GRAND RAPIDS — The West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology, a nonprofit focused on increasing social and economic opportunities in the region, is launching a new tech education pathway within its Adult Career Training Program.
The pathway aims to prepare under and unemployed adults for careers in cybersecurity and governance, risk and compliance, all high-wage industries with increasing demand for skilled personnel.
Access to the training needed to work in these fields can transform a person’s career prospects and their family’s standard of living, according to WMCAT CEO Jamon Alexander.
“As an organization, we’re committed to connecting families with thriving wages. Supporting inclusive growth and diversifying the tech talent pipeline seemed to be like the right move,” Alexander said. “The wages for career pathways like this are $64,000 to $77,000 — so that’s game-changing for individuals and families.”
Mid-career professionals in information technology fields can expect to earn $26-$60 an hour, according to the West Michigan Works! 2022 hot jobs list.
WMCAT is accepting applications for its first cohort of 12 Kent County adults through Oct. 17. The training program, offered in partnership with GRCIE, a Richmond, Va.-based tech education organization that produces virtual reality student instruction environments, will begin in December and last seven months. Support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and other partners has enabled the program to operate on a tuition-free model. Participants also will receive a stipend, access to an emergency fund and on-site support.
Grand Rapids-based WMCAT is in the process of building employer partners for the pathway. Depending on employer responses to the pilot cohort, WMCAT hopes to add students or cohorts in the future.
One piece of the tech talent puzzle
WMCAT’s new pathway comes in the wake of the release of economic development organization The Right Place Inc.’s 10-year tech strategy for the Greater Grand Rapids region, a plan that emphasized increasing the overall number of tech workers in the area as well as intentionally diversifying the tech workforce.
To that end, the WMCAT program aims to serve Grand Rapids-area households that are facing unemployment or living below the ALICE (asset limited, income constrained, employed) threshold for poverty, especially BIPOC communities, Alexander said.
The current median annual household income in Grand Rapids is about $42,000, according to data from the City of Grand Rapids, but it’s much less — about $25,000-$31,000 — for Black and Hispanic residents.
The Right Place’s tech talent strategy calls for adding about 20,000 new tech workers to the region’s workforce in the next decade. Reaching that goal will require not just educating and attracting more tech professionals, but also retraining or upskilling workers already employed in the region, according to The Right Place CEO Randy Thelen.
“WMCAT’s move into cybersecurity is a great example of how our region can help people pivot their careers into one of the highest-demand sectors noted by area employers,” Thelen said.
Davenport University President Richard Pappas, who served as co-chair of the The Right Place Tech Task Force, echoed those sentiments.
“Programs like WMCAT are instrumental in building and supporting the talent pipeline we are trying to create for West Michigan,” Pappas said. “A focus on creating opportunities and greater skills within the technology industry is exactly what the Right Place Technology Initiative is striving to do. It’s a win-win for individuals and our community.
“By doing this work, we can help individuals earn rewarding and successful careers, enhance skills within our region, and enhance the capabilities and competitiveness of our existing economy.”
Pappas added: “It will take all of the stakeholders across our community to create a successful pipeline for technology talent. That pipeline begins with our K-12 education system and extends to organizations like WMCAT, higher education institutions and local businesses. It is only by working together that we can more quickly address key talent barriers including awareness, access and affordability.”
Retraining underemployed or unemployed adults is one way to ensure that growth in the tech sector benefits disadvantaged communities, according to Alexander. However, he said employers also have a role to play.
“I would encourage employers to think about the work environment which they're asking people to join — expecting people to join,” Alexander said. “In what ways are those environments inclusive? In what ways are we making space for people that have historically been underrepresented? In what ways might those folks have a voice in designing what those environments look like?”
To minimize barriers to tech training, Alexander said it’s important to keep initiatives centered on serving whole people. Even tuition-free training programs come with logistical and emotional costs.
“I think that we as a community need to evolve into more apprenticeship and earn-and-learn models. What are the ways in which we can increase the mental and emotional bandwidth that people have while they're going through the training program?” Alexander said. “I think if we can do these things in more people-centered and human-oriented ways, we can start to see the talent pipeline become more diversified.”