As the Great Lakes region continues to face high rates of unemployment, many manufacturing workers find themselves laid off and lacking credentials to find new work. State-funded agencies are teaming up with community colleges and private businesses to help get workers back into jobs. The strategy is called public-private partnership and has support from several governors in the region and even President Obama.
In Marshall, Mich., Deidre Hosek is a big fan of the approach. It threw her a lifeline when she was laid off in 2007.
Meet Deidre Hosek
Hosek is a regular at the Riverside bar, just a few blocks off the main street of Marshall. It’s an easy to miss location. The smoky gray wooden façade has no outward facing windows, but step inside and two TVs and a jukebox light up the room. Hosek sits alongside six others sipping Miller Lite. She’s about 5'5" with long brown hair, solid confidence, and a bold, raspy laugh.
This is her place to unwind. She remembers growing up in Marshall with big ideas about what it would mean to be an adult and work a regular job.
“I remember when I was a kid, I wanted to be a doctor, a lawyer, a singing star,” Hosek said, adding that at Riverside bar she gets to be a singer now and then, “that’s why I try and come down here. One of my neighborhood buddies runs the open mic.”
Hosek raised two kids in Marshall and, like many of her neighbors and friends, she worked for the auto industry. In her case, it was as a prototype technician working with vinyl, plastics, and leathers at the Lear Corporation. It was a solid living wage but when times got tough the company downsized and moved operations out of state, Hosek was left in a lurch.
“If I wanted to move out of state, I could have gone to another Lear plant,” she said. “But all of my family is here, and I have no desire to leave my family."
Instead of leaving, Hosek and her family lived off her 401(k) for two years. Eventually, she found a gig working overnight at the Shell gas station convenience store. A customer there tipped her off that the state-funded agency Michigan Works was interviewing candidates for factory work in town. She raced over to apply.
Never welded before
Fast-forward four years and Deidre Hosek is a welder at Tenneco, an international auto-parts manufacturer. In Marshall, they make mufflers. The first thing she needed to learn was how to fuse two pieces of metal together to make a bead.
Even with her lack of experience, Michigan Works was confident she could succeed. Hosek became one of thousands of people in Michigan to benefit from public-private programs to help the workers find jobs locally.
How it works, the private side
A company like Tenneco needs highly skilled welders. The plant manager at Tenneco in Marshall, Randy Rial, says it’s not that easy to find them.
“Many people can weld but when the people come in here and say I can weld anything, but this is different. We work very fast at very high heat,” Rial explained. “They come in here and it’s very difficult to learn.”
In 2007 the company started welding with a new, very thin, very expensive metal. Their welders failed, over and over. It cost the company a lot of money. Rial remembers that was a time when many other factories were closing their doors.
“Eaton closed down, Lear closed down, a lot of other plants closed down,” Rial remembered. “We have to do everything we can do to be competitive in the global market.”
How it works, the public side
Training specialized welders is difficult and expensive so the public side of the partnership plays a big role. George Bauer is a representative of the state-funded Michigan Works Association. He's been on the front lines of the recession.
“Michigan was in it before everyone else and we’re hoping we won't be the last to come out of it,” Bauer said.
Bauer’s witnessed the bloodletting-- with 40, 50, 100 local workers laid-off at one time. He talks to workers to prepare them for inevitably hard times ahead, but if he can, Bauer prefers to step in before a company downsizes or leaves town. When Bauer learned about the challenges at Tenneco, he called a meeting right away and made the company an offer.
“Our deal with the company was that if we’re paying for the training, you’ll guarantee to hire them at the end,” Bauer said.
Tenneco agreed to hire new welders. To do the actual training, Michigan Works tapped Kellogg Community College in the nearby town of Battle Creek.
The flexibility of community colleges
Dennis Bona is the president of Kellogg Community College. He’s learned the key to the succeeding with the business world is flexibility.
“We tailor instruction to fit what employer needs. We know there are no careers we train once for,” Bona explained. “Tenneco came to us and said we need 60 welders trained and we need them soon.”
So Bona and Kellogg Community College worked with Tenneco to design and supply a quick 8-week program with something called open-exit, open-entry. That meant students didn’t have to wait for a new semester for classes to begin. And that responsiveness meant Tenneco saved money.
In the end Tenneco hired over 60 welders, and the relationship between the college and the company continued. Bona said Kellogg has trained and educated about 1000 Tenneco employees. They work with 150 other companies across southern Michigan.
Deidre Hosek turns into a welder
The partnership between Michigan Works, Kellogg, and Tenneco gave the company some additional support to stay in town and hire in town. In 2007, that was a godsend for Deidre Hosek. She was struggling to find well-paid work.
“There was nothing," Hosek said. "I didn’t think finding a job would be that difficult.”
She didn’t have a college degree or other technical training to lean on, but with the public-private education plan in place she was able to jump right in and start something completely new.
“I had no idea I would go back to school, but it was just boom boom boom,” she said of the training. “We had the classroom time and the actual hands-on welding time...that was fun.”
Staying in the community
With a steady paycheck now in her pocket, Deidre Hosek can afford to stop by Riverside for open-mic night and unwind with her longtime friends.
“I like being where everybody knows your name," she said. "You’re not just a number.”
Eight-weeks (the length of her training course) and four years later, Hosek is proud to be a welder. But at the Riverside bar, standing in the spotlight with her neighborhood buddies cheering her on, belting out Marshall Tucker lyrics during the open-mic night, sometimes she still feels a little like a singing star.
A correction has been made to this story. An earlier version misspelled the Lear Corporation.