BENTON HARBOR — Letting the good times roll seems like a natural reflex in gambling – but it won’t help when it’s time to land the next job. 

For most workers, that time will come sooner than later, even with the area basking in a rosy employment picture, notes Rick VanIttersum, vocational training manager for the Benton Harbor-based nonprofit agency, Kinexus.

Figures released in May by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed Berrien County’s jobless rate at 3.8 percent; Van Buren County, 4.1 percent; and Cass County, 4.0 percent.

“Unemployment in the area is as low as it’s ever been – the 1990s or the 2000s was the last time that we had peak employment like this,” VanIttersum said.

By comparison, the statewide average is 3.9 percent, and 3.4 percent for the U.S.

But conditions change in a heartbeat, which is where VanIttersum steps in as the point-person between job seekers and training providers, “to break down those barriers, and get folks into training,” he said .

Kinexus Business Account Manager Paul Brohman deals with the employer side of the coin.

“I’m talking to businesses in Berrien County, asking, ‘What keeps you up at night?’ Sometimes, it’s talent-related, sometimes, it’s training-related,” he said.

Moving on up?

The biggest trend that VanIttersum has seen over the past year is driven by people trying to move into better jobs or careers but aren’t sure how to go about it.

Accessing job training resources can make a big difference if you know where to look, VanIttersum said.

“There’s temptation to go online, when there’s plenty of great training here, through our partners – Lake Michigan College, Southwestern Michigan College, the Van Buren Tech Center, and the Michigan Career and Technical Institute,” VanIttersum said. “There’s a lot of good opportunities locally to find a highly effective, low-cost educational opportunity.”

Those resources can help workers figure out what certification or training they need for a new job, or support services – like financial aid – to ease their transition, VanIttersum said.

Another barrier is underemployment, said Leslie Kellogg, provost and vice president of academic affairs at Lake Michigan College.

Underemployment takes many forms, from keeping a job that doesn’t match your education or skills, to patching various part-time jobs together out of economic necessity, Kellogg said.

It’s one reason why LMC has been changing its approach to academic advising over the past several years.

The goal is to reach students early in the advising process, and “help them build an educational pathway – not just here at LMC, but beyond,” she said.

That means asking, “‘What certificate programs and associate’s and bachelor’s degree programs fit your interests and aptitudes? How can Lake Michigan College help you?’” Kellogg said. “It’s a complex problem, and there are complex solutions.”

Keeping it competitive

For employers, finding and keeping top-tier talent remains their biggest concern, since “there’s probably more jobs than people looking for jobs,” Brohman said.

To stay competitive, more employers are trying to boost their current staff’s skills, “so they’re not job hopping from company to company,” he said.

“Everybody wants skilled labor,” Brohman said. “With this shortage in available talent, we’re working with them to look within: ‘How can we keep them happy? How can we improve as a company?’ A lot of times, that’s upskilling their employees.”

The state has responded by making more grant money available to help local employers achieve that goal.

One example is the Going Pro Talent Fund, which makes $37 million available per year to train employees for three months or less, for example.

“We serviced about 45 companies this year and brought back $2 million to the area,” Brohman said.

Amounts can range from $1,500, for one person, to $170,000 that one company spent to retrain its entire staff, he said.

“They were able to do so many people because they had internal trainers,” Brohman said. “With our partners, we’ll bring in LMC or SMC and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got these classroom training opportunities.’ Some companies do online training, if they’re in automation. It’s more flexible.”

Other examples included Three Oaks, where Kinexus used the funds to train brewery staff and help Forte Coffee, a new business in St. Joseph, hire 15 new employees, Brohman said.

“It helps with onboarding costs, so there’s different ways to use the grant,” he said.

The process of finding a job is also changing.

In March, Kinexus began experimenting with different types of hiring events in which job seekers can talk with several employers.

“Each company has five minutes to pitch, ‘Why you should work for us.’ They get to talk to 15 to 20 individuals who are actively job searching – then we open it to the general public,” Brohman said. “It’s come a long way since that traditional middle school dance, where both parties are awkwardly looking at each other.”

Finding that fit

Failing to find the right fit carries an expensive price tag, one that costs the economy about $160 billion per year, according to an estimate from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Kellogg notes.

It’s a figure that causes Kellogg to question if American society is doing enough to promote higher education’s benefits.

“In our advanced manufacturing programs, for example, students will take one or two classes and have an opportunity for employment – which is great and we encourage that,” Kellogg said. “But we encourage them to keep taking classes, even though they’ve got a job, because it won’t keep them employed during the next downturn.”

From LMC’s perspective, the best promotional method has been its various partnerships with Berrien County’s K-12 school districts and the Berrien Regional Service Agency.

One example is the Early/Middle College program, which allows local juniors and seniors to earn college credit while they’re still in high school.

“Our Early/Middle College programs raise awareness of the benefits of education and get students earlier on a path to a postsecondary degree,” Kellogg said. “We’ve seen significant enrollment in those programs as a result of those partnerships.”

The OMG factor

Still, as experts joke, there’s always the “OMG Factor” – as in, “Oh, my God, now what?”, spoken by workers who didn’t heed the advice to improve their skills before the next downturn strikes.

LMC’s response takes two forms.

“We talk about how much education they need to take their next step, and what’s the best way to achieve that?” Kellogg said. “We start with a certificate that gets you employed quickly, but (ask them), what’s their next step? Because downturns will happen again.”

It’s the reason that VanIttersum recommends putting accomplishments and skills at the top of a resume, after your name and contact information.

“Employers are looking five to 15 seconds at a resume – that’s what they say the average is,” VanIttersum said. “It could be less. Within that five to 15 seconds, you need to pack that resume with the (relevant) keywords, so you’re moving forward to that interview.”

But how you adapt also matters, especially in situations that the worker can’t control, like business closings and layoffs, VanIttersum said.

“A classic example would be, what’s happening with the retail market right now, with J.C. Penney and Target, and other places (like it) leaving the area,” he said.

Find a niche

Kinexus responded by writing grants to help affected employees find work in other industries, VanIttersum said.

One example is a $224,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Labor and the state’s Talent Investment Agency used to establish an apprenticeship program for certified nursing assistants.

That grant served two different needs, as VanIttersum sees it.

“If you’re in customer service, you have the people skills, and the soft skills. Health care is a natural fit for those (skills), but they’re (retail employees) lacking the licensing and specific vocational skills that a CNA may need to work in that profession,” he said.

In the end, though, the best defense is thinking ahead – by constantly upgrading your skills and figuring how your next job, or career, fits into that process, VanIttersum suggests.

“The more skills somebody has, the better. When you get times where the economy is tight, hard skills become more important. What do you know what to do? What skills do you bring to the table? That’s what the employer is going to look for.”