Train and Retain: Going PRO funds help companies get back on track

At Crystal Mountain, delivering a good customer service experience to guests is paramount.

So, the resort is putting a nearly $27,000 employee training grant from the state toward that commitment.

Crystal Mountain is a first-time recipient of funds from the state’s Going PRO Talent Fund – a statewide program that awards grants to help businesses train, develop and retain current and newly hired employees.

In the program’s latest round, announced in January, 42 northwest Michigan employers in a variety of industries shared nearly $1.3 million out of $39 million awarded statewide.

It was a welcome return for the popular program, after 2020 funding was vetoed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated budget shortfalls.

Since the program’s 2014 launch, “(w)e’ve trained a lot of people,” said Jayne Lindblom, who recently retired as business services regional director at Northwest Michigan Works! Lindblom spoke with Traverse City Business News prior to her April retirement.

Talent needs are pronounced, whether in healthcare, services, manufacturing or other industries, she said.

Northwest Michigan Works! helps employers assess talent skill gaps and suitable training providers. They also assist employers in applying to Going PRO, which is operated by the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity.

“We work very closely with the employers and help them with their rationale, so that they have a strong application,” Lindblom said.

All employers locally that submitted 2021 applications were awarded the requested funds, which can include up to $1,500 per person for classroom/customized training, up to $1,500 for each new employee to receive on-the-job training, and up to $3,000 per person for first-year apprentices in an employers’ U.S. Department of Labor-registered apprenticeship.

Crystal Mountain’s call center.

At Thompsonville’s Crystal Mountain, training will take place in October for two groups central to the resort’s operations: reservations and front desk employees. The latter are on the front lines responding to guests and meeting needs, while reservations call center teams utilize sales skills important to determining what a prospective customer is looking for and securing their business.

“Developing a good customer service experience is integral to the success of our business as it generates loyalty, produces repeat business and referrals for new customers,” said Sammie Lukaskiewicz, Crystals’ vice president of marketing and communications.

Securing repeat customers is a hallmark of Crystal’s aim, Lukaskiewicz said.

“People can go anywhere in the world today,” she said. “It’s the experience and interaction that they have with the staff, that help them to return, and to return again and again.”

Onsite classroom and on-the-job training will be provided to about 20 employees by Master Connection Associates, a California-based firm specializing in customer service, sales and leadership training and consulting.

The reservation sales training covers areas that include developing questioning skills to uncover customers’ needs, converting calls to confirmed sales, and helping reservations agents be salespeople with goals. While the training can produce results that benefit the resort’s bottom line, it’s also important to Crystal Mountain to give call center employees the opportunity to earn more income based on skills they develop and to provide employees with career advancement opportunities, Lukaskiewicz said.

“Being able to invest in employees for upskilling, those soft and hard skills, that’s invaluable right now,” she said.

Traverse City-based Venturi is putting Going PRO training money toward a Lean improvement path it started down about two years ago, encouraging employees throughout the consumer products company to identify and eliminate waste from processes and incorporate continuous improvement. The pandemic and a changing business landscape heightened the need for employees to be trained in Lean concepts and practices, said Chris DeVol, director of operations.

Venturi manufactures and distributes products ranging from home and bath accessories to reusable, high-filtration cigarette filters. Its sales have been both in brick and mortar retailers and online channels, but the pandemic accelerated ecommerce, bringing distribution and supply-chain impacts and the need for detailed analytics, heightened efficiency, nimble problem-solving and adaptation to change.

“The pace of e-commerce is very, very fast, and if you want to be successful, you have to be agile,” DeVol said. “We’ve been on a pretty steady growth trend. And one of the challenges that we have is that there’s been a rapid shift toward online sales.”

He said Lean training will help employees “think strategically and think about what adds value and doesn’t add value,” while boosting their skills and increasing overall productivity.

Nineteen of the company’s 22 employees, in operations including marketing, sales, customer service, product development and distribution, are participating in training supported by Venturi’s $24,050 Going PRO grant.

DeVol said the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center’s Traverse City office will provide most of the Lean training, in areas such as problem solving, warehouse and office processes, and project and document management.

Other training includes a women in leadership online course through Cornell University, an online business analytics course through Harvard Business School, digital marketing courses, and leadership/workplace conflict management offerings through ZingTrain, which is part of the Ann Arbor-based Zingerman’s Community of Businesses. ZingTrain helps organizations improve bottom-line results through training on business-related topics like customer service, leadership, training and visioning.

DeVol plans to schedule employee “lunch and learns” after training completes to discuss if it was helpful and share what was learned. And, he said, “put this right to use with practical, real-world challenges that we’re facing at Venturi.”

He said the Going PRO fund “is definitely something that is worthwhile for other small businesses in the area to look into.”

At press time, the program’s next round of funding remained uncertain, amid legislative budget deliberations. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s budget recommendation for the upcoming fiscal year called for a $15 million increase in Going PRO.

In 2021, the average award in northwest Michigan was $30,683. Employers are using funds to train 723 existing employees and 250 new hires, including 53 apprentices. Apprenticeships saw increased interest from employers in the recent round, said Lindblom at Northwest Michigan Works!

Among them was Cordia Senior Living at Grand Traverse Commons, which is using apprenticeships to boost its ranks of certified nursing assistants (CNAs) at the independent and assisted living community.

Cordia Wellness Assistants Brooke Harris and Maddy Porter.

Cordia in the past required all those it hires as “wellness assistants” – or  personal caregivers – to be CNAs, but amid short supply for qualified health care workers “we started to struggle with recruiting the workers that we needed,” said Charlotte Rykse, director of club wellness.

CNAs at Cordia perform a wide range of tasks, including assisting with personal care, serving as escorts, participating in programming and providing companionship, taking vital signs and helping with medication supervision.

To address the staffing challenge, Cordia in 2019 developed a Department of Labor-registered CNA apprenticeship program in partnership with Northwest Michigan Works! The first apprentice started in 2020 and has completed the program and is about take her state certification exam; Cordia will use its $6,000 Going PRO grant to add more apprentices, initially training one new hire and two current employees.

Rykse said Cordia saw the Going PRO funds as an opportunity to not only have skilled employees trained to CNA requirements and Cordia’s standards of care, but also to provide staff with a path to advance their careers and knowledge.

“We really value our staff. We know that they are our number one resource,” Rykse said. “We really want people when they work here, if they leave here, to be a more effective employee no matter where they go.”

Northern Michigan Health Training School in Traverse City provides the CNA classroom training course, and apprentices complete on-the-job training at Cordia. Apprentices also receive an orientation session on Cordia’s mission, core values and history, delivered by Cordia founder and CEO Karen Anderson, and they take an interpersonal communication online course through Central Michigan University.

The outcome benefits Cordia and the seniors it serves, employees and the community, Rykse said.

“Offering our employees this chance to learn, develop skills and become more marketable in the workplace, it benefits our business because they then can deliver the consistent care that we strive for,” she said. “But we’re ultimately benefiting the health care community, because we’re delivering more workers skilled in their trade.”

Amy Lane is a freelance journalist and former reporter for Crain’s Detroit Business, where she covered business, state government, energy and utilities for nearly 25 years.