Nonprofits partner to create construction career program

Effort focuses on introducing more Latinas to the industry.
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Wendy Falb speaks at a class graduation. Courtesy Literacy Center of West Michigan

Three organizations have partnered to help create a career pipeline for Latinas in West Michigan.

The Literacy Center of West Michigan, West Michigan Construction Institute and West Michigan Works! recently worked together to form a construction pre-apprenticeship English as a second language (ESL) program.

The goal of the program is to provide career opportunities for women in the community while addressing a talent gap in Michigan’s construction industry.

“With Latinas in mind, we designed programing that removed both gender identity and language proficiency as a barrier to success,” said Wendy Falb, executive director of the Literacy Center of West Michigan. “Now not only will these hardworking women be entering high-paying skilled trades, but the trades themselves will benefit from new talent pipelines and a more diverse culture.”

Falb, who originated the idea for the program, said it came about as part of the reThink Adult Ed Challenge put on by the U.S. Department of Education.

The competition tasked eligible organizations with submitting an idea for unique adult education programming, and Falb thought about people and industries impacted by the pandemic.

“It was really based on the hundreds of women we work with and seeing a number of them lose their jobs working in hospitality and service industries that shut down during COVID,” Falb said. “We also see so many of these women earn the primary source of income, not just for their own family but for extended family.”

Falb also knew Jen Schottke, president of the West Michigan Construction Institute. The institute was just opening, and Falb pitched her idea to Schottke, who was on board with working together.

The organizations submitted their construction pre-apprenticeship idea during the challenge’s open submission period in fall 2020. 

Finalists were announced in January 2021 before progressing to the virtual accelerator phase. During the phase, resources and support from subject matter experts were provided to help the organizations refine their program designs ahead of a final selection of winners. 

Although the construction pre-apprenticeship program didn’t earn the grand prize, it did earn national semifinalist status and received support to refine the program.

Now, the construction pre-apprenticeship classes are in place as a division of the Literacy Center of West Michigan’s Customized Workplace English program. The classes are held in person at the West Michigan Construction Institute.

As part of the 13-week, 117-hour training, the Literacy Center of West Michigan provides English instruction, and West Michigan Construction Institute provides certified Construction Core training. The core training, which is an industry-recognized program developed by the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER), gives learners an introduction to tools, material handling, construction math, and drawings while teaching basic safety and communication.

At the end of the pre-apprenticeship program, learners earn an OSHA 10 certification and come away with employability skills and deeper knowledge of the construction field.

West Michigan Works! is funding the program and providing training from its Work Ready curriculum to assist learners with soft skills instruction. The Literacy Center of West Michigan previously partnered with West Michigan Works! with workforce development efforts.

“Effective interpersonal communication skills are an important quality within the industry regardless of role, making ESL a critical barrier for community members to overcome in order to successfully enter and grow,” said Angie Barksdale, COO at West Michigan Works! 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women hold only 14% of the 179,300 jobs in the Michigan construction industry.

In terms of an industry talent gap, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently updated its Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) estimates and reported 336,000 construction job openings nationwide based on a March 2021 benchmark.

To recruit women for the pre-apprenticeship program, the Literacy Center of West Michigan worked with Grand Rapids-based Puertas Abiertas (Open Doors).

Since 2019, Puertas Abiertas has empowered more than 300 Latina women in Kent County to make healthy choices and live free from domestic violence, trafficking, stalking and sexual discrimination.

“Domestic violence and employment instability are interwoven,” said Andrea Inostroza, co-founder and executive director of Puertas Abiertas. “Establishing and maintaining steady employment is an important step for women to leave an abusive relationship and live a free life.”

One participant in the program, whose name was withheld for privacy reasons, said growing up, she believed the construction industry was only for men.

“I only ever saw the male figures in my family building things,” she said. “What surprised me in class is how there are guys who also do not have a lot of experience with tools.”

The first cohort graduated from the program on May 5 with a ceremony their families attended. There were 11 participants, and the organizations ended up recruiting men and women to be part of the first cohort.

Currently, the graduates are engaging with the West Michigan Construction Institute’s employer partners and preparing for interviews and apprenticeships.

Falb said a new cohort likely will begin the program next spring. This will give the future graduates a prime opportunity to enter into apprenticeships right as the busy summer months begin for the construction industry.

It has been rewarding for Falb to see her idea start to make an impact, she said.

“Language is a consistent and extensive barrier for so many people in our community,” Falb said. “And now, with the tight labor market, employers are trying to figure out how to get great talent in the door. It’s really gratifying to see both places and connect them by providing some substantial programming and removing that barrier.”

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