A lifelong learner

Lily Brewer is the incoming executive director of Michigan Works. She joined the job-seeking organization 20 years ago, when she herself was in need of employment.

BENTON HARBOR — Lily Brewer wants to help others the way she was helped 20 years ago.

As the incoming executive director of Michigan Works -- a position she officially takes July 1 -- Brewer was once unemployed and looking for work.

The Niles resident sought help through Michigan Works in 1999 and ended up taking an entry-level position there.

Twenty years later, she's still with the organization.

Brewer sat down with Herald-Palladium Staff Writer Tony Wittkowski to discuss her new role and what the past 20 years have meant to her.

What do you do for Michigan Works?

I am currently operating as a senior director of talent. My responsibilities are oversight and execution of all the Michigan Works services across our tri-county area.

How did you end up at Michigan Works?

I worked at a daycare and it closed down. It was very seasonal, so I walked into a Michigan Works office in Paw Paw as a participant. I needed help to file for unemployment and to find work. That was my first encounter with the system. It was a new process for me. It was very nerve-wracking.

My goal was to finish my degree here and go to college, but nothing really fell into place. I found myself very scattered and unemployed. At the time there was an opening at the Michigan Works South Haven office. They needed a secretary and they get a lot of bilingual people in the office. I got the position and that's how my career here began.

What happened next?

I worked that role for two or three years. I moved to the Dowagiac office when there was an opening because it was closer to where I lived. In 2001, I applied for a case manager position and got that. I did that for four years and served as a liaison for that office. When the manager position became available it was a natural fit for me to move.

You essentially had on-the-job training.

Yes. Looking back they were probably grooming me someone without me even knowing it. I was a manager there until 2012. I then transferred to the Benton Harbor location to do a role that I hated at the time, but was really good for me. That was performance management.

At first it was a little bit of a struggle. There was a lot of learning and I would say that's been a huge piece of my success. Learning can be uncomfortable. It's part of growing and evolving. But I like a challenge and consider myself to be a lifelong learner. I then became director of talent, but I only did that for a very short period of time. The senior director (position) became available and the scope became bigger.

Going back to 1999 when you became a receptionist, did you see this turning into something bigger, or did you see this as just another stop?

I come from a family where I saw my parents have jobs and stayed there. I think part of me knew in the back of my mind that this was a long-term career for me. But I didn't really know it. I saw it as a possibility.

But around 2006 after I had been here for awhile, Todd Gustafson, our current president and CEO, walked in and we had a brief interview.

I think I may have said "I think I want your job someday."

That's pretty gutsy.

You know looking back at it, it was kind of bold. But I think he's always respected that.

What do you like most about working here?

I love the impact that we have on people. We touch people in so many different ways because they don't always come back to tell you. One of my favorite things that happened to me in my case management years was one specific person.

There was a younger individual who came back a lot. One day I stopped seeing her and I wondered what happened to her. Fast forward two or three years later and I'm in Edwardsburg going through the McDonald's drive-thru. Low and behold I see the participant handing me my drink.

She says to me "You probably don't remember me." And I knew the face. She introduced herself and said she is now the regional manager for McDonald's in several areas. She thanked me for everything that I did. I get choked up because that's why we do this work. The organization exists for that purpose.

For me, that's why I get up in the morning.

Tell me about the transition to your new position.

Well, I'm not replacing anyone. This is a new role. Michigan Works will have an executive director that leads the efforts in the community. I'm very excited about the opportunity. It is the natural next step for me.

What's your role as executive director going to be?

I will be advocating for how the system operates and the impact that the system will have on our local communities. I'll be doing a lot of the same oversight and ensuring our programs are successful.

Where do you see yourself in the next five to 10 years?

I hope to be sitting as the CEO of Kinexus Group. And that's probably another bold statement (laughs). I did share it with (Gustafson) in my interview, so I think he's been warned a couple times.

Contact: twittkowski@TheHP.com, 932-0358, Twitter: @TonyWittkowski