Alison Freas saw the opportunity to lead a Grand Rapids nonprofit focused on career development as a broader platform for her longtime work in the private sector. Freas, who begins her new role as executive director of Grand Rapids-based The SOURCE on July 26, has a decade’s worth of experience in various human resources roles at Herman Miller Inc., most recently as manager of career development. Formed in 2003, The SOURCE now partners with roughly 20 area companies to promote employee retention and advancement through specific job training, personal growth classes and other support services to help employees overcome workforce barriers. Freas spoke with MiBiz about her goal to expand The SOURCE’s partnerships in the region and lessons learned from the pandemic.
What do you hope to achieve in your new role at The SOURCE?
My first priority will be to get to know the partner companies, where things are at, and how to bring additional value to the organizations that we have existing partnerships with. One of the very first things I’d like to do is understand — from the staff who lived through the transition of the pandemic — the things we had to modify that we want to keep, and the things we’d want to go back to.
I would also love to bring partnerships to the lakeshore because I believe there are companies with employees that have similar needs, and we could bring some additional resources to their employees. There is definitely room for growth: That’s one of my goals and the board’s goals.
How will your experience at Herman Miller help you in this new position?
In the 10 years I’ve been with Herman Miller, I’ve worked with a variety of audiences and age groups. When I first started, I was focused on the K-12 age group working in the Herman Miller academy program. That transitioned and I worked with students as they completed high school. Then I started working with internal people at Herman Miller who were seeking career advancement in the organization.
My focus has really always been around career advancement, but I recognize that the barriers to getting employed and staying employed really go hand in hand with career advancement. Many people will not put themselves out there for career advancement because of other things going on and external factors in their life. It’s all connected.
Do you see the pandemic leading to more employers offering additional benefits to employees, or being more understanding of external factors that could affect their work?
I have to believe that as folks are looking to get back into the workforce, it will highlight opportunities for the greater West Michigan community to do better to support the adult population and think about things like childcare.
I also suspect one of the biggest things that came out of the pandemic is thinking about mental wellness. I believe there are many who experienced mental health issues, and had a light shined on that. If you were at home in isolation, or even just having your life completely change overnight, was the reality for many. We know now that there are many more people who are struggling and need support.
This goes beyond benefits: It’s also dialogue around the stigma of mental wellness and knowing it’s OK to not be OK.
What are people looking for out of an employer right now?
It depends on the type of role they’re looking for. At all levels it’s some level of flexibility. For example, if their role allows them to get back into the workplace a couple of days a week or allows some flexibility for education purposes or childcare. My own kids went to school virtually, and I never saw myself having to juggle being a teacher for them.
No matter what role you find yourself in, everybody is also really seeking that sense of belonging, making a difference, and adding value to the organization they work for.
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