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Program helps adult workers achieve living wage jobs and family stability

 Tika Barnes

WMCAT, Mercy Health, and The SOURCE are partnering in WMCAT’s Workforce Development program to launch adults into careers that provide a living wage, opportunity for advancement, and the means to create a stable family environment.
Many hard-working Michiganders struggle to pay the rent, feed their families, and put gas in the car. According to the MIT Living Wage Calculator for Michigan, two adults with two children each need to earn $15.37 to make ends meet. Many Michigan jobs pay little more than the $9.25 minimum wage.

In Grand Rapids, the West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology (WMCAT), Mercy Health, and The SOURCE are partnering in WMCAT’s Workforce Development program to launch adults into careers that provide a living wage, opportunity for advancement, and the means to create a stable family environment.



“The number one thing I love about WMCAT is they do their work with empathy, designing and curating a customized experience for the students going through their program,” says Milinda Ysasi, executive director of The SOURCE. “The goal is to get people placed in well-paying jobs with great companies in our community.”


Milinda Ysasi

Workforce Development
at WMCAT engages under and unemployed men and women in career education, personal and professional growth, and networking with local industry and community leaders. After attending an information session that explains the different training options available in the tuition-free program, prospective participants submit an application. Requirements include being a Kent County resident receiving public assistance, having a GED, and having no felonies. After passing a TABE (Tests of Adult Education) Test that assesses skill levels in math and reading, they are invited to one-on-one interviews. The Workforce Development team chooses the class each year, roughly 34 to 36 students.

Tika Barnes is a recent graduate.

A hard working mother of two, Barnes had toiled at a series of low-paying jobs that left her living paycheck-to-paycheck, constantly struggling to make ends meet. When she lost her last low-paying job — the company moved out of state — she found herself at Michigan Works signing up for unemployment benefits. While there, she discovered information about WMCAT’s Workforce Development Program. Since one of her past positions had been in document coding, she decided to pursue a career in medical coding.

“When I found out about this program, my first thought was ‘sign me up.’ I came to the information session. I took the test. I prayed. I got the phone call and I just screamed. I was so excited,” Barnes says. “I’ve been on the path and it’s been a blessing ever since.”

Barnes describes her experience at WMCAT as “awesome.” She encountered supportive instructors, encouraging peers, and a program that supported her family’s unique needs. After graduating with top grades and earning her Certified Professional Coder certification, she went to work for Mercy Health doing inpatient coding.

Tika Barnes

“I graduated with straight As, spoke at graduation, [and] passed my certification. It’s been a great path for me,” Barnes says. “My children see that, from where we were and the struggle we were going through, now our situation is improving. I’ve done it. They see anything is possible … ‘If mom can do it, I can do it, too.’”

Barnes loves her job. She plans on continuing her education in order to achieve certification as a Registered Health Information Administrator (RHIA) so she can move up the ladder at Mercy Health. Within the next one or two years, she hopes to purchase her own home.

“I’m in a better place, a lot happier than I’ve been in past employment. I’m more peaceful,” Barnes says. “This was clearly the choice for me. If there’s something you want to do, put your mind to it. Anything is possible. Just do not give up.”

Numbers don’t tell the whole story

While Michigan’s unemployment rate continues to drop (4.7 percent as of April 2018), Jamon Alexander, WMCAT Director of Workforce Development, notes that unemployment in Grand Rapids' income-challenged neighborhoods currently approaches 50 percent.

“Grand Rapids is an interesting place. We consistently make lists, national lists: the best place to raise a family, fastest growing economy, best places to own real estate, beer city. We’re a lot of things. We also ranked as the second worst place as far as economic opportunities for Black people and among the highest for racial health disparities,” he says.

“How do we as a community live with this tension? WMCAT’s response is that we want to support more individuals who are doing what they’ve been told to do … go to college, get in debt, [and] then [they] can’t find a job. We are responding to that challenge.”

Institutional racism and income challenges are no stranger to Alexander, who grew up on Grand Rapids’ southeast side. He is excited to work with a program that specifically focuses on a population that is traditionally excluded from economic opportunities, i.e., residents of income-challenged neighborhoods and people of color.

The WMCAT Workforce Development program’s first class graduated in 2006. Since that time, 282 people have graduated the program. Within six months of graduation, 80 percent of graduates have found jobs in their field that pay a living wage. In 2017, that number rose to 83 percent.

“In that time, we’ve been able to walk with a population. While the dominant culture says ‘they don’t want to work,’ we’re seeing the opposite,” he says. “We’re seeing people in class at WMCAT from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. who then go to their second-shift or third-shift job. There are plenty of people in this community who do work hard.”

WMCAT’s strategic partnership with The SOURCE and Mercy Health has bolstered the program’s success. Mercy Health offers WMCAT students on-the-job training and WMCAT graduates active employment in its medical billing, pharmacy, and medical coding departments.

“Mercy Health is doing their part for people who rearranged their lives to come to a place like WMCAT,” Alexander says. “These people are now being rewarded with an interview, [and the possibility of] a career position. Our partnership has been phenomenal.”

A self-sufficient, employer-led entity with 80 percent of funding provided by its employer members, The SOURCE helps increase profitability through reduced turnover, lower training costs, and increased employee performance. By leveraging the collective resources of public and private partners, it can offer employees services such as job specific training, personal growth classes, and support services.

Within the WMCAT Workforce Development program, The SOURCE connects the program’s adult learners to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and other community resources. Having a DHHS case manager onsite at WMCAT provides program participants quick responses to unexpected needs that often arise. If they face homelessness, car trouble, or issues with their children, the case manager helps them access available community resources.

“People with low income don’t have any safety net,” Alexander says. “We either want to provide a solution for the challenge or help them solve it themselves.”

Because employees struggling in their personal lives face additional challenges on the job, these connections can help people keep their jobs and take care of their families.

“The SOURCE works with WMCAT to make sure that the adult workers are supported through the nine months of the program,” Ysasi says. “WMCAT has designed this environment where people feel they can come and talk to leaders in the program and the teachers about what is going on in their life. We expect that they are going to have a childcare issue as they are going through the program. They know they are supported from day one.”

Every program participant brings different challenges with them into the program. For example, Tika Barnes had to drive her two children to two different schools across town every weekday. By developing flexibility in scheduling and help when issues like car trouble pop up, the program enables students like Barnes to get to the finish line.

“We have to recognize that people have different experiences,” Ysasi says. “For some, it might be caring for an elderly parent. For others, it could be having young kids at home. For another, they might be going through serious domestic violence in their relationship. These are all things that we’ve seen in the participants with WMCAT. When you recognize these and put the students at the core the program, they will be successful overall.”

The white elephant in the room

Ysasi is not afraid to call out institutional racism that can show up on the job site. Employees of color experience everything from co-workers’ micro-aggressions — for example someone saying, ‘Wow you are really articulate,” or ‘Can I touch your hair?’ — to outright discrimination on the part of management.

“These are the things, the multiple cuts, that happen in a lifetime to students of color, adults of color,” she says. “We also know that workplaces have individuals that are leaders and they have different lived experiences. We all have our own biases. We make judgments about people as soon as they walk in the door. That will exist in the workplace.”

She notes that people of color going through programs not designed as well as WMCAT’s also experience internal challenges like imposter syndrome, the feeling that arises when one goes into a space and feels ‘I don’t belong here’ because discriminatory attitudes communicate that they, in fact, do not belong there.

“I think, as a person of color, to combat those things is to be really rooted in our identity,” Ysasi says. “We need to have strong networks of leaders of color. Have strong affinity groups to support one another, to decompress and download.”

The WMCAT Workforce Development program seeks to create a space where all of that can happen.

“Racism … exists in organizations. Let’s call it what it is,” Ysasi says. “I think WMCAT understands it as well and calls it out to individuals. You can’t always control the environment but you can control how you deal with it, how you go into it, and how you educate other people when you are in that workspace.”

For the long haul

Another commitment that sets apart WMCAT’s Workforce Development Program is the ongoing support that students receive after graduation.

“The SOURCE and WMCAT are committed to staying with that student after they graduate for a period of time because we know that just getting a job is not going to solve all the barriers that exist in their lives,” Ysasi says. “We want to be there to continue to help them so they can have continued success in their career and continued family economic security.”

“We could continue to train individuals for careers in five months or less, get them a position with a company, and check the box that says were done,” adds Alexander. “Instead of that, we’ve asked what support looks like beyond the placement. What are some of these things that stand in the way of a person reaching economic security? We talk quite a bit about authentic self, power skills, social capital — what do you know and who do you know it with?”

Even if lawmakers are successful in raising Michigan’s minimum wage to $12 an hour in 2022, many hardworking people across the state will continue to struggle to meet their families’ basic needs. Heart of West Michigan United Way recently reported that 39 percent of Kent County families who are working cannot meet basic needs and risk becoming homeless. Family Futures reports that 80 percent of Kent County families who enter emergency shelters are employed. An alarming number of children are being taken into protective custody because their parents have become homeless.

While the WMCAT Workforce Development Program only makes a small dent in those numbers, its success sends a strong message. Racist biases in the workplace need to be addressed and overcome. Economic realities need to shift — and shift drastically — if Michigan communities are going to be places where all can pursue life, liberty, and happiness. Alexander concludes,

“I personally don’t believe that the gap in economic security is due to personal choices. Does it have a role? Absolutely. Why don’t people just go get a job? People do work. There’s enough data to tell us that we have much larger systemic problems. The reason why people are in the situation they are in has to be worked at both a ground level and a much higher systems level.”

Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studiovideo by 616 Media.
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