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MANISTEE, Mich. — The Little River Casino Resort has forged a new partnership with Muskegon Community College to create a new management development program tailored to the needs of casino operations and infused with tribal culture and history. 

The new two-year program, which launches in January 2021, will provide an immersive educational experience for Little River Casino employees to find their best fit within the organization while also earning an associate degree to advance their skills in that area. 

Israel Stone, organizational development director at the casino, said the new program builds off a five-year old internal effort Little River developed to advance frontline candidates toward a leadership or supervisory position within the organization.

“One thing that we noticed related to succession is we had some gaps and we had some leadership culture things that we needed to work on,” Israel told Tribal Business News

The casino, an enterprise of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, started looking about a year ago for a partner to advance the leadership development program even further, ultimately selecting Muskegon Community College. 

In the Seven Directions Program, candidates will spend the first year taking general education courses via distance learning at Little River, while spending about three months each in four different departments within the organization “trying to identify knowledge, skills, abilities and fit in those areas,” Stone said. 

“Once we do that, they’ll roll into a second year of the program where they’re going to spend a full year of the program in that area,” he said. “In that second year of the program, we’re actually going to focus them on a major that aligns with what their knowledge, skills and abilities are.”

The program builds on Little River’s leadership and company culture, which uses tribal culture as its foundation. 

“That’s a key ingredient for us — bringing in seven grandfather teachings and other teachings like the medicine wheel and advancing people through this development program,” Stone said. 

Located near the Lake Michigan coast, Little River Casino Resort originally opened in 1999 and today includes 1,350 slot machines, 26 table games and the retail River Rock Sportsbook. The property also features a 292-room hotel, RV park, restaurants, event center, conference facilities and an off-site gas station and golf course. 

The organization selected Muskegon Community College in part because many of its programs already paired well with the casino’s needs, he said, adding that MCC officials’ willingness to adapt courses to fit tribal culture and the needs of the gaming industry “really bring this partnership together.”

“MCC has many critical employer partnerships to help organizations develop their talent, so we are excited that the Little River Casino Resort is looking to invest in their employees,” MCC President Dale Nesbary said in a statement. “We stand ready to help their employees and their organization reach their goals.” 

According to Stone, Little River wanted to connect the program to an academic degree as a demonstration of the organization’s commitment to its employees. The move also is aimed at leveling the playing field for internal candidates seeking advancement opportunities at the casino. 

“Obviously, when we’re looking to develop our preference candidates and our in-house candidates, we want to put them on the same competitive level going into the interview process as an external candidate. This is just a further investment into the future of them and the future of the organization to make sure we have that bench strength that’s needed so when we have turnover in the organization, that we can fill those roles,” Stone said.

The academic certificates and degrees will be available in areas including customer service, business management, marketing, graphic design, web design and industrial maintenance. 

In addition to boosting the skills of internal candidates, Stone hopes the program might encourage other students to consider a career in gaming.

“A lot of people that are going into college don’t really consider gaming as a career and an opportunity,” he said. “We’re hoping that this gets that thought process out there so we can start recruiting that future talent.”

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