A new collaborative between employers, workforce agencies and nonprofits aims to ensure West Michigan is equipped for tech-sector job growth and prepare African American workers for tech careers.
The West Michigan African American Tech Readiness Collaborative kicked off May 24 in Battle Creek. The effort will focus on the region spanning Grand Rapids, Holland, Benton Harbor, Kalamazoo, Battle Creek and Jackson.
Ida Byrd-Hill, CEO of the Detroit-based cybersecurity bootcamp and tech reskilling organization Automation Workz Institute, is spearheading the initiative. Automation Workz specializes in a certification program that leads women, people of color and low-income individuals to high-paying tech careers — of which Byrd-Hill has seen very little in West Michigan.
“There has to be some special attention to figure out why they are not in the industry,” Byrd-Hill said. “We’re going to look and see what those barriers are and how they can be resolved.”
In addition to addressing the lack of representation in West Michigan’s tech field, Byrd-Hill said multiple anticipated high-tech developments will create demand for skilled tech labor.
“We’re pulling together a collaborative because you have several battery plants that are coming within 60 miles of each other, which is going to really change the game as it relates to tech labor,” Byrd-Hill said, referencing projects like LG Energy Solution’s plant expansion in Holland, Ford Motor Co.’s battery plant project in Marshall and Gotion Inc.’s planned facility near Big Rapids.
“My thing is: You don’t want to wait on it. Let’s go ahead and start strategizing on how we’re going to make sure there’s plenty of tech labor in this area so they can service all the employers, including the new ones,” she said.
Benchmarking tech readiness
The collaborative consists of more than 30 individuals from organizations such as The Right Place Inc., Amplify GR, Corewell Health, Grand Valley State University, Gentex Corp., Haworth Inc., Kalamazoo Promise and Consumers Energy.
Part of the tech readiness effort involves a feasibility study supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. While reviewing the state’s Information Technology Career Cluster data from 2022, Byrd-Hill noticed how IT jobs grew by 22% from 2011-21, compared to the total statewide employment growth rate of 7.4%.
Byrd-Hill also noticed that African Americans comprise just 7.6% of the technical workforce in Michigan, and most of those workers are 35 years or older.
The study aims to benchmark African American workers’ tech skills as well as their interest in tech careers. It also will gauge employer needs in terms of tech readiness and workforce development — not just for battery plant operators but various employers throughout the region.
The study will consist of five separate surveys taking place over the next 10 months before recommendations for next steps are made to the foundation.
The collaborative also will work to secure federal funding to help companies pay for tech training and development. Byrd-Hill noted how the state’s Career Cluster data found the average annual salary for Michigan IT workers increased from $75,500 in 2011 to $98,700 in 2021.
“When you introduce something different, that means new skills must come to bear and you have to train people for those new skills,” she said. “We know tech workers make a lot of money, and in order for people to have access to those tech jobs, they’ll need some type of post-secondary training.”
But this training also needs to close a gap that Byrd-Hill sees in West Michigan.
“I’ve noticed in a lot of places, low-income individuals are being directed to training that keeps them in poverty, and we know technology can move you out of poverty,” she said. “We also know you don’t necessarily need a degree for some tech jobs. There should be a plethora of training happening in this entire region, including for those at the lower income level.”
In Detroit, Automation Workz is a state-licensed post-secondary vocational school focused on IT and other tech training. It operates on an income-share agreement model where students repay tuition based on their income at a future job.
While Byrd-Hill’s contract on the West Michigan collaborative with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation ends in February 2024, most of the federal grants span five to 10 years, she said. The goal is to find a partner that will manage the collaborative permanently and continue the work Byrd-Hill and Automation Workz are starting.
Equitable tech hub
As The Right Place and other local leaders work to position Grand Rapids as a Midwest tech hub in the coming years, Byrd-Hill emphasized the need to come together and lay the foundational work for the right training and development.
“I’m excited that The Right Place is going to be building a tech hub in Grand Rapids, and they were one of the first organizations we talked with as we began the collaborative,” Byrd-Hill said. “But I believe that needs to be bigger than just the city or metro area of Grand Rapids.”
For Alvin Hills IV, who along with Jonathan Jelks co-founded the local advocacy and mentoring organization Midwest Tech Project and is participating in the collaborative, it’s important to work toward this vision in an equitable way.
“I love how The Right Place has laid out a vision for our area … and I think it’s absolutely imperative that we do it in a way that’s equitable,” Hills said. “I think we in West Michigan have a very unique opportunity to be a model for the nation if we do this correctly.”
The Midwest Tech Project launched in 2016 and works to diversify the tech talent pipeline by engaging underserved communities through education, community events and removing barriers to help West Michigan residents prepare for opportunities in the tech industry. Recently, the organization partnered with the Kent County Juvenile Detention Center on a new technology-based immersion program designed to connect and train ex-offenders seeking to re-enter the workforce.
Hills said Byrd-Hill reached out to his organization about six months ago as she was researching West Michigan-based companies. Through discussions about the collaborative, it became evident they shared some common goals.
“For us at the Midwest Tech Project, this collaborative fits right in with our mission of exposing people of color and women to the tech industry and to career pathways,” Hills said. “It’s something we wanted to support — to help these adoption efforts in West Michigan and hopefully see some success stories through this collaborative.
“To me, Ida’s potential solutions for West Michigan and how she connects with a program or with organizations like the Midwest Tech Project and others is where success will lie.”