supportive services. The BRES funding source allows local workforce boards the ability to alleviate barriers for the populations they serve and distribute funding based on where they see the greatest need. This funding also supports the Governor’s goals of Reconnect and 60x30 by helping individuals access postsecondary education or trainingfor a new job. 

Example of funding: In Kent County, MI the local workforce board West Michigan Works (WMW) noticed that new refugees from Afghanistan were unable to be fully supported through WIOA dollars. A small business was interested in hiring the workers but needed some support in getting them trained and onboarded. WMW used the BRES funding to support on the job training, transportation for the workers, and translation services to have HR and safety protocols available in the workers native language. In total25 people were placed with just this one employer.  

How does it help businesses? At this time businesses are struggling with the skills mismatch,and they need to work on retaining their talent. BRES helps businesses and workers by removing barriers that keep workers from advancing in their career. It also supportsincumbent workers who may not be eligible for support services through federal programs but still face barriers to accessing skills training programs they want and need. Small businesses often don’t have resources to serve workers who are encountering barriersso this funding source provides businesses with a new connection to pipelines of talent they may not have considered previouslyTo access support, they do need to collaborate with their workforce training partners to ensure these funds are utilized in a way that works for both businesses and the workers they employ.  

In response to the demand for additional dollars for barrier reliefMichigan officials had slated pilot funding for a number of population-specific programsHowever, when pilot funding ended it often meant the program also ended. That is why the shift in policy language to cover a broader array of support services with the ability for each workforce board to determine the needs of their community was key. This shift of discretionary funds can bea model for other states as it does not require legislative policy changesInstead, it requires a shift of discretionary fundsfrom the labor department to a newly created fund that encompassesall support services. To continue to receive additional dollars for this budgeted expense, business associations, including our BLU Affiliate the Grand Rapids Chamber, promoted the successes of the BRES program to legislators. In 2022, the state legislatureprovided an additional$5 million to BRES to support the removal of barriers for workers in the employment or re-employment process thanks in part to champions in the business community.  

*ALICE is an acronym that stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. It is used by the United Way to describe the growing number of families who are unable to afford the basics of housing, childcare, food, transportation, health care, and technology. These workers often struggle to keep their own households from financial ruin, while keeping our local communities running.