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Mentors to teach career skills to 'overlooked and underresourced' Detroiters

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

When Leona Medley was in her early 30s and working at Home Depot, her manager pulled her aside to offer her some unsolicited career advice. 

"If you want to be a leader, you need to dress like a leader," the manager told her.

She heeded the advice and started wearing slacks to work. It took.

Dexter Perry, left, 27, of Redford, works on typing skills during a TechHire class at Focus: Hope Thursday morning, September 5, 2019. Perry participates in the Streetwise Partners Program, which teaches 'soft skills' and network building to job-seekers.

"People changed their behavior around me," the 40-year-old recalled. "And all it took was changing my pants," which she said never would have occurred to her if it a respected source hadn't mentioned it.

Medley, a community engagement manager for Bedrock is among the first mentors signed up for a new program launching in Detroit and designed to teach career skills to the "overlooked and underresourced."

StreetWise Partners started in the late 1990s in New York City and expanded to Washington, D.C., in the mid-2000s, serving more than 6,000 people along the way.

Now it's coming to Detroit — its third city — where unemployment and underemployment are major issues. The "skills gap," between what employers want and what they can find in the local hiring pool, has been a source of frustration for business and political leaders alike in southeast Michigan.

Dichondra Johnson, program director of the Detroit office, said the program complements existing workforce development efforts in the area, which often focus on hard skills by way of training and certifications, with the "soft skills" training they may never have gotten.

"We don't want to be a parachute organization," Johnson, 42, said. "We want to fit in where we're needed, not just come in and say 'we're here to save Detroit.' We asked those tough questions and learned from our partners what their needs were."

Building soft skills

What they found was that Detroiters are falling through the cracks with resume development, writing cover letters and building interviewing skills. 

"Employers are saying 'we're not seeing the talent that has the soft skills,'" Johnson said. "But building a social network is important as well, and that also part of what we do."

StreetWise is partnering with Centria Healthcare, based in Farmington Hills and when mentors and mentees meet, it will be at Centria's offices. 

According to Jeff Steigerwald, a vice president at Centria, the partnership fit with its mission, "which is to help people reach their full potential."

"We felt this would help close opportunity gaps and level the playing field for (those who) might otherwise be overlooked and underresourced, which is what we do on a daily basis," Steigerwald said.

Centria has an Autism services branch, and has become the largest applied behavioral analysis therapy provider in Michigan. It employs about 3,500 people in 11 states, including more than 500 people in Michigan. 

The plan is to improve on the factors that get people hired and minimize those that get people fired or keep them from getting callbacks, such as an unprofessional social media presence. 

'Secret knowledge'

Leona Medley

Mentorship of that sort allows mentees to benefit from the "secret knowledge that's not really secret," Medley said, and to familiarize themselves with how bosses think and talk behind closed doors. She calls it "executive presence," and it's a lesson she hopes to impart when she is paired up with a mentee.

The mentorship effort will kick off on Sept. 17, when the first cohort of 20 mentees meets with the 30-35 people who will be their mentors for the next year. When the second cycle starts in March, organizers hope to double the footprint. 

The program starts with 13 weeks of classroom work, where the group will meet for 2½ hours each Tuesday through mid-December.

After the classroom work ends, the curriculum switched to workshops.

Streetwise's target audience is job-seekers from the ages of 18 to 65, Johnson said.

While all are welcome to apply, including people who have criminal records, there is also a need for mentors and organizations willing to provide meeting space.

Getting the most our of your mentor

Dexter Perry, of Redford, is among the first cohort of mentees. The 2015 Western Michigan University grad heard of the program during a seminar at Focus: Hope in Detroit, where he is taking a 10-week class on information technology.

Perry is in the midst of a switch from business development, which he did for Staples for much of the last year, to IT.

Dexter Perry participates in the Streetwise Partners Program, which teaches 'soft skills' and network building to job-seekers.

Despite his resume, skills and drive to change careers, Perry understands he could benefit from guidance and a chance to expand his network.

"These are people who are well off and doing great work," the 27-year-old said. "There's a lot of opportunity to grow."

Medley advised mentees to realize the onus is on them to make the most of the relationship.

"The big mistake people make is, they assume it's a friendship," Medley said, noting she made the same mistake herself at one point. "And it can be, eventually. But your mentor is there to help guide you through obstacles. You have to initiate those conversations."