New WMCAT training program opens access to career opportunities in tech

Great Rapids – The West Michigan Center for Arts and Technologya non-profit organization focused on improving social and economic opportunities in the region is launching a new path to technical education as part of its Adult Vocational Education program.

The pathway aims to prepare underemployed and unemployed adults for careers in cybersecurity and governance, risk and compliance, all high-wage industries with increasing demand for skilled workers.

According to Jamon Alexander, CEO of WMCAT, access to the training needed to work in these fields can transform a person’s career prospects and their family’s standard of living.

“As an organization, we are committed to bringing families together with thriving wages. Supporting inclusive growth and diversifying the tech talent pipeline seemed like the right move,” said Alexander. “The wages for career paths like this are $64,000 to $77,000 — so that’s game-changing for individuals and families.”

According to West Michigan Works, mid-career information technology professionals can expect to make anywhere from $26 to $60 an hour! List of hot jobs 2022.

WMCAT is accepting applications for its first cohort of 12 Kent County adults through October 17. The training program, offered in partnership with GRCIE, a Richmond, Virginia-based technical education organization that manufactures virtual reality learning environments for students, begins in December and lasts seven months. Support from the WK Kellogg Foundation and other partners has enabled the program to operate on a royalty-free model. Participants also receive a stipend, access to an emergency fund, and on-site support.

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Grand Rapids-based WMCAT is in the process of building employer partners for the trail. Depending on employer responses to the pilot cohort, WMCAT hopes to add students or cohorts in the future.

A piece of the tech talent puzzle

WMCAT’s new path follows the release of economic development organization The Right Place Inc.’s 10-year technology strategy for the Greater Grand Rapids region, a plan that emphasized increasing the overall number of technology workers in the region and intentional diversification of the tech workforce.

To that end, the WMCAT program aims to support households in the Grand Rapids area that face unemployment or live below the ALICE (asset-constrained, income-constrained, employed) threshold for poverty, particularly BIPOC communities, Alexander said.

The current median annual household income in Grand Rapids is about $42,000, according to the City of Grand Rapids, but it’s much less — about $25,000 to $31,000 — for black and Hispanic residents.

The Right Place’s tech talent strategy calls for adding approximately 20,000 new tech employees to the region’s workforce over the next ten years. According to Randy Thelen, CEO of The Right Place, achieving this goal will require not only training and attracting more tech professionals, but also re-skilling or up-skilling workers already employed in the area.

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“WMCAT’s entry into cybersecurity is a great example of how our region can help people direct their careers into one of the highest demand sectors identified by employers in the region,” said Thelen.

Davenport University President Richard Pappas, who served as co-chair of The Right Place Tech Task Force, echoed these views.

“Programs like WMCAT are instrumental in building and supporting the talent pipeline that we are trying to create for West Michigan,” said Pappas. “A focus on creating opportunity and empowerment in the technology industry is exactly what the Right Place Technology Initiative strives for. It’s a win-win for individuals and our community.

“Through this work, we can help individuals pursue rewarding and successful careers, enhance skills in our region, and improve the capabilities and competitiveness of our existing economy.”

Pappas added, “It will take everyone involved in our community to create a successful tech talent pipeline. This pipeline begins with our K-12 education system and extends to organizations like WMCAT, higher education institutions, and local businesses. Only by working together can we faster address key talent barriers such as awareness, access and affordability.”

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minimizing barriers

Alexander says reskilling underemployed or unemployed adults is one way to ensure growth in the tech sector benefits disadvantaged communities. However, he said employers also have a role to play.

“I would encourage employers to think about the work environment they invite people into – and expect people to participate,” Alexander said. “How are these environments inclusive? How do we create space for people who have historically been underrepresented? In what ways could these people have a say in shaping these environments?”

To minimize the barriers to technical education, it’s important to align initiatives to serve the whole person, Alexander said. Even free training has logistical and emotional costs.

“I think that as a community we need to move towards more training and earn-and-learn models. In what ways can we increase the mental and emotional range that people have while going through the training program?” Alexander said. “I think if we can do these things in a more human-centric and people-centric way, we can see the talent pipeline becoming more diversified.”

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