The Literacy Center advances in competition to receive funding for Latina skilled trade workers

The Literacy Center of West Michigan has been chosen as a finalist in the U.S. Department of Education’s Rethink Adult Ed Challenge. The nonprofit is one of five finalists from the state, and the only one in the West Michigan region that is advancing to the next round, with the opportunity to win a share of $750,000. The grand prize will be $250,000 and up to five runners-up will receive at least $100,000. The Challenge aims to advance pre-apprenticeship programs and career opportunities nationwide by breaking down barriers many adult learners are faced with.

The local nonprofit’s proposal includes English instruction and skills training within apprenticeship programs for Latina women entering the mechanical, electrical and plumbing trades. The Literacy Center of West Michigan Executive Director Dr. Wendy Falb is excited to be a finalist, and hopes the extra exposure will only increase the resources they can provide to the community. 

“Part of the process is that we’re in this accelerator program, where the U.S. Department of Education is going to provide national best-practice support for different aspects of developing the project,” Falb says. “Even though there isn’t a cash award at this stage, we get a lot of help [from] folks who are experts in apprenticeships, development, marketing, community outreach, and designing our programs to be culturally adaptive. We’re really excited about that and connecting with the other projects across the country, so it’s a great opportunity for West Michigan, and for us.”

For years, the Literacy Center, a community-based organization, has worked on addressing the literacy needs of adults, especially native and non-native speakers reading below a ninth grade level. Falb says they are the largest community-based organization in the state that does adult education, and one of the larger ones in the country. “We take a lot of pride in being a community-based organization, because we’re singularly focused on this mission, and we have a lot of flexibility to meet adults where they’re at,” Falb says. “We are very responsive and design our programming so we can remove as many barriers as possible for adults seeking to improve their literacy.” 
For her, both cultural and language barriers can prevent employees or potential employees from completing job tasks many people who speak the native language don’t think twice about. 

“If you participate in the dominant language, you don’t even recognize how much it's not just reading, it’s deciphering math problems, and understanding conversational direction,” she says. “There are deep aspects to being in the workplace that really require a level of linguistic mastery of the language being used.”

The nonprofit has experience designing, creating, and implementing English programs for employers including Goodwill, and higher education centers, including community colleges in various fields such as CNA programs, construction certifications, and more. “We do a lot of research in the field in designing the curriculum, and all the linguistic demands that being in that trade will require,” Falb says. “Having the linguistic mastery of the field is so essential to be able to succeed.”

As for this particular program pitched in the Challenge, Falb says it’s a unique offering in the specific group of people it aims to serve. “The project is quite unique in that we’re really bridging a cultural gap, by bringing a group of folks who might not identify as participating in this field, and then also, employers who have neither women, nor women of color in this field.”

West Michigan Works! has partnered with the Literacy Center multiple times, offering ESL classes at their service centers. West Michigan Works! Director of Talent Services, Brittany Lenertz, spoke about their continued partnership, within this proposed program.

Courtesy of West Michigan Works!

“We have a work-ready employability skills curriculum, based on our local employer’s feedback [on] what they need in employees, in terms of what we used to call softskills training,” Lenertz says. “The Literacy Center is working on providing that curriculum to ESL students. This will be a continuation of that, and a more formalized partnership of doing that.”

The trades are an industry which was in high demand for employees, pre-pandemic, during the pandemic, and likely to be true post-pandemic as well, says Lenertz. 

Other proposal partners include Talent 2025, Windemuller, Wolverine Building Group, Allied Mechanical Services, and Associated Builders and Contractors of West Michigan. “It’s a team effort which Lenertz said is symbolic of the local community. “We know that in West Michigan, we are really good collaborators — we do that well. It’s exciting to see that being recognized.”

Both the Literacy Center and West Michigan Works! have seen firsthand the effects of COVID-19 on employment within the Latina community,particularly many of whom were previously employed in the hospitality or service industry.

“We simultaneously get all the workforce development data, so we know how many employers are looking for qualified employers in these trades. That’s when the discussion began on getting women to fill the open trade jobs, “because they pay really well, they pay supportive family wages,” Falb says. “We know the kind of work ethic and pride that so many of the folks we work with have, but we knew that there were language and cultural barriers.”

Falb reached out to Jen Schottke, vice president of operations at Associated Builders and Contractors of West Michigan, to be one of the partnering organizations. “She has such a personal passion for introducing women into the construction trades. We’ve often talked about a level of equity work that needed to be done in the Latina community.”

Schottke is proud to be a puzzle piece in the collaborative effort. She’s also driven and dedicated to filling trade jobs, and even more happy to fill those gaps with women employees.

“The demand for trade or craft professionals is growing everyday. Nearly 50% of our trade force is set to retire in the next 15 years, so we need people to choose this career pathway,” Schottke says. 

“Women have historically not been brought [to] the idea that this is a place where they can belong. I think as you look back over the generations, this is a career pathway that men typically were geared towards — to work with their hands, to find those individuals who have that kind of intelligence, the intelligence to see, build and create. Women have that intelligence as well, they just haven’t been encouraged as often to think about this career pathway.That is one of the reasons women haven’t been brought [to] the idea that they can be welders, electricians, plumbers, and HVAC technicians.”

An increase in more ‘curious’ companies have led to discussions questioning a lack of diverse employee pools, a change Schottke is elated to see. Companies are looking internally, identifying hiring trends, and hoping to diversify their staff.

“As human beings, we don’t always question our environment when we’re the same or when we’re comfortable. But these leading companies have really looked inside, and said, ‘we’re the same, and why is that? Why aren’t we bringing in diverse employees, or diverse craft professionals?’ Those companies that are becoming curious about that and questioning it are really changing ... They really have made an intentional attempt at bringing women into the industry.”

In fact, it’s Schottke’s ‘higher purpose in life,’ to bring people into construction, giving them an opportunity to build a career. She’s especially excited to work with Latina women in West Michigan for the first time. “I know that our industry can benefit so greatly with the assets that they bring. I am really excited and hopeful that we get to move onto the finals and do this work.”

Ultimately, being named a finalist has acted as a reflection of the hard work in education and innovation being done at these partnering regional organizations. For Falb, it’s a real testament to the work her team at the Literacy Center does on a daily basis. 

“When I looked at the other finalists across the country, the vast majority of them are coming out of higher ed, community colleges, and universities,” Falb says, “and I’m kind of proud a scrappy nonprofit is participating in this. There’s an aspect in which I think we’re kind of gritty and we’re really in the trenches with the people we serve.”

Sarah briefly lived in Grand Rapids years ago, before moving back to Lansing, but that West Michigan love never really left her heart. Through her coverage on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, and anything mitten-made, she’s committed to convincing any and everyone -- just how great the Great Lakes state is. Sarah received her degrees in Journalism and Professional Communications. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert, or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at
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