Training program preps Metro Detroiters for customer care jobs

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Detroit — DeBorah Harris has been seeking ways to re-enter the workforce in her 60s after recovering from health issues that prevented her from working full time for nearly a decade.

A few months ago, she heard about a new program offered through the nonprofit Generation USA and Goodwill Industries of Greater Detroit that trains residents for customer service positions.

DeBorah Harris answers a question during a recent Friday session in an employment training program led by the nonprofit Generation and Goodwill Industries of Greater Detroit.

Since November, Harris has joined a group of other job seekers in the five-week effort and is prepping for earning certification through the National Retail Federation once it ends. Thanks to that, the Detroit resident has hopes of being hired at a utility company or in a human resources department.

“It’s helping to build my confidence as well as self-esteem,” Harris after a recent session. “I think it’s really wonderful.”

Readying Metro Detroiters for new roles anchors the Generation/Goodwill customer care employment program, which launched with its first class of eligible applicants last month.

Three more cycles are planned in 2020, with the next round of recruiting expected in January, said Mike Wolking, Generation's Detroit program coordinator.

"We saw a good application response and we’re seeing really high engagement," he said, noting about 130 applicants sought a spot in the program.

It’s the first regional imprint for Generation, an independent nonprofit founded in 2014 to help connect unemployed people with employers. The group has programs across 14 cities serving more than 2,000 participants in areas such as technology, health care and skilled trades, representatives said.

Generation explored ways to become involved in the area and work with other partners to launch a training initiative similar to ones in other cities, Wolking said.

Conditions in the state and region offered a unique opportunity, officials said. 

A 2018 report from the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce found nearly half of working-age Detroiters lacked the foundation skills necessary to land a job or succeed at a career.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found Metro Detroit’s unemployment rate was slightly above the national average last year, while more than 90,000 customer service representatives were employed in Michigan.

“Today’s economic conditions can create a path for young people to join the workforce and build their futures — but first, it’s essential that they receive training that positions them for success,” said Sean Segal, chief operating officer at Generation USA. “That’s why we work closely with employers as well as community groups such as Goodwill to tailor our workforce development programs to meet the specific, current needs of local businesses and residents.”

The first Detroit course was opened to residents at least 18 years old who have earned a high school diploma or GED, can pass a background check and work in the United States, and don’t have a job or are consider underemployed. Applicants underwent phone and in-person interviews as well as an assessment, Wolking said.

Enrollees started attending sessions for about five hours a day, Monday through Friday at the Goodwill North End Career Center on East Grand Boulevard.

To help master skills such as calculating and memorization, instructors often use role-playing, Wolking said. “Part of that is to simulate as much as possible the conditions and scenarios the students are going to experience on the job. …We try to build up the skill pace of participants working with what they already know, give them new insights that will make them successful.”

Tyree Rumph works on resume building during the contact call agent class at Goodwill North End Career Center in Detroit on Nov. 15.

The scenarios also are designed to show customer care can involve a wide range of areas, from troubleshooting requests to helping visitors at hotels or stores.

“From the disconnected youth to the 50-plus population that are really having struggles with job placement or retention, they will recognize they have transferable skills that may still correlate,” said Niko Dawson, who directs Goodwill’s Flip the Script program and oversees the customer care effort.

Besides the hands-on support participants receive to build resumes and prepare for interviews, they can work with a mentor who checks on their progress up to a year after graduating.

“It’s vital because they feel they have someone close to them that they can talk to, can confide in and help them get through,” said Marcus Bynes, a Goodwill reintegration coordinator and mentor working with the attendees.

The initiative has been enlightening for Doretha Brown, who signed up soon after learning about it online.

The Detroit resident hopes to combine the experience with skills honed in previous stints in housekeeping, manufacturing, hospitality and retail.

"It helps you expand your thinking, be more creative in behavioral and mindset skills,” she said. “For anyone who’s interested in going back to school or getting an extra push to, then this it is absolutely a great opportunity.”     

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