Battle Creek

Battle Creek is ground zero to change complexion of the region’s tech sector

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
BATTLE CREEK, MI — Black people continue to be excluded from jobs in the tech sector and a Detroit tech entrepreneur is working on an initiative to change this using Battle Creek as a home base for this work.
“The exponential growth of electric vehicles, hydrogen vehicles, and semiconductor industry investments provides underserved populations an opportunity to leapfrog into higher-paying careers, and solidify African American economic freedom for decades,” says Ida Byrd-Hill, CEO of Automation Workz headquartered in Detroit.

“I see the Michigan information technology cluster replicating the 22% growth it experienced over the past 10 years."

However, that previous growth spurt did not translate to job opportunities for African Americans, according to an article on the McKinsey Institute for Black Economic Mobility website.
“Black people make up 12 percent of the US workforce but only 8 percent of employees in tech jobs. That percentage is even smaller further up the corporate ladder; just 3 percent of technology executives in the C-suite are Black, according to a McKinsey analysis of Fortune 500 executives.
“That gap is likely to widen over the next decade. Across all industries, technology jobs — those in data science, engineering, cybersecurity, and software development— are expected to grow 14 percent by 2032. Black tech talent in those roles is expected to grow only 8 percent over the same period,” according to the article.
On June 18 Byrd-Hill met with about 30 community leaders, policymakers, educators, manufacturing industry, and tech industry stakeholders, who make up the West Michigan African American Tech Readiness Collaborative (WMAATRC), at Kingdom Builders Worldwide to present the findings in a report titled “West Michigan Titanium Triangle — Shifting African Americans Into High-Tech Drive.” Supported by a $150,000 contract with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, this report, spearheaded by Byrd-Hill, looks at the current landscape and future opportunities for African Americans in high-tech industries.
“In order to understand the present and future, we have to understand the past,” says Dr. Alana White, Program Officer for WKKF. “Historically, African Americans who were part of the Great Migration were segregated into lower-paying jobs. Some of that still remains. We look at the past and where we started and many of our Michigan communities still have folks segregated by race and income and they’re not necessarily close to job centers. With no robust public transportation, it makes it hard for them to get to jobs.”
One of the things discussed during the recent meeting “is that we have employers who still may not necessarily hire people because of their race and zip code,” White says.
Ford Motor Company’s announcement in early 2023 that it had selected the City of Marshall as the site for its Blue Oval Battery Park, would prove fortuitous for Byrd-Hill who met White months earlier at a Michigan Work’s conference in Detroit.
The two talked about the types of skills that are needed “as we think about the future of work,” White says. “We need to look at median household income by race in Battle Creek and go back to this regional play and what the landscape is. If we do tech training, what is really needed and who are the employers?”
Among the information in the report that surprised Byrd-Hill was the high level of poverty being experienced by Battle Creek’s African American residents.
“Even when they go through workforce development training, they’re only making between $10 to $12 an hour. That’s not good,” she says. “I think what workforce development should be doing is moving people into the middle class. This shocked me because Battle Creek is the home of the Kellogg Company and one thing Kellogg’s did over the years was provide middle-class jobs.”
Courtesy PhotoIda Byrd-Hill, CEO of the Detroit-based Automation Workz, speaking at the convening of the West Michigan African American Tech Readiness Collaborative.Byrd-Hill chose Battle Creek as the home base for her work on this issue because it’s “centrally positioned in this burgeoning tech corridor” which she has dubbed the West Michigan Titanium Triangle region. This geographic area includes Battle Creek, Benton Harbor, Grand Rapids, Jackson, and Kalamazoo.

"This West Michigan region is attracting all sorts of tech employer investments, like the Ford Motor Company’s BlueOval battery plant in Marshall, LG Energy Solutions expansion in Holland, and the Gotion Semiconductor plant in Mecosta County,” Byrd-Hill says. “When you look at that region, you have three battery plants within 60 miles of each other. They’re competing with each other and stealing workers from one another. They could solve this if they all came together to create a tech hub with its own tech ecosystem.”
According to the report, “Industry 4.0 has empowered Michigan corporations to become highly technological as they embrace these nine emerging technologies to increase productivity and hence profitability.: System Integration, Artificial Intelligence (AI)/Big Data, Autonomous Robots, the Internet of Things (IoT), Cloud Computing, Augmented Reality, Cybersecurity, and Simulations/Video Gaming. High-tech manufacturing firms boast returns exceeding “those of the vaunted Silicon Valley tech stars.” In 2023, they have had revenue growth of 23.2% re-establishing themselves as “the backbone of America.”
Byrd-Hill says the second “shocker” for her in the report is how the jobs needed “for the Electrical Vehicle revolution don’t have African Americans employed in it” at all levels from electrical technicians to data managers and everything in between.
In Calhoun County, 2% of all electricians currently identify as People of Color, according to the report. When White saw this data, she says, “It really started to dawn on me how much work we have to do across the whole community to make sure occupations reflect our home community. What is the work ahead?”
“These industrial technology firms silently dot the landscape from Benton Harbor to Jackson to Big Rapids, improving the product manufacturing process to deliver appliances, autos, cereal/snacks, furniture, medical devices, utilities, and cars," according to the report. "The 'West Michigan Titanium Triangle' is experiencing a talent shortage. All firms, from retail to healthcare and manufacturing, feel the pain as they desire employees with digital technology skills.”
McKinsey says businesses will “risk billions” if Black professionals continue to be underrepresented in tech jobs.

“Closing the gap means making changes to education, recruiting, and retention initiatives,” according to the McKinsey article.
Genius not required
While digging into research for her report, Byrd-Hill says she learned that many African Americans don’t believe they’re “smart enough” to be in the tech industry because of the narrative surrounding it.
“One of the things I impress upon young people is that you don’t have to be a genius, you just have to be intelligent,” she says. “People have gotten accustomed in the past to the thinking that manual labor jobs equal big wages and that you’ve got to have some type of post-secondary education, apprenticeship, or be in a trade union.”
A confluence of different factors makes it difficult in some ways so work of the future doesn’t become work of the past, White says. She cites the intimidation people have about mathematics and technology.
“Historically, when you think about public schools, a lot of times the African American community has not gotten a good foundation from K-12 institutions,” Byrd-Hill says. “If you had a really weak experience and didn’t have college-prep classes. it’s going to be a struggle. 

"Now we’re seeing reverberating effects of what happened. In a lot of Michigan school districts, most young people didn’t have algebra. They may have had healthcare or manufacturing math. If the career you want to go into requires problem-solving in algebra, you’re already barred from the process.”
Within the state of Michigan, 69% of people don’t graduate from community college because they can’t pass an algebra class, Byrd-Hill says.
“We remediate in a very different way. We start with video gaming, using building blocks to build an algorithm. If my students can move a robot from point A to point B, we know they can do coding. Rather than trying to teach them algebra, we’re on a decimal system, and in computer tech, they’re in a binary world. We teach them binary and take them back to the decimal world. They don’t know that and it just happens. They’re doing conversions and may not even realize it.”
While eliminating the intimidation surrounding the learning of math and technology, Byrd-Hill also addresses the education required to land a job in the tech sector which offers a wide range of jobs that are within reach with certifications.
“I run a tech training institute. We’re rolling out this battery tech program as we speak. We have career readiness built into the curriculum so people can soar. All you need is a willingness to learn and put in the hard effort. It’s designed to be a grand opportunity if you didn’t think you could.”
Her highest-paid graduate is making $166,000 and about 30% percent of her graduates are making more than $80,000, including a young man who went from making pizzas to operating a robot-based Little Ceaser’s pizza shop after earning his cyber-security certification.
“I recently went into a restaurant that had not one cashier and you had to go to a kiosk to order. Somebody has to repair those kiosks when they break down,” Byrd-Hill says. “We’re not thinking about technology in the broader sense. Not everyone’s going to be a coder.”
As examples of what’s out there, she cites Corewell Health which has about 2,000 people working a variety of different tech jobs, including data analytics, data management, and troubleshooting within its technology department.
“When you start talking about technology in any city in the rustbelt, people will say, ‘We’re not a technological hub and most technology happens in Silicon Valley.’

“We’re centered around industrial technology in the Midwest. All of our technology is enclosed in four walls. If you go to Stryker, all of their medical devices are produced with technology. Whirlpool is one of the largest manufacturers. Anything that has a computer chip is a technological device — stoves, refrigerators, microwaves, and cellphones are among these.”
White says, “We need to unlearn the different ways as adults we learn. We need to get over the myth mindset about high-tech careers because there’s a diversity of jobs related to technology.”
The community has a role to play in this, she says.
“Children are educated in school, but also in our community. That means parents, mentors, and the community need to understand that. Battle Creek Public Schools (BCPS) offers career academies and tech pathways and I go back to we are all educating our children and it’s all of our responsibility and part of that education means being bearers of hope. 

"We want a vibrant region and we want to ensure the region has diverse options so that our children when they become adults will want to be here in Battle Creek and work and be engaged in a vibrant community.”
In 2017 WKKF made a $51 million commitment to strengthen Battle Creek Public Schools (BCPS) so all students have access to a quality education to ensure their academic success. In the ensuing years that financial commitment grew to include collaboration, including one with Grand Valley State University and BCPS, and scholarship opportunities like the Bearcat Advantage.
“We invested in BCPS because we wanted to support a school district that’s not necessarily been invested in in the same way as other school districts,” White says. “We’re a Foundation that cares about kids. We focus on three areas — thriving children, working families, and thriving communities. 

"As I think about the set of systems around children and all of the things we invest in Battle Creek and around the world, I’m thinking about the future of work and what that looks like for adults and generations to come and really creating equitable pathways.”
The past, present and future of work
Byrd-Hill publicly rolled out the work she is focused on in Battle Creek in 2023. That gathering featured a keynote speech titled, "Can the Battle Creek region become an NSF Innovation Engine?" by Allen Walker, Senior Advisor to the U.S. National Science Foundation's newly established Directorate for Technology.
The WMAATRC was formed during that gathering.
The next steps going forward include meeting quarterly with the Battle Creek Black Economic Summit to develop ways to get more of the community’s African Americans into jobs in the tech sector.
“The Federal government is looking for individuals to come together as collaboratives to get funding,” Byrd-Hill says. “This will involve conversations about how we come together as a collaborative and work together to have a bigger vision of where we want the Black community to go. A lot of our meetings will include putting job descriptions on the table. A lot of jobs are getting filled by people who don’t live in the region because people don’t have that training.”
She also is working to convince the federal government to locate research and development areas in Black communities, saying that these operations lead to new businesses and greater opportunities.
“It creates multiple startups and attracts big business that wants that R & D. College towns are always growing because universities are always doing R & D,” Byrd-Hill says. “If you bring that to economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, now there’s a shift in that neighborhood that leads to housing and retail. It’s no longer a poor community but an affluent one.”
White says she’s working with Byrd-Hill to prioritize recommendations in the report and identify other groups and communities that could be worked with.
“Yes, it’s a report to really spur some additional conversations and action around the future of our community," she says. “If the future of work is trending towards tech, A big part of that need is to create on-ramps and opportunities for people to get on that pathway.”

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Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.