WIRED Fuels Work Force Innovation

May 19, 2006
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ALLENDALE — Experimentation is always a risk, but Greg Northrup, the new president of the West Michigan Strategic Alliance, is confident a $15 million Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development grant will bring positive change to the area’s economy.

Northrup, joined by Emily Stover DeRocco, U.S. assistant secretary of labor for employment and training, Congressmen Pete Hoekstra and Vern Ehlers, and other key players, last month outlined the grant for members of the regional community at GrandValleyStateUniversity’s KirkhoffCenter

The grant, known as WIRED, is a part of President George W. Bush’s American Competitiveness Initiative. West Michigan is one of 13 regions across the nation chosen from 97 proposals to receive part of the $195 million allotted for the initiative. Michigan is the only state to receive two of the grants, with the other going to the Lansing-Flint-Saginaw area.

It is an investment in the area work force, Northrup said, which will not be a quick fix for employment issues but a way to ensure the future of the region’s economy and job.

“We’re the ones who are going to lead the way,” said Northrup, who was recently named president of the alliance after serving in an interim position since October.

Ehlers said while the grant is recognition of the need in Michigan, it is also evidence of good grant writing.

“It’s tough to get that kind of money out of the federal government these days,” Ehlers said. “We have a very tight budget.”

The grants were announced in November, with proposals due on Dec. 27, so there was only a short time for grant-writing. The recipients were announced on Feb. 1 and the process has been moving quickly along.

The West Michigan Strategic Alliance was setting the course for this grant long before it knew of its existence, Hoekstra said.

“The people of West Michigan came together in a very unique way,” Hoekstra said.

Though Northrup said he is not expecting to have firm results by the end of the first year, or even by the end of the three-year period of the grant, he does expect to set the foundation for work training and economic revival.

“I’m convinced we’re going to have more successes than failures,” Northrup said.

Hoekstra said that whether the programs funded by the grant initially fail or succeed, the process to improve the economy will have begun.

“Innovation will come out of this initially that will fail, and that is OK,” Hoekstra said. “It is well and fine for these folks to say, ‘You know, we tried something and we failed.’ We will have a series of successes and we will have moved this process forward. … That’s exactly what the process of innovation is about.”

Ehlers said while government is not the place to take risks, this grant is an avenue for risks to be taken in hope of finding innovation.

“The outcome is still going to be positive,” he said.

Stover DeRocco said West Michigan set itself apart during the application process because of the willing attitude to try new innovations.

“You are prepared to change these systems and the way we do business,” Stover DeRocco said. “The reason this project rose to the top of the competition was the really creative array of strategies they were ready to test and demonstrate.”

The alliance also recognized the importance of small business, Stover DeRocco said.

“Small business is the economic engine of the nation,” she said.

Stover DeRocco said though infrastructure such as roads, bridges and broadband access are important, it is the workers that count.

“Without the educated and skilled men and women to put those elements together for economic growth, they’re meaningless,” she said.

The United States has a lot of catching up to do with the education of those men and women, Stover DeRocco said, especially in math and sciences.

“We made the world a smaller place,” she said of the technology that Americans have contributed. “We’re going to do what America has always done: innovate, invent and remake the world all over again.”

Stover DeRocco said she is excited about the grant and working with West Michigan.

“I felt that energy as I walked in the room, and it was just overwhelming,” Stover DeRocco said. “Through WIRED, our team at the Department of Labor will be your partner, support and your cheerleader. We will also be your students. We know that we are going to learn a lot about what you are doing here in West Michigan.”

John Cleveland, vice president of consulting firm IRN, outlined the goals of the grant through the guiding principles of innovation, international and integration. The innovation aims to invest in performance improvements, compress cycle times and create customer pull, while the international aspect is meant to target outcomes against international benchmarks, create a global awareness and source from the best in the world. The integration principle aims to create a seamless system that includes K-16 education, work-force development and training, economic development and enterprise development, as well as integrating work and learning.

Cleveland said the innovation process will include many ideas funneled down to a few business cases, prototypes and eventually a launch of a product or service.

“We want innovations that are going to fundamentally change our systems,” he said. “Half of what we’re going to do is going to change in the process.”

The four categories of innovation that will be addressed by the grant are market intelligence, work-force system transformations, enterprise development and InnovationWORKS, a program in partnership with The Right Place Inc. to “catalyze, support and sustain strategies to support innovation in our regional economy.”

Northrup said the alliance’s collaborations during the past few years have set the groundwork for many future projects in the area.

“WIRED is just one example of what we were able to do, because we were already collaborating.”    

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