BENTON HARBOR — A Benton Harbor High School senior’s testimony in Lansing is helping bring attention to the Jobs for Michigan’s Graduates program, which was at one point on the chopping block as state officials go through the process of putting together the 2019-20 budget, which starts Oct. 1.

Senior Tamia Clay told members of the Michigan Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Talent and Economic Growth on April 16 that JMG put her on the right path as she prepares to graduate from high school. She said she used to be up late a lot and didn’t pay much attention to how she presented herself. That changed when she enrolled in specialist Corey Sterling’s JMG class her junior year.

“He taught me how important it was to show up on time, how important it was to present myself, and also how important it was to have soft skills in our lives,” said Clay, who was the only high school student among the four people testifying in Lansing. “Things like I’m doing now – speaking and talking in public. I learned these skills through JMG.”

On Thursday, Clay said that most students at Benton Harbor High School, including herself, are growing up with no father at home. Because of this, she said many students have to take on adult responsibilities at a young age, which can lead to anger, depression and thoughts of suicide. 

Senior Quincy Sulton, another JMG student, said Thursday that being in the JMG class his freshman and sophomore years helped him to win the Youth of the Year title in February 2018 at the Benton Harbor Boys and Girls Club, plus the the Michigan Youth of the Year title in March 2018.

“(JMG) teaches you interviewing skills, speaking skills and how to interact overall,” he said. “It teaches you to relax and be yourself.”

A week after listening to Clay’s testimony, subcommittee members recommended to the state Senate Appropriations Committee not only that JMG funding be restored, but that it be increased from $3.1 million this year to $4 million next year. On April 30, the Appropriations Committee passed its budget recommendation with the JMG funding intact. The budget is expected to be considered by the full state Senate the week of May 14.

“Jobs for Michigan’s Graduates is changing lives for at-risk youth with their wrap-around approach to education, employment and life skills,” said state Sen. Ken Horn, chair of the subcommittee on Talent and Economic Growth, in an email. 

In addition, he said JMG will help fill the talent gap Michigan may face over the next few years.

“While the budget is far from complete, it’s a good indication there is strong support in the Senate for this program to continue,” he stated.

JMG is modeled after Jobs for America’s Graduates, a state-based, national nonprofit organization started more than 30 years ago that helps at-risk youth stay in high school and to be successful in life.

JMG first started in 2008 with 76 students at Benton Harbor High School. Today, it is run by Youth Solutions through Kinexus and serves more than 3,000 youth at 79 sites throughout the state.

Sterling said JMG is more than a class – it’s family. After the students graduate, Sterling said he contacts them once a month for a year to make sure they are on track in college or on the job.

“It’s a program I wish they had when I was at this school,” said Sterling, a 1995 Benton Harbor High School graduate.

Sterling teaches life skills, such as how to interview for a job, live within a budget and write a resume. 

Sterling said he and the other JMG specialist at the high school, Danny Jennings, serve 110 students and have a waiting list of youth who want to be in the class. 

Executive Director Kristin Harrington of Youth Solutions told the members of the subcommittee in April that JMG is making a difference in the lives of thousands of at-risk youth.

“Each year, 11,000 Michigan youth drop out of the education system, ranking Michigan in the bottom 10 states nationally, and the numbers are equally dire for youth employment as Michigan ranks in the bottom 20 for youth ages 16 to 24,” she said. “Jobs for Michigan’s Graduates addresses this economic crisis head on, ensuring Michigan’s most at-risk youth graduate from high school and have the skills to succeed in college and the work place.”

She said that more than 90 percent of youth in the program for the past six years have graduated from high school, which exceeds the state average by 16 percent. In addition, she said more than 85 percent of the graduates have gone to post-secondary education or entered the workforce since 2013. 

“JMG utilizes a school-based model that is grounded in employability skills training and workplace exposure to provide at-risk students with the resources to prepare, compete and succeed for their transition to college and work,” she said. “Youth participants benefit from between 80 to 120 hours or more each year of services such as soft skill development, barrier removal, employment and post secondary planning.”

In addition, she said JMG works with more than 1,200 employers who hire JMG youth.

Tracy DiSanto, DTE Energy Manager of Workforce Planning and Development in the Detroit area, told the subcommittee members that there is a growing gap between jobs and skilled people to fill them.

“Over the next 10 years, DTE alone projects that approximately 50 percent of our workforce is eligible to retire and will exit the workforce,” she said. “And much like the balance of our state, we are projecting significant talent shortages in science, technology, engineering, math and skilled trades.”

She said DTE partners with JMG to develop a talent pipeline and to expose students to jobs in the energy field. 

Harrington said that JMG officials match the state funding with federal and private funding sources, even though it’s not required, because they believe in having a public-private partnership.

Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege