Partnership helps refugees find construction jobs


The construction industry in West Michigan is experiencing a skilled worker shortage, leaving some companies unable to adequately staff projects.

To help provide employers with new, qualified employees, Associated Builders and Contractors Western Michigan Chapter (ABC/WMC) partnered with the Literacy Center of West Michigan to provide training for refugees through a Michigan Office of New Americans (MONA) grant.

Earlier this year, the Literacy Center approached ABC/WMC to pursue the MONA grant. This opportunity encourages collaboration among community organizations to train refugees in English as a Second Language (ESL) alongside an industry-specific workforce-training program that will result in employment. The partnership allowed West Michigan refugees to participate in the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER) Core Curriculum and construction-specific ESL training.

“West Michigan has a large population of new Americans seeking work, and we thought this partnership would provide promising opportunities for both these individuals and our local construction employers,” said Jen Schottke, vice president of workforce development for ABC/WMC.

“The MONA grant has opened the door for 20 refugees to pursue a career and offered multiple employers new avenues for hiring skilled, entry-level candidates,” she added.

Grandville-based Kerkstra Precast Inc. is one of the partners with ABC/WMC that took advantage of the training program to help staff its construction teams. The company already has one individual from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) who is on staff full time.

“We’re looking to fill what we call general labor positions,” said Lisa England, human resources manager for Kerkstra. “Those are individuals who have basic construction skills, basic skills with hand tools and power tools.”

Windemuller Inc. also hired a refugee from the DRC to fill a position as an electrician. Scot DeYoung, vice president of construction, said he viewed the program as a “great public-private partnership.”

“I just love the whole concept,” he said. “You got all the public and private companies teaming together to solve this problem, and I think our economy really benefits from it.”

DeYoung added his company benefits from workers who are trained with a fresh perspective in construction. He argued new workers are more likely to consider factors, like personal safety, that some who have been in the industry for a long time may take for granted.

“There’s a lot of fundamental safety knowledge that (refugees) get trained in,” he said. “That makes them much more capable of walking into a job.”

To join the program, refugees were required to have some basic conversational skills to understand the curriculum. The Literacy Center provided testing, and a group of 20 eligible refugees was identified. Students began classes in March, two days per week at the Grand Rapids Community College M-TEC building. An NCCER-certified instructor and a Literacy Center ESL teacher taught the classes. In addition to being taught NCCER Core Curriculum, students also received an OSHA-10 card.

“It is important to come together as a community and provide the tools and resources necessary for refugees to succeed in West Michigan,” said Chad Patton, director of Customized Workplace English for the Literacy Center. “We are thankful for the chance to align these trainees with meaningful work and equip them to be successful as they launch a new career.”

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