Overcoming barriers for work

Kinexus launched a program known as The LINK, which helps employees overcome barriers like transportation and housing.

BENTON HARBOR — There are many things employees take for granted on an everyday basis.

Being able to drive to work. Having a place to sleep at the end of the day. Paying one’s utility bills on time.

For some employees in Southwest Michigan, this can be an everyday struggle that impedes them from keeping a job.

That’s where Kinexus’ business resource network known as The LINK comes into play.

The LINK is a demand-driven model that focuses on sustainable solutions and engages employees in workforce services.

The program provides businesses and their employees with weekly onsite support services through a success coach and intense case management. The coach assesses any barriers and provides help and relief so an employee isn’t forced to look elsewhere for another job.

The LINK was launched in Southwest Michigan in September 2016.

Erin Sunlin, a sector relations coordinator with Kinexus, said transportation is the No. 1 barrier success coaches come across.

“With no transportation, it’s hard to get to work for some and keep employment,” Sunlin said. “I would say about half the people we help have trouble getting to and from work.”

Housing tends to be another problem that arises among employees who seek help through The LINK. This could include eviction notices, not paying rent on time and some living out of a vehicle.

Other barriers range from health issues, child care and paying for utilities.

“The premise (of the program) is that if you are keeping these folks employed, you are benefiting the company,” Sunlin said. “It’s difficult when an employee is forced to leave because of these barriers. It takes an estimated $3,500 to replace an employee.”

This makes retaining talent key for businesses.

The program was born from a similar model in the Grand Rapids region, known as The Source.

One of the challenges was finding the right people to be success coaches. According to Sunlin, it takes a special amount of attributes and sources to get the job done.

“You need a really good knowledge of resources in the area,” she said. “You need to be able to speak to people well and keep that confidentiality.”

When the program began two years ago, there was one success coach. Now the program can support three success coaches who divide up member companies.

Jennifer Unger serves as a success coach and remains a family independence specialist with the Department of Health and Human Services.

“The main thing is being onsite to talk directly with employees,” Unger said. “Being able to have that face-to-face time alleviates any mistrust. There’s no judgment. We want people to be comfortable to tell us what their barriers are.”

One of the first things the program does is teach employees how to budget. Sunlin said about 90 percent of participants have never completed a financial budget.

The program currently serves 15 businesses in Southwest Michigan, which are from the manufacturing and health care job sectors. The program’s reach includes Berrien, Cass and Van Buren counties.

One of the businesses that takes advantage of The LINK’s services is Kruger Plastics.

Brian Fee, senior plant manager at Kruger Plastics, said his company and its participating employees have greatly benefited from the program.

“It’s really confidential. I’m mostly hands-off,” Fee said. “One of the things we’ll continue to do is the leadership trainings.”

Unger said The LINK has helped Kruger Plastics employees – at both the Bridgman and Galien locations – from food assistance to budget counseling services.

Since it was launched in 2016, The LINK has assisted more than 500 employees with roughly 850 barriers.

About 77 percent of these employees have been retained by their employers. According to Kinexus, this resulted in a return of investment of more than 800 percent when calculated through membership dues.

The LINK is a member-based model, which means it is funded through a combination of membership dues and grants. Some of the grants have come from the Department of Health and Human Services and United Way.

Sunlin said she would like to see the program expand in the area to some of the smaller businesses.

“Almost all of our members are some of the bigger businesses,” she said. “I think there are a lot more people who can benefit from this.”

Those who are interested in learning more about The Link can contact Sunlin at SunlinE@Kinexus.org.

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