Battle Creek is part of a regional initiative to increase access to tech jobs for African Americans

Editor’s Note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave’s In the Ground Battle Creek series.

Ida Byrd-Hill knows she’s an anomaly in the high-tech world.

As an African-American woman and CEO of the Detroit-based company automation jobs, is focusing on an initiative designed to attract more Black people into tech careers and close the gaps employers are seeing in unfilled industrial tech jobs. Automation Workz is one of the top 10 cybersecurity boot camps in the US, known for certification training that leads low-income women and people of color into high-paying tech careers.

On Wednesday, he convened a group of 30 people representing higher education; non profit; business; churches; and economic development entities throughout the West Michigan region that will serve the West Michigan African American Technology Readiness Collaborative. Calhoun County-based representation includes Kellogg Community College, Denso, Battle Creek Unlimited, New Level Sports Ministries and Washington Heights United Methodist Church.

The meeting featured a keynote address titled “Can the Battle Creek Region Become an NSF Engine of Innovation?” by Allen Walker, Senior Advisor to the US National Science Foundation’s newly established Directorate for Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships (TIP). In this role, Walker focuses on potential partnerships through the engagement with stakeholders in government, academia, industry, and non-profit organizations. He also advises management leadership on research and development strategy and policy. He acts as the chief of staff of the TIP supporting the deputy director.

“I think a unified Battle Creek/Kalamazoo/Grand Rapids/Benton Harbor/Jackson region could become a major center of industrial technology—an NSF engine of innovation,” says Byrd-Hill. “This region of western Michigan is attracting all kinds of investment from tech employers, such as the Ford-CATL battery plant in Marshall, the expansion of LG Energy Solutions in the Netherlands, and the Gotion semiconductor plant in Mecosta County. As a director Overall for a tech startup, I see Michigan’s IT cluster replicating the 22% growth it’s experienced in the last 10 years.”

However, that previous growth spurt did not translate into job opportunities for African Americans. He Michigan Information Technology Industry Cluster Workforce Analysis for 2022 highlights that African Americans made up only 7.6% of this workforce, while representing 14% of the general population.

Ida Byrd-Hill, CEO of Detroit-based Automation Workz, speaking at the West Michigan African American Tech Readiness Collaborative convening.“I launched the West Michigan African American Tech Readiness Collaborative to ensure this region continues its tech job growth by ensuring everyone is engaged in upskilling/upskilling for well-paying jobs within the broader tech markets, including battery/electric vehicles, healthcare, manufacturing, and semiconductors,” says Byrd-Hill.

The decision to hold the Collaborative’s grand opening in Battle Creek was made intentionally because of its location.

“Battle Creek sits in a very interesting space. It’s halfway between Ann Arbor and Chicago and we think of this area as a tech corridor and Battle Creek is right in the middle. Employers here have the opportunity to reach east or west and the city serves as an anchor for the north/south corridor, but people don’t see it that way. Technically it’s an anchor, but it doesn’t look like one. When companies start building battery and semiconductor plants, they will come to West Michigan because they have the availability of virgin land,” says Byrd-Hill.

The Collaborative’s work is being funded through a $150,000 contract with the WK Kellogg Foundation. Byrd-Hill says they were not eligible for a grant because the group is not a nonprofit organization. The WKKF funds will cover the cost of five surveys that will form part of a feasibility study. Those surveys will further assess the technology and automation needs of employers; make an inventory of the training available in the communities; assess the technological skills that African-Americans have and the barriers they encounter in accessing those careers; and measure the interest of African Americans in technology careers.

While she says no one can assume that all African-Americans will want a career in tech, Byrd-Hill says it’s crucial to expose African-American students early in their education to it as a viable employment option.

“It starts with K-12. You have these schools, but the vast majority of people of color aren’t even taking the computer programming classes that are offered. If you’re not exposed to this, you’re not going to focus on it. Technology has a very high reliance on math and if they don’t teach you those skills, it’s hard to learn them as an adult,” he says.

The dilemma, he says, is that math and science are cumulative subjects that complement each other.

“If you’re not good at math in middle school, you won’t do it in high school and you close the door on potential careers in the tech industry. Technology has invaded every industry. If you disengage from science, math, or technology, you’ll say you’re not going to work or take low-level jobs. When you’re younger, there are opportunities to pick that up and start over, but then you might feel too ashamed to start over and you’re scared of math and people don’t want to make a fool of themselves.”

More than 30 gathered Wednesday at the West Michigan African American Tech Readiness Collaborative meeting.One of the driving forces behind the Collaborative is giving people opportunities to lift themselves out of poverty and into good-paying jobs so they can support themselves and their families. The focus is on people over the age of 18.

Pastor Monique French, who runs the Washington Heights WBU, says this is why she wanted to be a member of the Collaborative. She says African-Americans often don’t have access to jobs or information about where to get training to increase their skill set.

“I always believe in trying to bring resources and things to the community. I hope this is an opportunity for people to get high-paying jobs and allow them to develop their skill set in those areas and get the training they need,” says French. “This is a great opportunity to close that generational wealth gap.”

About 92 percent of those who take certification training at Automation Workz are African American, and the rest are evenly split between Hispanics, Arabs, and Whites. Training for most of these students is paid for with State of Michigan Workforce Development dollars.

Byrd-Hill says one of her students came out of the program earning $130,000 a year and 30 percent of her students have six-figure incomes.

“It’s hard work but it’s doable and you don’t need to have a degree. Technology is changing very fast and it is flexible in its educational requirements,” he says. “You may have gone to a four-year institution and earned a degree, but you probably didn’t get the skills to take a job in the tech industry. During the 20th century, people got degrees and moved into middle management. In the 21st century, you must have science and math skills to accept these jobs. We cannot assume that just because they got a degree, they are technical experts.”

She says many people who earn a bachelor of arts earn a certification in some area of ​​technology because they know these are skills they’ll need to advance in their chosen career or move on to another job.

Ida Byrd-Hill, CEO of Detroit-based Automation Workz, speaking at the West Michigan African American Tech Readiness Collaborative convening.After earning an economics degree from the University of Michigan, Byrd-Hill says she worked for the former First of America Bank as a check filer at a time when that job was done manually. When the bank decided to automate her check filing work, she let them know that she was able to work on the project because of her expertise in Common Business-Oriented Language (COBOL).

She says that her degree and experience in COBOL allowed her to speak the language of entrepreneurs and technology.

“Business people don’t speak the same language as technology people and I served as a liaison between the two. I was an interpreter for both sides,” she says. “I evolved out of the technology industry and for me, that has been my entire career. But you don’t see many people who look like me.”

Fill the talent pipeline locally

Corporate America would like to hire people from a region where their companies are located, but if they can’t find the workers, they will go out of that area to find them, Byrd-Hill says.

“We need to make sure everyone is properly trained for the jobs ahead,” she says.

Among the problems is that the technological part of industrial manufacturing technology is not on the radar for most people.

“In western Michigan. you do a lot of manufacturing training. When manufacturing meets technology, that’s where industrial technology comes into play. But the training has not shifted to the technological side of the plant. All this industrial technology is happening and you see the manufacturing, but you don’t see the technology side and that is growing like weeds and requires training,” says Byrd-Hill.

More than 30 gathered Wednesday at the West Michigan African American Tech Readiness Collaborative meeting.She says the federal government has recognized this as a problem and is making millions of dollars available to find solutions.

“My hope is that the West Michigan region qualifies for one of these funding streams to make the partnership permanent. We have the opportunity to get $75 million over a 5-year period and the collaboration also has the opportunity to compete for a grant from the National Science Foundation that would be $160 million over 10 years.”

This money would be used for research, training, laboratory reinforcement at post-secondary institutions or to drive innovation in the region, workforce development and entrepreneurial activities.

“The feds offer a lot of freedom for what happens in a region,” Byrd-Hill says.

The Collaborative is expected to issue a final report on its findings based on the survey results in February 2024.

Byrd-Hill says the work being done is designed to give people hope for a better life if they are in poverty and give them opportunities to access these tech jobs to get out of poverty.

“This is really why we put this collaboration together,” she says. “The jobs are out there, but people have to be ready for it.”

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