James A. Mitchell| Crain’s Custom Media

No one knew quite what to expect from an initiative designed to find jobs for a population described as “the hardest to employ.” Specifically: young minority men with limited education and criminal backgrounds, but the partner organizations knew how to address the issues.

Steve Ragan, chief development officer for Focus: HOPE, said that the Earn + Learn program launched in 2011 by Southwest Economic Solutions took advantage of available resources that included extensive, first-hand experience.

“What’s informed us is that we’ve served these populations in one form or another for 44 years,” Ragan said. “We’ve taken lessons from that and we’re seeing a lot of success.”

The initiative brought together resources from several agencies including Southwest, Focus: HOPE, Detroit Employment Solutions, ACCESS and the state of Michigan. Employers in Detroit, Hamtramck and Highland Park were provided with more than $1 million in incentives and subsidies, and partner agencies supplied case management.

More than 1,000 workers once considered “structurally unemployed” were hired during the program’s first two years, and retention rates were more than encouraging.

“All of the numbers were above expectations,” said Mary Freeman, Southwest’s director of workforce development.

The challenge was clear, Freeman said, of the 1,086 participants, 19 percent had criminal records and 29 percent had not completed high school.

There was initial encouragement – nearly 90 percent completed a four-week training program. And then 642 subsidized and 420 unsubsidized job placements were secured. More than half of the unsubsidized workers maintained employment for at least six months, and subsidized positions became full-time jobs with advancement opportunities.

Freeman attributed that success to the program’s follow-through beyond initial hire date, designed with a similar blueprint to PATH programs that supported welfare-to-work efforts for parents of young children. Support services included skill development, educational opportunities and coaching for up to one year.

“The idea is to maintain a close relationship with the participants to encourage them, help solve transportation problems and keep them at work,” Freeman said.

The program asks as much if not more from the potential worker as those who would hire them. Ragan said the stringent requirements are similar to other services that Focus: HOPE had initiated.

“We know it’s hard,” Ragan said. “But we don’t allow that to be an excuse. Employers wouldn’t allow it to be an excuse.”

Southwest is currently fund-raising to continue the program, with hopes of placing 240 potential workers into sector-based training ranging from construction to IT positions in Detroit and Highland Park. Finding career opportunities for the chronically unemployed has, she said, been the most rewarding part of the program.

“When people have no work experience at all, they start at minimum wage,” Freeman said. “Three months later they may move into a different type of job that pays 10 or 11 dollars an hour, and they lose that ‘dead-end’ feeling. That’s what we try to support.”

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