Welfare To Work

May 2, 2002
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More and more West Michigan business leaders are sending messages to Washington these days.

The latest is Fred Keller, chairman and CEO of Cascade Engineering, who last week spoke to the Human Resources Subcommittee of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee during a meeting in Saginaw.

Keller’s message was simple: continue reforming the nation’s welfare system by introducing new incentives for employers, social service agencies and nonprofit groups to work together.

Keller knows from whence he speaks. Cascade’s successful Welfare-to-Work program recruits welfare clients for employment at the company, assisting newly hired employees with a combination of job training and ongoing social service support to help them successfully make the transition from welfare to career. Various support agencies, both public and private, operate on site at Cascade to help make the program successful.

Grand Rapids Business Journal has reported on the program, and its successes, a number of times.

Now, Keller is urging Congress to consider it as a potential model for use in crafting future reforms.

“We have demonstrated that, by working together in a systemic problem solving manner, we can effect a significant reduction not only in welfare rolls, but of the number of people actually in poverty,” Keller said.

And that just makes good business sense, as well as social sense, too.

“The organization actually is more energized,” Keller said of his firm, which supplies injection molding of systems and components to the automotive, container, furniture and consumer products industries. “People are more focused because they know that the organization values everyone there and we actually get more done and make more progress because people like to work for an organization that they know cares.”

Keller told House committee members that 22 percent of the 168 people that were added to Cascade’s entry-level payroll in its Grand Rapids facilities last year came from “generational” poverty.

“This raised our total to over 100 people now working in our factories who were formerly receiving welfare benefits,” he said. “Our monthly retention rates have gone from 60 percent two years ago to over 90 percent in recent months.”

If the retention rate alone isn’t enough to make employers sit up and take notice, then consider this statement. “As a result of this program, calculations by the FIA (Family Independence Agency) show that we have saved the State of Michigan $850,000 last year alone in reduced payments for assistance,” Keller said. “These savings will continue year after year, because we are committed to this program.”

Keller told the politicians that the Welfare-to-Work program can be adapted by just about any type of employer. The keys to success, he said, are an accepting organizational culture; education not only of new employees, but existing employees about what it means to be in poverty; and a strong system of support for people moving from poverty to careers.

“There are many critical elements, but having full-time social workers in our plants helping on a daily basis to keep our people working is essential,” he said. “By being integrated in our factories they are making the calls to agencies to keep them on the job and working with them to find solutions to typical barriers to continued employment such as child care, transportation, health care and emotional support. Placing the agency in the midst of our workforce and making it clear that the objective is to have fully productive employees is wonderfully simple, yet exquisitely effective.”

Sounds like a plan that should be easy for lawmakers to embrace.

**Sister publication Grand Rapids Family magazine, the most decorated family and parenting publication of its kind in the country, added another eight national honors recently from the Parenting Publications of America 2001 Editorial and Design Awards.

Included in that haul was the General Excellence Gold for parenting publications with circulations of 30,000 or less. Said the judges, “This magazine is delightful to look at and delightful to read. The content is a buffet. Grand Rapids Family Magazine contains a lot of great local copy and local art. Readers can see themselves in this magazine.”

Six more editorial awards and a design award rounded out the take.

Judges congratulated Editor Carole Valade Copenhaver for her “Editor’s Corner Notebook,” saying, “Rarely does an editor of a specialty publication exhibit such a mighty pen! Taking on the budget-cutting state and local officials is a tough task for a single column, but the editor’s fiery arguments and excellent reporting infuriate the reader and urge action. Readers can count on this editor’s column to entertain and inform.”

Valade Copenhaver, of course, also is editor of Grand Rapids Business Journal, where she regularly takes on budget-cutting state and local officials, among others

**Hopefully, GRMAYOR John Logie wasn’t misquoted during his State of the City address two years ago.

We are absolutely certain he said he would like to see the city referred to as “Silicon Rapids” in the very near future.

The technology sector’s nosedive and resulting economic fallout are making that moniker an impractical title. Likewise, furniture doesn’t have all that much of a future, either.

But never fear, Fred and Lena Meijer are here.

So instead of Silicon Rapids, we can now refer to the “former” Furniture City as Sculpture City.

**Lastly, if you’re going to protest something, at least know whom you’re protesting against.

A group meeting last Friday morning to rail against “big business” was told to meet in front of “Arthur Anderson” at 171 Monroe Ave. NW. We assume they meant Arthur Andersen, the accounting firm at the same address, and not some similarly named guy who happens to work in the same building.

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