Patrick North’s life story is complicated, even for a relatively young man of 36. Its timeline includes disruption, addiction, love, crime, triumph, tragedy. But as he tells it, you can see what kept North shining through – a clear intelligence, canny survivor’s instinct and a certain scrappy optimism that a better life is only a Google search away.
Raised in precarious financial straits by a single mother savvy about how to get the best for her children – she used a relative’s address to enroll her sons in a good suburban school district – he spent years bouncing between jobs. He landed on his feet for the most part, but still considered himself a “loser,” career-wise. His actions were often dictated by online searches; “what kind of work can a person with no experience get” was only one of them.
Today, North is well-employed, working in trucking dispatch in Gibraltar, Mich. But he’s ambitious, and doesn’t want to settle, especially when he’s fought back from disappointment so many times already.
North is exactly the sort of middle-skilled worker most employers would love to have on their payroll, and will likely be moving up. But how he got here is largely the result of his interaction with a single nonprofit, the Wayne Metro Community Action Agency, which he credits with giving him the life skills to channel his energy in a productive direction.
North is an example of an employee with much potential and a drive to succeed, but lacking the knowledge and skills to use it well. He’s fortunate to have found help at Wayne Metro. Many others like him are falling through the cracks of workforce development, a new report from the Citizens Research Council of Michigan finds.
Among the key findings in the report, “Overcoming Barriers for the Underemployed: Opportunities for Michigan to Grow, Leverage its Labor Force” are:
- Although much of Michigan’s workforce development efforts have been focused on training people for high-skilled jobs, the vast majority of job openings has been and will continue to be concentrated in low- and middle-skilled jobs.
- The working poor (discouraged workers, those marginally attached to the workforce, or those working part-time) and those who have dropped out of the workforce are likely candidates to fill many of the job openings, but confront several barriers.
- State workforce development programs generally do not assist these populations. Instead, they focus on the unemployed and those in poverty, as dictated by restrictions on federal funding, leaving those most prepared to contribute to the economy to fend for themselves.
North knows he’s lucky to have found the work he did. At any point in his job-searching experience, he could have been derailed by a drug test or a background check, and in fact he was, in the process of applying for work at a retail chain. When he revealed his felony record in the course of an interview that had been going well, “You could see (the interviewer’s) face change,” North said. “I knew I wasn’t getting anything.”
North describes his criminal record – for fighting, when he was younger – as a mistake he’s long past. A “ban the box” law, which prohibits employers from asking about an applicant’s criminal record in initial job screening, might have helped him get that job in retail, but so far, only state workers are so protected, thanks to an executive order signed by former Gov. Rick Snyder during his last year in office.
What North mostly needed to finally get on track was the sort of wide-ranging, comprehensive counseling he received at Wayne Metro.
At that agency, an umbrella organization that administers many separate social-service programs, counselors encouraged him to go back to his long-abandoned post-secondary studies and get his associates degree. He was guided through simple financial skills, including budgeting, saving and credit management. And that led to him being able to buy a house for his growing family – he and his wife, Lisa, have three daughters with a fourth child on the way. He even credits budgeting with making him face how much of his money was going to drugs, and giving him the strength to kick them.
He now attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings, but is focused on the future. His next goal is to transcend being someone’s employee and get into the corporate structure of the trucking industry. If he gets there, it’s unlikely he’ll be helped by existing job programs in Michigan.
Although the state has nearly 30 different talent programs across seven departments and agencies, most operated by the Michigan Talent Investment Agency, they are not geared toward helping the people struggling to make ends meet to improve their employment opportunities. Large-scale coordination is a challenge. Others receive at least some federal funding, which introduces other complications, including specific federal requirements and limitations regarding who can be served, what services can be provided, reporting metrics and more. The Research Council found that over-reliance on federal funds to support talent programs has meant not only a restriction on the use of such dollars, but in some cases a declining overall investment as well.
Michigan taxpayers probably have little to worry about where North is concerned; his ambition is keen. But he is only one of thousands of potential workers whose lives and prospects are not easily managed or simply fixed. To get ahead in a rapidly changing job market, these individuals have complex needs, including health care, transportation, child care and education.
North expresses gratitude for his “many blessings,” which include help with his growing family and employers willing to take a chance on his energy and enthusiasm. Nothing is more important to his family than the security that comes from success in the workforce.
“Wayne Metro helped me to start believing in myself,” he said. “That can change generations.”