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The Simple Power of a $12-an-Hour Job

A mock interview, a pair of glasses and a Michigan workforce program help a 25-year-old secure his first-ever job. Finally, he says, “I wasn’t a burden on anyone. I felt useful, and I had a purpose for the first time in my life.”

 Travis Butler at work at Detroit Chassis. He gaines his position through the Community Ventures program, part of the  Michigan Economic Development Corp.
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Travis Butler
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Travis Butler
Feb. 4, 2014, 11:55 p.m.

Dur­ing the re­ces­sion, Trav­is But­ler, 25, was among the thou­sands of black men in the De­troit area un­able to find a job — un­til he learned of Com­munity Ven­tures, a work­force de­vel­op­ment pro­gram spear­headed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Re­pub­lic­an in of­fice since Janu­ary 2011.

Since its launch in the au­tumn of 2012, the pro­gram, as­so­ci­ated with the work­force de­vel­op­ment ini­ti­at­ive Michigan Works, has helped more than 1,200 Michigan res­id­ents se­cure a job with one of 75 par­ti­cip­at­ing em­ploy­ers.

Earli­er this month But­ler passed his one-year an­niversary as a line work­er for De­troit Chassis, earn­ing $12 an hour, but, more im­port­antly, giv­ing him a sense of con­fid­ence and op­tim­ism about his fu­ture. Earli­er, his ex­per­i­ence was doc­u­mented in a video.

This in­ter­view, con­duc­ted by Jody Bran­non, has been ed­ited for length and clar­ity.

Two years ago I was un­em­ployed, look­ing for work every day. And I was in the pro­cess of mov­ing and liv­ing with my mom. I was tak­ing classes at Wayne County Com­munity Col­lege, but I took a break from that be­cause I needed money. I was pretty much look­ing for any­thing — [a job in] re­tail or fact­ory-like work but will­ing to take any­thing at an entry level. I had two in­ter­views over the course of a year, and I prob­ably sub­mit­ted maybe 50 ap­plic­a­tions to dif­fer­ent places. The in­ter­views [at Mc­Don­ald’s and a work-study job at the WC­CC lib­rary] went well — I thought they went well — but they didn’t hire me.

Trav­is But­ler works at De­troit Chassis. (Michigan Eco­nom­ic De­vel­op­ment Corp.)When I moved to a new house with my moth­er, my new neigh­bor re­ferred me to Michigan Works. So I en­rolled and star­ted go­ing there, and they helped me get the job at De­troit Chassis. They helped me cre­ate a re­sume and im­prove upon it, and [con­duc­ted] mock in­ter­views. It helped me a great deal. In the Chassis in­ter­view, I looked the in­ter­view­er in the eye, which I didn’t do in the pre­vi­ous in­ter­views. I was more dir­ect, and I did a bet­ter job in ex­plain­ing my re­sume.

Cheryl San­ford of Michigan Works was ex­tremely help­ful in [me] be­com­ing em­ployed and get­ting in­form­a­tion for things I needed, like an op­to­met­rist who was provid­ing free ex­ams and get­ting money to buy glasses. I’d nev­er had glasses be­fore. Not hav­ing glasses hindered me. It changed my life for the bet­ter, much more than I thought it would. I can see a lot bet­ter, and it helps me in my job.

It’s been in­ter­est­ing and fun, in­form­a­tion­al and edu­ca­tion­al even. I’ve learned some vo­ca­tion­al skills. It’s been more than just the money. it’s been a very pos­it­ive ex­per­i­ence.

After I star­ted work­ing here at De­troit Chassis, my su­per­i­ors made me feel ap­pre­ci­ated. I felt I was con­trib­ut­ing and provid­ing value to the com­pany, and I wasn’t a bur­den on any­one. I felt use­ful, and I had a pur­pose for the first time in my life. Be­fore I got hired, I felt like a bur­den on my fam­ily, be­ing un­em­ployed and maybe a bur­den on the state. I didn’t feel that any­more after I got hired and was pay­ing taxes. I didn’t feel like a bur­den to so­ci­ety and that has im­proved my self es­teem. So that was a big deal for me. My self es­teem wasn’t too high be­fore I was hired.

I give 10 per­cent of my in­come to a char­ity that I thought I might have to go to be­fore I was hired. They’re called Cross­roads of Michigan. And I’ve been able to help out my fam­ily, my moth­er, and I’m pay­ing rent, so it makes me feel a lot bet­ter.

I’ve been able to buy new clothes, get my hair cut and keep it cut — things I wasn’t able to do when I was un­em­ployed. My qual­ity of life is im­proved. I’ve been able to get a phone and a phone num­ber which was [a prob­lem] when I was look­ing for work

I def­in­itely want to go back [to school], ba­sic­ally as fast as pos­sible. I’m work­ing with a so­cial work­er on a sched­ule. I want to con­tin­ue work­ing here while I go to school in com­puter sci­ence. It’s something that’s use­ful, and I know how im­port­ant it is to the na­tion, but I’ve al­ways been in­ter­ested in it.

When I was on my way to work this morn­ing [he rises at 4 a.m. to catch two or three buses to get to work by 7], I was listen­ing to NPR and they were talk­ing about how few jobs were ad­ded in the last quarter and how dif­fi­cult it is for people to find work even now. In hear­ing about people who are in­ter­view­ing and how dif­fi­cult it was to find work, right now and how long they’d been out of work and while walk­ing to work I felt very lucky.

I’ve been brag­ging about [my job], so much so that some people are jeal­ous. My sib­lings have told me they’re proud of me. That makes me feel good. This past Christ­mas I was able to give my little broth­er a gift [a Kindle Fire HD], and that felt pretty good.

The plan was that I would con­tin­ue work­ing here and re-en­roll at Wayne Com­munity Col­lege and pur­sue an as­so­ci­ate’s de­gree in ap­plied sci­ence. Then, when I gradu­ate there, en­roll at a uni­versity, maybe Wayne State, and pur­sue a bach­el­or’s in com­puter sci­ence and then maybe a mas­ter’s and start out my own com­pany, spe­cific­ally a video game com­pany — a tech com­pany.

If everything I was dream­ing about came true, I would have a phil­an­throp­ic arm in the com­pany that would fo­cus on a pro­gram to get Afric­an-Amer­ic­an men and wo­men in­to the tech in­dustry. I don’t think they are enough of them — enough of us in the tech in­dustry — and I want to get more of them in it. I be­lieve that’s a way out of poverty.

Be­fore I star­ted at De­troit Chassis, I wanted to work for a tech com­pany but after work­ing here and be­ing in­ter­viewed by the CEO [Mi­chael Gu­thrie] and get­ting to know him, it’d rather start a com­pany. It’s pos­sible for an Afric­an Amer­ic­an to run a suc­cess­ful busi­ness and run it prop­erly. I’ve now seen that it’s been done and maybe I can, too.

He’s been like a ment­or to me — Mr. Gu­thrie — and he’s just been in­cred­ible, a really nice guy, and he’s been very kind and gen­er­ous and he’s been help­ing me look for an apart­ment. I haven’t had a role mod­el be­fore. None. That’s what Mike does. He gives back to the as­so­ci­ates.

[Work­ing here] makes me in­de­pend­ent. I like the fact that I didn’t have to bor­row money from any­one. so it’s helped me feel a great deal more in­de­pend­ent than I have ever felt be­fore.

The Next Amer­ica wel­comes first-per­son per­spect­ives from act­iv­ists, thought lead­ers and people rep­res­ent­at­ive of a di­verse na­tion. Email us. Also, please fol­low us on Twit­ter and Face­book.

Jody Brannon contributed to this article.
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