Over the past four months, anonymous donations to support talent development, education and public services in the Kalamazoo area have now exceeded $1 billion, which local officials call a transformative and unique sum for the community.
The latest gift came via a $100 million monetary and property donation to build a new centralized career and technical education center on the city’s south side. That gift follows a $550 million donation to Western Michigan University in June and a $400 million donation to the city’s Foundation for Excellence in July.
“It feels surreal to live in a community that generous. We hope residents don’t take that for granted — it doesn’t happen very often,” said Carla Sones, president and interim CEO of Southwest Michigan First, which is overseeing the latest $100 million donation. “We’ve been blessed with gift after gift this year that made our jaw drop.”
Centralized career tech
The regional economic development organization formed a public-private partnership about three years ago with the Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency (RESA) to create a centralized career and technical education (CTE) facility. These countywide CTE programs prepare students for additional training or careers straight out of high school in fields that include manufacturing, technology and health care.
Until now, Kalamazoo County’s CTE programming has been spread across nine different facilities in the county, each focusing on a specific type of training. About 2,000 students in Kalamazoo County participate in CTE programs.
“We found that students only went to courses close to them in proximity,” said Sones, noting that manufacturing training courses are currently held in Vicksburg.
Centralizing these programs in what will be a state-of-the-art facility near the Sprinkle Road-Interstate 94 interchange also carries an equity component by making training programs more accessible, particularly for students who rely on bussing for transportation.
“With a centralized location, we’re able to help address the transportation issue and be thoughtful about a countywide system,” said Sarah Mansberger, Kalamazoo RESA’s executive director of workforce and community initiatives who was hired last year to form partnerships with the Southwest Michigan business community.
While the $100 million cash and land donation will set in motion the construction of a new career tech center, the nearly four-year-long initiative has had several moving parts. In November 2019, Kalamazoo County voters approved a 20-year millage that generates about $8.5 million a year for operations, which will support the programming and staff at the new facility that’s expected to open in fall 2024.
Research, industry partners
Prior to the millage vote, local officials had planned a course of action with input from the local business community. Mansberger says companies are involved in programming on an ongoing basis, and the new facility is located in one of the city’s industrial corridors.
“We know that having a world-class facility requires a few things, and one of them is deep integration with industry partners,” she said. “That proximity to industry partners is really significant for being able to fill that core piece of the curriculum.”
Local officials also turned to the Kalamazoo-based W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research for help developing that local curriculum.
Last December, the Upjohn Institute published a report summarizing two studies that would align career tech programming with in-demand jobs in the Kalamazoo-Portage Metropolitan Statistical Area. Essentially, workforce experts were enlisted to help high school students determine in-demand jobs now and into the future in their own backyard.
The report identified “high-wage and in-demand occupations” from 2016 to 2019 as well as forecasted these jobs over the next decade. The research also surveyed local employers about their needs and how Kalamazoo RESA programs could be relevant.
The report identified strong demand in computer and health sciences fields, as well as certain manufacturing sectors that need workers to oversee and service automation processes. For example, the research found that welding, cutting, soldering and brazing occupations in Kalamazoo County had a 90-percent change in employment from 2016 to 2019, signifying a high-growth area. Statewide, the percent change in those areas was just 19.1 percent.
“The key here is that Kalamazoo RESA could take the information and use it for decision making,” Upjohn Institute President Michael Horrigan told MiBiz.
Horrigan joined the Upjohn Institute as president in March 2019 after spending more than 40 years at the Bureau of Labor Statistics within the U.S. Department of Labor. Those decades of experience included identifying in-demand jobs on a broader scale. His new role at Upjohn Institute created the opportunity for a localized, service-oriented approach that would help high school students.
“I think the work we did as a partnership is actually pretty unique,” Horrigan said.
Moreover, Horrigan and others believe the process could be replicated in other counties.
“This is still relatively new,” he said. “If other areas in Southwest Michigan are interested, we’d be more than willing to partner. It’s what we do.”
As for the $100 million boost, people interviewed for this story used words like “transformative,” “incredible,” “unique” and “absolutely phenomenal.”
“These gifts represent a continuation of a remarkable legacy of philanthropy in our community, and a recognition of the pivotal importance of investing in education,” Mansberger said. “We are so incredibly grateful to have received gifts to support CTE and look forward to continued partnership with industry, educators and community-based organizations to make our shared vision of world-class CTE a reality in Kalamazoo County.”
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