Addressing Four Barriers to the Workforce

The Workforce Development Working Group has identified four major barriers that keep adults out of the workforce: education and skills, child care, transportation, and substance use. Identifying these barriers was the result of narrowing down the eleven insights identified during their Persona Project interviews to key areas which hold the greatest impact.


After selecting the four barriers to focus on, the Working Group conducted research and prepared a set of recommendations to address each problem. The resulting reports were released to the CEO Council and published on our website as a series of one-pagers. These one-pagers outline the problems, leading practices, and strategies related to each barrier, as well as a persona story to give insight into how these barriers impact real people in the region. 


Education and Skills

For workers, a high school diploma is no longer sufficient to gain employment that provides a living wage. Today’s high-demand jobs require credentials, certificates, or degrees. However, many employers struggle to find the skilled talent they need to fill these positions. In West Michigan, 24% of job vacancies are considered “hard to fill,” meaning that they have been listed for 90 days or longer.


There are several obstacles keeping adults from gaining an education. 39% of households in the region fall under the ALICE survival budget threshold, which leaves them without the means to pay tuition or fees associated with training and certification. Many adults also lack basic literacy skills or a high school diploma or equivalent, which prevents them from entering a higher education program.


Recommendations to address the education and skills barrier include:

  • Increasing employer investment,
  • Improve effectiveness and investment in Adult Basic Education programs,
  • Utilizing apprenticeships,
  • Increasing state investment in post-secondary education and training, and
  • Building partnerships between employers, education institutions, and community-based organizations.


Child Care

The lack of affordable, quality child care keeps many parents out of the workforce. Strict regulations and difficulty attracting and retaining workers forces many childcare providers to close their businesses. Increasingly high costs, averaging $10,178 per child each year, are prohibitive to many families. Even those who qualify for Child Development and Care (CDC) subsidies receive low reimbursement, as Michigan’s subsidy ranks among the lowest in the nation.


Additionally, quality child care is critical for a child’s development. Without quality care, children may be developmentally disadvantaged before they even start kindergarten. This increases the cost to educate students and makes it more difficult for them to succeed in school beyond the early years.


Strategies to address the issue of child care include:

  • Increasing the eligibility threshold of working parents to 250% of the Federal Poverty Level,
  • Increasing the reimbursement rate to childcare providers, focusing on resources and services for children age 0-4,
  • Streamlining the regulatory framework, and
  • Increasing training and outreach to small, home-based providers.



Many adults do not have a reliable, affordable way to get to work. The average monthly cost to own a vehicle is $409, which is out-of-reach for many living under the ALICE survival budget. For an individual earning $10.50 per hour, a single flat tire could cost an entire day’s pay. Still other adults do not have a valid driver’s license, forcing them to rely on other forms of transportation or drive illegally.


Public transportation is an affordable option but is not universally available in West Michigan. Even in communities with a bus system available, many businesses are located a mile or more away from the end of a route. Walking or biking the remaining distance may be hazardous due to inadequate lighting, lack of a sidewalk, or weather conditions.


Hope Network’s Wheels to Work program offers a model that bridges these transportation gaps for workers and employers. Through a hub-based transit program, employees can share the cost of transportation with their employers. The reliable and affordable bus service operates 7 days a week, 365 days a year and covers all three shifts. It is currently limited to Grand Rapids, but could be expanded or replicated to include all of West Michigan. 


Wheels to Work’s transportation model can be expanded by:

  • Connecting Kent County employers with Hope Network to discuss the program,
  • Partnering with Hope Network to identify likely areas of expansion,
  • Enlisting 5 to 10 employers to pilot and assess a program modeled after Wheels to Work.


Substance Use

Many West Michigan employers cite substance use as a contributing factor to their difficulty in finding talent. Often, companies’ drug testing policies in addition to substance use have a negative impact on labor force participation. Recreational users may not apply to companies known to conduct pre-employment drug screening, and productive employees may be terminated unnecessarily.


Drug testing policies are often outdated, unreliable, or unnecessary. Many have not been updated according to shifting laws and attitudes on drug use, particularly marijuana. The most common testing methods are predictable, and detection is easy to avoid. Finally, drug testing may be unnecessary because most tests cannot indicate whether a person is affected at work, only that traces of a substance are present in the body.


Employers should ask the following questions to determine whether their drug testing policies are effective:

  • Why do we conduct drug tests? Why should we continue?
  • What actions do we take after a test comes back positive?
  • When do we conduct tests, and why?
  • Which drugs should we test for?
  • Who do we ask to take a drug test?
  • What testing method(s) should we use?
  • How should our drug testing policies respond to the Michigan Medical Marihuana Program? How would they respond to legalization of recreational use?
  • What is our substance use policy regarding alcohol?



For more information, including a persona narrative on each barrier, read the one-pagers on Education and Skills, Child Care, Transportation, and Substance Use

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