Holland success story shows training and coaching key to better-paying jobs

When Karuna Khadka immigrated to the United States from Nepal in 2017, her biggest challenge was learning a new language and figuring out how to find a job.

She accomplished both after connecting with West Michigan Works! (WMW!) services.

Khadka attended workshops, received job-search assistance, referrals to ESL classes, and transportation assistance. That wraparound support paid off. 

After completing her CNA training in a few months, Karuna Khadka was quickly hired as a Certified Nursing Assistant at Medilodge of Holland that came with a nearly 50% hourly wage hike from her previous job. (Photo by Shandra Martinez)Within a year, she landed a job in Holland Hospital, working in environmental services. But that was only the first step in what has turned into a longer career journey. That entry-level position exposed her to other positions in the healthcare field, and she worked with WMW! to expand her skillset with certified nursing assistant (CNA) training.

In less than three months, she had new skills that led to a job that came with a nearly 50% hourly wage hike. 

Khadka’s story illustrates the success that comes when a regional employment agency partners with training and education institutions to bridge the gap between an unskilled labor force and employers who are struggling to find skilled workers.

Karuna Khadka worked with West Michigan Works! to expand her skillset with certified nursing assistant (CNA) training. (Photo by Shandra Martinez)Her accomplishment was honored along with her employer, Medilodge of Holland, and Thompson M-TEC, the Ottawa County education institution that trained her, with the Impact award from WMW!. The accolade spotlights collaborations that are building economic results by creating jobs and developing talent in their communities.

Khadka qualified for an America’s Promise Grant (APG), a program administered by Grand Rapids Community College to provide healthcare training for underserved populations, which in this case is women and minorities.

Training and connections

WMW! partners with GRCC to not only find potential trainees among the unemployed and underemployed, but then connects those who complete the training with healthcare providers looking to fill those positions at focused hiring fairs.

In 2019, 500 unemployed people across a seven-county West Michigan region were invited to take part in the program. Of the 469 who signed up, 365 people completed a degree or credential. That 78% success rate exceeded expectations, says Jane Kreha, WMW! marketing and communications director.

Of that same group, 166 individuals — 46% — found employment. Even with new skills, there can be other hurdles, such as child care and transportation, that create barriers to landing higher-paying jobs, Kreha adds.

As part of a Department of Labor grant collaborative led by GRCC, WMW! and M-TEC were able to connect Khadka to free CNA classes, offered in the West Michigan Works! service center in Holland. 

CNA is just one area facing a critical labor shortage in Ottawa County. Other fields include drivers, advance manufacturing and HVAC, according to Allise Wilkerson, WMW!’s talent solutions manager. (See story).

While most of the training comes with fees, GRCC is tapping into federal and private-sector funding that can cover some or all of the costs for low-income students who might not otherwise be able to afford the training. In Ottawa County, M-TEC is an educational partner of GRCC.

Work skills keep growing

Soon after completing her training, Khadka interviewed with Medilodge of Holland, a nursing and rehabilitation center. She connected with the facility at a hiring fair specifically for healthcare employers offered through WMW!.

Khadka is now working as a CNA at Medilodge and recently decided to scale back her hours so she can continue her education at GRCC’s Grand Rapids campus.

A big question for Khadka was how to translate her education and work experience in Nepal to a burgeoning career in the United States. She holds a college degree in social science and worked for an NGO in her native country.

“The CNA training provided a great opportunity for me to grow and learn something new,” she says.

But she isn’t done growing her work skills. She is now taking classes at GRCC that, along with credit for her college degree, should allow her to enroll in Grand Valley State University’s Master of Social Work program within the next year or so to pursue a career as a medical social worker.

“I didn't have any career plans in Nepal. We don't have a lot of opportunities in my country like you do here,” says Khadka, 31. “Now, I can make my dreams come true.”

After earning her CNA license, Karuna Khadka is continuing her education. She is taking classes at GRCC and plans to transfer to Grand Valley State University to study social work. (Photo by Shandra Martinez) Help along the way

She credits her success to a long list of people who have helped her. One is Ryan Nykamp, her Michigan Works! career coach. Staying connected by email, Nykamp regularly checked in with Khadka to see how she was doing in her classes and letting her know about other opportunities. 

“He would just guide me in the right way,” says Khadka, who appreciated having someone who could help her navigate what can seem like a complicated system. 

Other members of the team directly helping Khadka were Miranda Christiansen, M-TEC career services assistant advisor, and CNA instructor Dena Amer. 

The C.N.A. classes are offered through Thompson M-TEC and the classes are held at the WMW—Holland office, M-TEC, and the Heartwood Lodge in Spring Lake. M-TEC, through the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District, is West Michigan Works’ main location in Ottawa County for education training. 

Nykamp attributes Khadka’s fast-tracked success to her willingness to follow his advice. She took advantage of opportunities, and that doesn't always happen. She was among only a half-dozen clients who took up the invitation to attend the career fair that resulted in a job offer for Khadka.

Karuna Khadka talks with Ryan Nykamp, a West Michigan Works! career coach who guided her through her job skills training and job search. (Photo by Shandra Martinez)His advice to others: “Take advantage of any opportunities we offer to attend the free workshops and events. If you have questions, ask us, because we are in the business to help people find jobs. You're not going to get where you want to go without effort.”

Successful first hire

For Medilodge, Khadka was the healthcare provider’s first hire from the WMW! training program.

“We'd love to see more people take this pathway. Her performance is a direct reflection of the training and coaching she received. It really prepared her well for her duties here,” says Director of Nursing Andrew Portko. 

The 4-year-old skilled nursing facility with 77 beds offers a range of care, including long term, hospice, and rehabilitation. CNA training comes with state certification that gives workers the skills to provide direct patient care, such as monitoring of vitals and appropriate hydration and nutrition.

Portko sees the potential of Khadka growing her role with the organization as she continues her education.

“For someone with her goals, academic and professional goals, seeing the side of the care, even when she's going into something that is not nursing, it could very well translate into something nursing-related. We have need for social workers in this setting, and she will be well-equipped to understand and handle the specific needs of this type of population should she decide to go into that,” he says. 

This article is part of The Lakeshore, a new featured section of Rapid Growth focused on West Michigan's Lakeshore region. Over the coming months, Rapid Growth will be expanding to cover the complex challenges in this community by focusing on the organizations, projects, programs, and individuals working to improve conditions and solve problems for their region. As the coverage continues, look for The Lakeshore publication, coming in 2020.
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