Our goal, Deborah Majeski says, is to say to our diverse Michigan talent, ‘We want to get you into a great company, and here is a group of great companies ready to hire you. So, take up this skills-building opportunity, and we’ll help you find funding to pursue it.’ For our fellow Michiganders, we believe they’ll see this as a green light to launch a career.
Customer service openings through 2028
As in many parts of the United States, there is a growing demand in Michigan for customer service representatives — those at call centers and in-person who provide the essential human contact between customers and the companies, government agencies, and other public-facing organizations that serve them. Estimates suggest that through 2028, customer service jobs will be the sixth most numerous in the state, with more than 12,000 openings.
At the moment, however, too few workers are stepping up to fill Michigan’s many available customer service representative jobs. If nothing is done to alter current trajectories, that gap will likely widen. What’s more, the turnover in these jobs can be high, which means employers work hard and spend substantial resources to find new recruits and keep current workers in place. It’s a looming problem for many big Michigan companies and organizations that rely increasingly on these workers to strengthen their relationship with large customer bases. And it cries out for a new and innovative way to overcome a chronic challenge.
Deborah Majeski leads much of DTE Energy’s workforce development initiatives. The Detroit-based energy company provides gas and electric services to approximately three million residential, business and industrial customers and employs more than 10,000 team members. One of her many assignments is to build a larger and more sustainable talent pool of customer service representatives.
As a practitioner of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Talent Pipeline Management® program, Majeski was also a part of the first cohort of the Talent Finance Design Workshop. The ideas she heard — particularly one guiding principle that stressed the value of a public-private funding pool — got her thinking about solutions to Michigan’s customer service workforce challenge.
First, it solidified her recognition that DTE wasn’t the only big employer in Southeast Michigan struggling with the scarcity of customer service representatives. DTE, she realized, needed to join forces with other companies with an equal interest in solving the problem. Majeski started with many of DTE’s local supply chain partners, recalling that, “We came to them and said, ‘Here’s an opportunity.”
Based on the Talent Pipeline Management framework, she helped create the Customer Service Collaborative in 2021 with the task of expanding the pool of available workers for the benefit of the group’s members. In addition to DTE, which acts as its secretariat, the Collaborative includes some of the biggest companies in the area (and, in some cases, the U.S.), including Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, Choctaw-Kaul, City of Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford Health System, Rocket Companies, Roy Smith Company and Strategic Staffing Solutions. The Collaborative began by conducting a five-year demand survey, the results of which demonstrated the need for more than 9,000 customer service representatives in Southeast Michigan.
Next, the Collaborative conceived of a robust training program to provide interested workers the skills they need to perform well in a customer service role. It formed a partnership with Dearborn-based Henry Ford College in mid-2021, which launched a Customer Service Professional Certificate Achievement program. The 16-week, six-course curriculum both prepares students for customer service and provides them with a stackable credential they can put towards the achievement of General Business associate degree. The substance of the program is based on a list of outcomes Collaborative members identified as essential to customer service work. “Every single company that we worked with in this Collaborative agreed that we needed to have a competency model,” Majeski says, “and then we wanted to install that model into the college program.”
Based on that model, the certificate program at Henry Ford College intends for students to acquire stronger interpersonal and communications skills, understanding of strategies to deal with problems and dissatisfied customers, competency using performance measurement techniques, a grasp of relevant technologies, and good business writing practices. The training gives employers more confidence that the people they hire out of the program will be a good fit with their customer service operations.
A Public-Private Funding Pool
Third, the Collaborative knew that for many who might be interested in the Henry Ford College certificate program, tuition costs would be a significant impediment to their enrollment — especially considering that starting wages for customer service representative jobs in Michigan are between $13 and $21 per hour. In order for workers to have a good experience and stay in the profession, they needed to find a way to defray most, and possibly even all, of that cost.
The Collaborative members agreed they had to invest some of their own dollars to help students cover school tuition and related costs. It was not a difficult decision for most of the companies, which already spend money and other resources on recruitment and retention of customer service workers — many of whom do not stay for long. If this training program could help them get more workers who were not only well trained for the task, but also willing to stick with it for years to come, they considered it a sound business investment with a potential good return.
The Collaborative also reached out to public sources to help fill that funding pool. Because Henry Ford College is an accredited institution, its students can receive federal financial aid through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Majeski and her partners also arranged for funding support through state and local programs such as Detroit Promise, a “last-dollar scholarship” program that provides eligible Detroit residents with a tuition-free path to an associate degree, bachelor’s degree or technical certificate, and Michigan Works, a workforce development association that allocates funding it gets from the state. In addition, the Collaborative encourages its members to apply for Michigan’s Going Pro Talent Fund, which provides funding to employers to use for training, developing, and retaining current employees.
In partnership with Detroit at Work, a state government-supported job and training resource center, employer partners were able to sponsor students through a customized training agreement. This agreement allows employer partners and Detroit at Work to pay for the remaining tuition costs that are not covered by financial aid. That approach enabled the Collaborative to sponsor nine students in the Customer Service Professional Certificate program.
Broadening the Circle
The certificate program at Henry Ford College is still growing. But already Majeski and her colleagues are looking ahead to new ways to build a bigger and better-prepared customer service workforce.
“Our next step is to focus on, how do we bring it into our community? How do we bring it into the high schools?” she says. “And if we bring it into the high schools, we’re trying to then start earlier in the youth career path and say that customer service could truly be an opportunity for the students. And this is how you might be able to grow.”
Along those lines, the Collaborative has set out to enable Southeast Michigan high school students to take some college classes that will put them on track to apply to the customer service program at Henry Ford College. Majeski says the Collaborative is working with the Detroit Public Schools to launch an initiative that allows students to take customer service skills classes that will yield college credits, alongside their high school diploma. The initiative is set to launch in the fall of 2023.
Majeski says the Customer Service Collaborative’s initiative is still a work in progress, building incrementally but coming together well. Once it has perfected what she believes will be a readily replicable model, the Collaborative will encourage its use in other regions of the state, particularly where member companies have an unmet need for more customer service representatives, as well as in economically disadvantaged areas. And Majeski and her colleagues have little doubt it could work anywhere else around the country.
A central principle of talent financing is that investments by employers themselves can play a big role in unlocking the potential of the work. In addition to that, Majeski notes, the Collaborative itself was a keystone of the effort. “It’s critically important to have a collaborative on the front end when you start an initiative like this that touches a community,” she says. “I think that’s the uniqueness here. Are we sailing through with a lot of hires? We are not there yet. But what have we done? We’ve built a program that is sustainable. We can eventually walk away, the college will continue its work, and it will build talent for a variety of industries.”
Talent Finance is a collaboration of The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, the Greater Houston Partnership, Working Nation, Education Finance Council, SHRM, National Association of Workforce Boards, the National Governors Association, Social Finance, Jobs for the Future, and Uncommon Impact Studio. The mission of the Talent Finance Initiative is to make education, training, and credentialing more affordable, with less debt, and to achieve better outcomes for learners and workers. Talent Finance refers to the development and use of public and private instruments for aligning investments in talent development and in managing employment and income risks. Talent Finance explores how we can come up with a better public-private approach for how we finance and invest in talent.
DTE Energy was a member of the first cohort of the Talent Finance Design Workshop. The Design Workshop is intended for public and private organizations and professionals who want to: (1) learn more about finance instruments and innovations that can used in talent development and management; (2) network with peers and finance experts; and (3) design a new or improve an existing project(s) for implementation. DTE is a member of the Talent Finance Innovation Network (TFIN), a community group dedicated to putting the Talent Finance guiding principles and framework into practice.
For more information about the Talent Finance initiative, visit uschamberfoundation.org/talentfinance.