By Jessica Mathews /

The longtime head of a regional workforce development organization is retiring.

Michigan Works! Southeast Director Bill Sleight plans to retire at the end of October. The agency serves businesses and job seekers in five counties including Livingston. Sleight’s entire professional career, roughly 43 years, has been in workforce development - the majority of which he’s worked in Livingston County. He served as Director of Livingston County Michigan Works! for 25 years and in various roles prior to that in the local area. Sleight said he’s appreciated all of the partnerships they’ve developed over the years with businesses, training institutions, local human service agencies and United Way agencies because it really is a community effort to help people connect with employers and find new jobs. He says it’s not something that can be done alone and Livingston County is a shining example of community collaboration.

Reflecting back, Sleight said sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same. When starting out, Sleight worked with what was then the state department of social services to help people on cash assistance get jobs and says they’re still doing that today. Sleight says finding a job has certainly changed over time but it’s still a matter of who you know, networking, practicing techniques and interviewing so some of those things haven’t changed. He says the importance of working with businesses and addressing their needs and talent needs has not changed over the years. While people might call it different things, Sleight said every time there’s a problem the government tries to solve it with a different program but they’re basically solving the same problem – how to connect people with jobs so that hasn’t changed that much.

Sleight says there have been different challenges over the years but thinks people are actually quickly adapting to learning new skills and new ways of doing things. He says the big challenge in the last several months for the state has been processing unemployment claims. Sleight said to have 20% of the workforce collecting unemployment in a matter of weeks was unprecedented and they’re proud the Michigan Works! System stepped up to help the UIA and a lot of people resolve their issues and get benefits. He says they’re now really focused on their core - connecting job seekers and employers. Sleight says they have resources for training and are working with businesses to get people back to work who maybe thought they would be called back to their past employer but it didn’t work out. Sleight said the agency has been really focused on making sure people who weren’t able to go back to their previous jobs are able to connect with new jobs. He said it’s been a strange downturn because a lot of the people who were laid off in March and April expected to be called back to their jobs and haven’t really been actively looking for work. Sleight noted a lot of people haven’t been actively looking for work because of COVID and health issues but also other challenges of having children at home and being able to work from home or not. Sleight said in a recession, people who are out of work usually want to go back soon but that’s not necessarily this case and there aren’t as many people looking for work as might be expected when the unemployment rate is around 8-9%. Sleight said they’re still helping people find jobs every day and a virtual job fair is coming up on September 29th. He said people can get connected and hold interviews with employers who are hiring across the region.

There have also been big shifts with technology. Sleight says all industries are changing rapidly whether manufacturing, healthcare, insurance, banking or the automated vehicle industry in the region and will demand new skills. Sleight says they’re working with training partners and community colleges to make sure to prepare workers for new skills. Whether someone is working now or not, Sleight said the skills they have today might not equip them to do the jobs that are coming out even next week or next month. He thinks COVID-19 has really accelerated that change as people see they can work from home, the technology is there and businesses are changing and adapting rapidly to technology – adding “were not going back and it will be a different world”.

Sleight will be succeeded by current Deputy Director Shamar Herron, who he says will do a great job, is well-known in the region, has an extensive workforce background and is a great leader. Michigan Works! Southeast Board Chair Marcus James said Herron has already shared some very promising ideas he believes will help propel the agency and address a myriad of new challenges regarding the pandemic, challenging economic conditions and social upheaval caused by ongoing social inequities.

As for his retirement, Sleight says plans change of course and the plans he and his wife had back in February are not the plans they have today. He says they’ll wait until things settle down with the pandemic and then look at travel options and volunteer options.