WSW: 'Momentum' Helps Ex-Offenders, Others With Barriers, Find Jobs

Sep 13, 2017

This fall, the Urban Alliance Technical Training Center is scheduled to open in a renovated building in Parchment, where skill-based academies will be offered as part of the Momentum Urban Employment Initiative.
Credit Courtesy Photo | Urban Alliance

There's a grassroots group in Kalamazoo's Edison Neighborhood gaining national attention for its success finding employment for harder-to-place job seekers, like ex-offenders, those with disabilities and single mothers re-entering the workforce. Momentum Urban Employment Initiative was founded four years ago this October. Ninety-three percent of its participants get full-time jobs, officials say. 


From left are Luke Kujacznski, director of Urban Alliance, and Brian Parsons, director of the Alliance's Momentum Urban Employment Initiative.
Credit Earlene McMichael | WMUK

On Thursday's WestSouthwest news and public-affairs program, Momentum Director Brian Parsons says the program places about 120 people into jobs annually, and it has a waiting list of up to triple that number of unemployed individuals hoping to be trained.

"We have individuals who have had absolutely no success in getting employment for months and months prior to coming to us. They're at the end of their rope," says Parsons, who notes that Momentum graduates are averaging starting hourly wages of $11.96.

"They're willing to commit to whatever will work."

When I first started, the No. 1 question I was asked was, 'Are you working with people with criminal backgrounds?' Now the No. 1 question that we get is, 'When’s your next class graduating?' - Director, Urban Alliance

Individuals that Momentum work with must undergo its free six-week training in employability and life skills; they must have a minimum of two "active barriers" to employment to be accepted into the program, Parsons says. Upon graduation, graduates are virtually guaranteed an interview with one of 53 Kalamazoo area employers belonging to the program's Business Network, he adds.

The training is offered 10 times a year to groups of 12 students per session. Officials say it costs about $3,000 to train a student. The program operates on an annual budget of $345,000 from private donations and grants. 

Momentum also leads three-to-four-week, skill-based academies in such areas as manufacturing through partnerships with employers and colleges, again at no charge to its students, Parsons says. Culinary academies have been held as well. 

Every time somebody with a criminal background or a substance abuse past or that's coming out of homeless goes into a job and performs excellent, it helps that employer rethink what an ideal employee was

The Momentum Urban Employment Initiative is a division of the Urban Alliance community outreach organization, based at 1009 E. Stockbridge Ave. in Kalamazoo.

The alliance is in the midst of a $2.4 million campaign to open the Urban Alliance Technical Training Center this fall in a building it is renovating in Parchment.

The center will have 18,000 square feet of office and classroom space, and 20,000 square feet of warehouse space. Academies will be offered there, including a new inventory and supply chain management one with Western Michigan University. 

Urban Alliance views manufacturing as a growth area.

"When you look at skilled trades, the average (workers') age in America is 57 years old," Parsons says. "That means you’re going to have a huge turnover in the next few years, and nobody’s pushing people in that direction."

Some manufacturing jobs can pay as well as ones requiring college degrees, he says.

According to Parsons, 90 percent of Momentum graduates are still on the job 90 days after placement, which he says is a good indicator that they'll stick around for awhile.

Urban Alliance Director Luke Kujacznski says statistics like these are leading to a shift in thinking among some Kalamazoo area employers.

"When I first started with this program, the No. 1 question I was asked was, 'Are you working with people with criminal backgrounds?,' and we’d have to talk through that process and say that, for a lot of individuals, that was a long time ago," he says. "You can’t be judged for the worst day of your life.

"Now the No. 1 question that we get is, 'When’s your next class graduating?' "

Kujacznski credits the Momentum Urban Employment Initiative students with the change.

"I was telling the class, 'We didn’t do that change – you did that change.... Every time somebody with a criminal background or a substance abuse past or that’s coming out of homeless goes into a job and performs excellent, it helps that employer rethink what an ideal employee was.' "

Kujacznski says his organization is getting calls from as far away as Chicago and Atlanta wanting to implement the Momentum model, so it's developing training materials to share with other communities. Those are almost done.