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  • Writer's pictureOlivia Liu

Interview : Workforce Development From the Perspective of a Community-Based Organization

An Interview with Hannah Rodriguez, Program Officer at Manistee County Community Foundation in Manistee, Michigan

Interview Date: July 18th, 2022

Increasing Youth Awareness through Discussion, Counseling and Planning

Could you provide some context into the Launch Manistee’s format and general goals?

I am the program officer for the Manistee County Community Foundation. There are several community foundations throughout Michigan and the country. We are place-based philanthropic organizations that seeks to build community endowment, meet community needs through grants, and lead community initiatives toward systemic change. Part of my role is to coordinate the Launch Manistee Network, which operates as a community leadership initiative of the foundation, and the goal of the network is to build equity in education from cradle to career.

We are not a program per se, providing direct services to students, or to individuals, but we are a network of cross-sector community partners that are working together in collaboration to try to understand what are the systemic challenges and barriers that we are seeing in our community related to education, whether that’s early childhood education or an adult trying to advance their post-secondary education or change careers.

What are the things that we as a community need to be focused on, what types of strategies together can we work toward to minimize those barriers and create systemic shifts we need to see to ensure that all Manistee County residents are ready to learn and ready to earn. I don’t know how, if at all, you’re familiar with systems change theories or collective impact, but we operate as a collective impact model, which essentially means that we know that if we want to change something about our education system, we can’t just say we’re going to introduce this new curriculum, it has to be multiple sectors of the community coming together and engaging and figuring what pieces of the puzzle they need to make that happen. I’m really there to bring these folks together, talk about our challenges, what our data tells us about the challenges, where do we need to make some shifts, and how can we work collaboratively to make sure those shifts happen.

What are does Manistee’s economy look like?

We’re a very rural community. We have a population, for the entire county, of about 25,000 people. Because we’re rural, we often talk about our community on the county-wide level.

We have a lot of natural resources, we’re situated right on the coast of Michigan. I’m looking out of my office window at the Manistee River, which in Lake Michigan is just at the end of it. We have a robust trail system, we have the Manistee National Forest, we are very close to the Sleeping Bear National Park. Hospitality is probably our largest industry in the area, and that’s kind of a regional trend that we see, but in Manistee county as well.

Manufacturing plays a significant role in Manistee County, and it does over time – to this day, we still have large ferries and ships that are bringing things like coal and other resources throughout our county through our channel. You don’t see that in a lot of places anymore. Agriculture has definitely played a role over time. That is the one that has seen a shift, being much more robust than what it is at this point, so kind of dwindling. What encompasses agriculture has changed.

We want to have a diverse and robust economy. We want to make sure that no matter what shifts happen, in technology or the global market, that we can respond and that we are able to remain a viable place for families to live and work and play and recreate. We want to keep the industries that we have, but also encourage our young folks to consider the various paths and options that they have, and demonstrate that they can take a variety of paths here in Manistee County or elsewhere, and that we are an attractive place for those who might want to move to a more rural community.

How are goals between educating for the local/regional market vs. the global market balanced? Do people come in knowing which one they strive for?

I grew up locally. I grew up just north of Manistee County in Benzie County, and was a first-generation college-attending student. I went to the University of Michigan, and knew that was my four-year path, I couldn’t wait to leave, I was ready to go, I was going to live in an urban area, which I did for a time, then went in to get my master’s degree and decided that I wanted to return to the community. During that time, I did a research project on youth engagement in rural communities and how it tracks with their post-secondary plans.

This is a point of tension in our community. A lot of folks would love to encourage young people (K-12) to stay in the community and receive an education that they can get locally, and to pursue a career path that is available to them locally. For some students I think that is an amazing option, and that works very well for them, however, the purpose of the LMN is to provide options for all students. Whether that means a student who is going to go onto a four-year education somewhere else, and perhaps return to the community eventually, or perhaps they enter an industry that does not exist here, we want to support them. To help those students to success benefits us in the end—they’re likely going to contribute to this community in one way, shape, or form in the future if they felt supported throughout their time here.

When we’re talking about a rural population that’s been seeing a population decline, it’s easy to say “we need to keep people here, we don’t want to lose anyone.” Manistee County’s one of the oldest populations in Michigan in terms of median age, we a have a large retirement population. Trying to attract young families is a big part of building and growing our economy, but to rely on our graduating high school students to do that is not necessarily a sustainable model. I think that we have a long way to go before I could confidently say that we have everything we need, we have all the resources, all the support to help students pursue all those different paths.

Do you see any drastic changes in the rural workforce that have changed the career options offered to community members?

We tend to see trends that when, for example the Great Recession of 2008-2009, there was a large push toward four-year post-secondary programs, and a big increase in enrollment during that period. As economic times shifted, and things recovered, there tends to be a pendulum that swings back to industries that require less education after high school, like our manufacturing trades. That is where we are at right now, so I think there’s a high demand for those skilled trades at the moment, whether that be truck driving, electrician, plumber, or builder.

There’s a big piece of our economy that’s currently retiring, especially in those skilled trades, and there are very few young people that were entering those fields until recently. Hospitality continues to grow. Our winery/brewery/distillery industry is huge in this region. We’re trying to diversify—how can we attract businesses (both big and small) to come to the community and be here. In rural communities, that change is slower.

The pandemic has had a huge impact as well. We’ve seen a decline in post-secondary enrollment.

Something that has a big impact on our community at the moment is affordable housing and childcare. We have a significant early childcare workforce shortage, and when you’re talking about how folks can engage in the economy, if they don’t have either, it’s nearly impossible.

How do the workforce development programs that LMN works with extend outreach to communities?

We think of our work in three different buckets. We have early childhood, K12 bucket, and adult learners (12+). Workforce development starts in that K12 space, and we work very closely with our school districts (we have 6 in Manistee County), 2 are private (1 is only elementary), 1 charter (middle-high school), 1 private K12, 4 public K12 districts in the community. 200 students per graduating class total in the county.

One of our strategic priorities is helping students plan their career paths. We rely on school partners to talk with those students and provide them with support and information as they are making those decisions. With the adult workforce (12+ space), we work closely with Michigan Works, which is our workforce development entity (our statewide one). They reach out via existing employers, someone receiving benefits through the department of health and human services, get connected through a variety of agencies.

I think many programs are underutilized, and it’s a constant question mark of how do we find folks who need this support and make the support attractive to them.

Do the local school districts have any of their own, incorporated workforce development programs?

There are a few different paths that students might take. Most public schools are attached to an intermediate school district, and our own is called the ISD. We do not have our own career and technical education campus. Our students in Manistee County go to one of two career tech programs in other counties. Some students go to west shore career technical program, some go to Wexford-Missaukee. On that skilled trade side of things, where they are interested in AP or IB curriculum and they might be doing that at their home institution. Only one other public school provides an AP program. There is also a strong trend of dual enrollment, so we have a community college (Westshore community college) that serves Manistee County, they’re located in Mason County, just south.

I think there are a lot of options, but we would like to do better to create viable paths for all students. We still have kids who graduate having no idea what it is they’d like to do, no idea what their path might look like. What it comes down to is a capacity issue. There are certain requirements through the Michigan career development model that schools must fulfill, in 5th, 8th, and 11th grade, they have students participate in a career survey, and while that box is checked so-to-speak, that doesn’t mean they have a robust plan of what they’re going to do once they get there and graduate.

We don’t have the staff to do that in-depth, one-on-one conversation and inquiry into what a student might want to pursue. Often that comes down to the counselors, who might not have the time to do that with all our students. Michigan does not have a student-to-counselor ratio limit. The average ratio is one counselor to every 450 students. In fact, at one of our local schools, the ratio is one-to-700+.

What is the role of career plans for students going into postsecondary education?

Here’s the thing: I think that plans are helpful, but they’re not everything. The one thing that comes to mind for me is I think we need to help students have some individual reflection and exploration on what their skills and interests are.

A lot of times it comes down to the fact that they just don’t know what they’re super interested in and passionate about, and where that passion meets their skills. You can be really passionate about something, but it might not be what you’re strongest in. Not necessarily a plan of every step along the way, but more “these are my interests, strengths, and based on those things, here is a cluster of careers that would be a good fit for me, potentially.”

Another goal is to help students understand the value of post-secondary education, whether that is a certificate that you get in six months, a four-year degree, or anything in between, having a post-secondary credential is integral to success over time to financial stability, social capital.

How can students find a balance between passion and practicality between career paths?

I don’t know that’s one that can be figured out prior to graduation. College is the time to figure it out. Community colleges allow students to get general credits out of the way, explore their interests, learn about possible career paths. The practicality comes down to your relationship to formal education, and unfortunately it comes down to access. It’s an equity issue. A student who lack financial support but aren’t eligible to financial aid can often find themselves in the area of “I’m not able to afford continuing school, but this is preventing me from seeking that path. How am I going to find that middle ground there.”

If the network does advising to the institutions/programs that it works with, how do they make sure training is applicable to current-day job needs.

I wouldn’t say we serve in an advisory capacity. We have a cross-sector leadership team that might, if the network decided that pursuing career development curriculum and looking at options was a strategy toward making sure that all students graduate prepared to succeed in school and life, which is one of our goals, we might research those options, and the leadership team would say to our local school districts (the superintendents are on the leadership team): here are some things that we think would be great, here are some options that we think would be great, and here’s what we need from the community.

We need some funding to purchase them, we need community businesses to be engaged in providing local job shadowing opportunities, or internships, or tours, or career days, whatever that might look like. So, we’re not necessarily advising on those things, unless we’re asked to as a network. But we’re more so figuring out together what the best fit is. We might say, “what is it that we need to make sure that we have career development tools and resources that are appropriate and viable for all of our students,” and if that means a new curriculum, then how are we as a group collaboratively make sure that we have access to that.

I know that identifying the need is a big part of that. So, is there any kind of community input that is gathered to understand what residents might want?

We do various needs assessments at various times, and kind of explore our community. We haven’t done that in a while, it’s something we’re thinking about doing soon.

The Launch Manistee Network is part of a larger group of local college access networks, or LCANs that exist in Michigan. This would be good for your research—the Michigan LCAN is currently developing workforce strategy. We’re all kind of engaged in that process. A group of us right now are looking into, what are the career needs, what are the schools saying that they need to be able to actually have robust strategies so that students can get support that they might need. And something we haven’t done yet, but want to, is ask students what they’re interested in, as well as our local businesses and employers, what are you needing to see more of from those in the community who are entering the workforce, whether that is a student graduating high school or another adult in the community. What kind of support do you see that they need, and how can we help them get there.

What are the kinds of institutions that the Launch Manistee Network works with?

We have early childhood stakeholders, so that could be HeadStart, GSRP, private tuition preschool programs, we have all of our K12 districts, we have folks in business, so our local chamber of commerce, we have some local government involvement from our county commissioners, we do interact some with city council, philanthropy, as well as our United Way, locally.

Other non-profits, such as Staircase Youth Services, we have Michigan Works, our higher-education instititutions, like Westshore Community Colleges, and Baker College, which a for-profit institution. Department of Health and Human Services. MSU extensions, they’re often youth-serving sort-of human services organizations that are an extension of a bigger institution. They are born out of a lot of state universities. So, it’s a pretty broad cross-sector group of folks. Some of our action teams that are focused on a specific goal or strategy might have additional folks that are involved, because we want whoever is on the ground to help us implement the strategy.

On the Launch Manistee Network Strategic Plan, I saw a lot of very specific goals and I was wondering one, how are they set, and how are the measures determined. How does the plan evolve year by year?

Because we kind of follow a collective impact strategy, one of the things that we always have is what we call our common agenda. What is our common agenda, what are our common goals, that we as a network are all agreeing to take ownership of, and have accountability around. So those three goals that you see come from our common agenda. You also see in our plan our value and our vision some of those other things we are looking at. So, the goals don’t actually change very often. The network has existed for about eight or nine years now, and those goals have largely remained the same. We’ve tweaked the language of them a little bit, but they remain pretty close, because as see they are very lofty, pie-in-the-sky kinds of goals. We’re not necessarily saying that “by this date, we’re going to reach this specific number,” with the exception of goal three. We’re really looking at moving in the direction of those goals. So they’re there as guide posts for what we’re trying to achieve.

Some of the strategies that you see, those are what change over time because the idea is that you would look at the need—we use data, and evaluate what has shifted—and we just went through this whole strategic planning process, because we hadn’t looked at these in a long time. We did a large data scan through our community at our local data, as well as our statewide and national trends, and said, “ok, based on current needs and conditions, what are the things that we should be focusing on to move us in the direction of these goals?” That’s how those strategies got developed. And those change over time. So, right now, our strategies might be, in early childhood, for example, we are trying to better understand the early childhood availability in Manistee County. Hopefully, in a couple of years, we’ll have a better understanding of that and that strategy is going to shift to say, “okay, now that we understand the shift, we are going to increase the number of childhood sites that are available in the next two years, or whatever that looks like.” Maybe one particular organization is going to take a strategy and keep it moving forward and the network starts to develop another strategy.

How is the research done to measure progress on the goals?

The indicators of success that we have listed, in some cases, those are things that we already measure or have been measuring, and we do that through a variety of sources. Myschooldata is the robust data system that we have available in the seat of Michigan through the Department of Education that helps us measure quite a few things, sometimes we’re getting that through a direct survey to people in the community, in some cases it’s to be determined. Finding indicators of success that we can measure and directly relate to the goal is really hard. Those can change a little over time, too, because depending on the strategy that we’re implementing, a particular indicator might not make sense. If we have an indicator that cannot be influenced by the strategies we’re employing, then it’s probably not a good measure of where we’re headed. Some of them, we’re using as indicators of an overall goal, others we’re using to say “is this strategy helping us make progress?” In terms of how we gather that information, it’s usually me, putting that together through various sources in a way that can be presented to the leadership team and the community at large.

Are there any institutions that would be beneficial for me to reach out to?

  1. Michigan Works

  2. Local Networks Northwest

  3. Michigan College Access Network

Is there anything that I could do to spread awareness about these programs?

“Nothing about us without us.” The more students, like yourself, can advocate within your school, your community, or whatever groups that you might be a part of. We as adults can sit in a room all day and talk about what we can do for the young people in our community, but without hearing your voices, what are we really saying? I think it’s super important to know, “here’s what we need.

We want more experiences actually in the workforce, we want to have job shadow opportunities, we want to hear from adults that like us, didn’t really know what they wanted to do when they were graduating from high school.

So, I think it’s talking to your peers and getting a sense of what they would appreciate in terms of getting your own workforce development, what they hope to see the economy look like when they are adults, and how can you advocate on their behalf. With them, and decision makers, have the ability to shift those systems and those dynamics to get them there.


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