helping hand

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published on May 25, 2023 - 11:24 AM
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It is a wise business owner who recognizes that a company’s success is largely due to its employees.

And all employers have firsthand knowledge of the difficulty in keeping and finding qualified workers.

Recognizing that — along with the life challenges their workers may be facing that could hinder job performance — a handful of local manufacturers are teaming up to find ways to better care for their employees outside the workplace.

‘The Source’ of inspiration

Mark Peters, CEO of Michigan-based producer of bulk butter products Butterball Farms, Inc., was last year’s keynote speaker for the San Joaquin Valley Manufacturing Alliance’s Valley Made Manufacturing Summit in Fresno.

The theme for last year’s summit was “The Power of Unity,” which highlighted the importance of manufacturers, educators and local organizations working together to better the community.

In 2003, several manufacturers in Grand Rapids, Michigan, formed a group called “The Source.” Spearheaded by Peters, they joined together to discuss childcare issues in the workplace and how solutions could help productivity and curb turnover.

These efforts eventually expanded to finding resources and solutions for employees on issues ranging from housing, transportation, training and financial counseling.

Big industry, big heart

Local manufacturers were inspired to create an employer-led, startup nonprofit called Heartland Compass, modeled after The Source to provide resources to workers in the local industry.

Heartland Compass CEO Kendra Devejian has two decades of experience in community organizations, including as executive director for First 5 Fresno County. She also served as a senior community engagement manager for national community health network and software platform Unite Us.

Just launched this January, Heartland Compass is an effort born out of the Fresno Business Council, spearheaded by the CEOs of local manufacturing companies on the council.

“Our mission is to help employees navigate life’s challenges and opportunities,” Devejian said.

Seeking solutions

Devejian said she recently helped a worker who lives in Chowchilla who commutes to Fresno for work. Car troubles threatened that arrange. He didn’t have enough money for repairs.

She helped him find time to call around for quotes during the work week. She also referred him to available programs offering financial assistance for vehicle repairs.

Devejian said that when Heartland Compass founding members are asked why they are investing in this, they all say they care about their employees as well as their families, who are also eligible for help.

Another worker was connected to substance abuse resources to help with their child’s addiction, Devejian said.

The program also seeks to combat the high cost of turnover with higher retainment levels. Heartland Compass members aim to remove the barriers in the way of employees showing up to work focused. They also want to help them excel in their careers and in life.

Devejian mentioned another worker who received help in gaining citizenship and starting the naturalization process for his wife.

A deep roster

Discussions between the Fresno Business Council and Peters to bring something like The Source to the Fresno area began nearly two years ago, with an initial six employers committed to getting it started. A seventh joined later.

The current members of Heartland Compass are Betts Co., JD Food/Certified Meat Products, U.S. Cold Storage, Wawona Frozen Foods, Affinity Truck Center, Total Concept Enterprises and Career Nexus.

Since Heartland Compass is in the beginning stages, Devejian said they want to put their infrastructure in place and build capacity to help companies and workers before they put themselves out there.

“This is really business led and business funded,” Devejian said. “This speaks a lot to the employers that want to make the investment to provide this resource to their employees and see it as an additional draw as well.”

Hope springs eternal

Mike Betts, CEO of Fresno-based spring manufacturer and truck part supplier Betts Co., said the company has been studying the work in Grand Rapids through the Fresno Business Council for the last five years.

Betts said there are many situations employees go through that they prefer not to share with their employer.

Those that work with employees seeking assistance are called “Resource Navigators.”

“What’s discussed with the employee and the navigator is held in confidence,” Betts said. “The navigator works with the employee to identify what the issues are and come up with solutions that help the employee address those issues and make their job experience even better.”

Betts said there are resource navigators for challenges ranging from car trouble, marital strife, childcare need and more.

To roll this out, Betts said the company will have meetings to make workers aware of Heartland Compass’s resources and encourage them to utilize them.

Betts Co. will receive reports on how many people are using the program and what issues workers are facing, but no mention of who receives the assistance.

Betts said even though Heartland Compass was just launched, there are already success stories to share with other companies that might want to get involved.

“With the pandemic, all life’s issues, it being tough to raise kids, two parents working — this is something that many of our companies here feel is the right thing to do for our employees,” Betts said.

Food for thoughtfulness

Food Distributor JD Food/ Certified Meat Products in Fresno is one of the companies spearheading the launch of Heartland Compass.

Mark Ford, CEO of JD Food, said that when discussions began, executives asked themselves what issues keep them up at night. Top of the list was the health of their employees and the ability to retain and attract good team members.

Ford said he and other manufacturing leaders saw the success The Source had in Michigan, and they wanted to create that here through Heartland Compass.

As an employer, he has seen workers face challenges they didn’t expect and didn’t know how to respond to.

“When they get to ‘I have no idea what to do’ — a lot of them end up not being there emotionally, or even leave their job. They end up not being able to function or even physically get to work,” Ford said.

Ford believes such behavior is really someone crying out for help and guidance.

People ultimately stay at their jobs because they feel connected to the company, Ford said. When they see their employer genuinely reaching out to help overcome whatever barrier is in their way, they feel more like family, he added.

Companies wishing to connect are encouraged to reach out to Heartland Compass by emailing Kendra Devejian.

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