Health Care, Human Resources, and Technology

Partners reap results with career training model

WMCAT and its supporters developing new talent while offering pathway to living-wage health care jobs.

July 13, 2018
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WMCAT career training
The programs are taught by WMCAT instructors who currently are working in the health care field or have had 25- to 30-year careers in it. Courtesy WMCAT

A career-training program founded in 2006 quietly has been building a network of partners and services to meet two needs — workforce development and income security for underemployed and unemployed adults.

Grand Rapids-based West Michigan Center for Arts + Technology (WMCAT) started its adult career-training program in 2006, a year after the nonprofit was formed.

The idea was to equip low-income individuals on public assistance with training for sustainable jobs or careers in high-demand industries.

WMCAT started by offering classes in medical coding and then added pharmacy tech in 2008 and medical billing in 2012.

Jamon Alexander is the adult program director at WMCAT. He said these training programs are meant to provide a starting point for “career laddering.”

“We were looking for careers that are high demand, so we know when they go through them, there’s opportunity on the other side: the opportunity of a living-wage, full-time, offers-benefits-and-then-career-pathways job,” Alexander said.

“We didn’t want to train for jobs people might perceive as the end. We wanted to train for jobs where people can then curate their own careers once inside them.”

Shana Welch, executive director of talent acquisition for Mercy Health-Trinity Health Michigan region, said her organization has supported WMCAT from the beginning in its training efforts.

“We have really low unemployment in West Michigan, but when you look at certain pockets, it’s really high — over 20 percent,” she said. “Talent acquisition is challenged in every sector, and it’s not enough to keep trading talent back and forth. You need organizations that are developing talent.

“It’s a business decision to partner with organizations like WMCAT.”

To qualify for the tuition-free programs, participants must have a high school diploma or GED, live in Kent County, have no felony record and receive a form of public assistance.

“We want to reserve this opportunity for people who truly need it and might not have had a chance at a career otherwise,” Alexander said. “The income eligibility is the right way to do that.”

He said WMCAT wants to dispel the stereotype people on public assistance don’t work hard and expect handouts.

“We’re seeing the opposite,” he said. “We had at least seven people in this class alone who were at WMCAT, then leaving to work second shift. Or they were working third shift, not sleeping or sleeping a couple hours, then rolling into WMCAT the next day.

“These are the hardest-working people. Those of us not living in those circumstances could probably not handle it.”

All three programs are taught by WMCAT instructors who currently are working in the health care field or have had 25- to 30-year careers in it.

After participants graduate, they take the respective exams that allow them to be certified in each area.

Partner organizations such as Mercy Health, Spectrum Health and Metro Health are involved in various ways, including résumé development, mock interviews, networking with the students at “Mix and Mingle” events, providing externship opportunities and offering jobs to them after graduation.

Grand Rapids-based employee support organization The SOURCE lends a hand eliminating barriers for students by helping them navigate community resources and connecting them with a Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) employee who can answer their questions.

“The goal is to get them technical and practical experience, but when people succeed, there are multiple things in play,” said Milinda Ysasi, executive director of The SOURCE.

Alexander said those factors usually include personal barriers.

“When we think about the journey of the person, along that journey, people encounter life’s challenges,” he said. “For us, partnering with The SOURCE allows those needs to be met — a person facing eviction, or ‘I’m needing transportation support,’ ‘I got a raise at my part-time job, so I’m facing benefit reductions and I need to speak to a DHHS rep,’ or ‘I need help finding child care.’

“There’s six to nine months of those challenges. The SOURCE helps.”

Meijer is one of the financial supporters for the program, which costs about $14,000 per person.

The Literacy Center of West Michigan, the Women’s Resource Center, Grand Rapids Urban League, LINC UP and Michigan Works! help support WMCAT’s recruiting efforts.

Tika Barnes graduated from the medical coding program in 2016 and now works at Mercy Health.

She learned about WMCAT’s program from Michigan Works!, which is where she turned when her job in document outsourcing at Novitex was moved to Connecticut.

“I wanted to choose a different career path,” she said. “Coding was something I had learned before. I went to school for medical administrative assistant, and I always liked coding.

“I went to Michigan Works!, and they told me about WMCAT. I went to an information session there, and it seemed like a pretty good fit.”

After finishing the nine-month coding program and a six-week externship afterward with Spectrum, Barnes was hired by Metro Health. She didn’t feel Metro was the right fit after a time, so she got back in touch with WMCAT and was able to get connected to her current employer.

“WMCAT is like a family,” she said. “It’s not just a school you go to, like one of these big colleges you go to and never hear from again. They’ll try to help you as much as they can, even when you’re no longer a student.”

Barnes said she is now making a living wage after a “check-to-check” existence while she was unemployed.

Welch said stories like these are proof this is the way workforce development should happen.

“When you offer a job, it changes the health of the community. When you are a health care provider, it makes sense to partner on that,” she said. “When we think about being able to move individuals into professions … our medical biller midpoint salary is $21 an hour. It’s a really good wage for someone re-entering the workforce.”

As of June 14, WMCAT has graduated 311 individuals from its adult career training programs. Alexander said the organization works hard to keep lines of communication open, so students have help navigating next steps.

“We could easily go through programming, documentation, placement and be done,” he said. “But we are looking longitudinally at our success. ‘Where are our alumni, are they progressing and how can we support them?’ That’s part of our checkpoints.”

He said one example is taking phone calls or emails from graduates who want to quit because of the hurdles they are experiencing.

“We don’t always talk about racism and poverty as being a form of trauma, but they are,” Alexander said. “That trauma can shut off your long-term thinking.

“What would people do if that environment (of support) wasn’t curated and they didn’t call? They would probably quit. That hurts long-term career possibilities. When they call back, we work with them to think long term.”

The numbers show that coaching approach is working.

According to WMCAT, 74 percent of alumni report having a higher individual salary than they did prior to graduation from the programs.

Seventy-five percent of those employed have health care benefits through their employer.

Eighty-five percent of those employed following graduation felt the experience at WMCAT prepared them well for their job.

In 2014, 38 percent of students who started the program on public assistance were no longer on public assistance two years after graduation. In 2015, that rate went up to 42 percent.

Welch said the combination of WMCAT’s rigorous preparation and The SOURCE’s social support make Mercy Health confident that when it hires a WMCAT graduate, that person will be a good fit for the organization.

“The students are so prepared, and they integrate into our culture so well,” she said.

“It’s creating a pipeline of talent for the needs in community.”

BY THE NUMBERS

WMCAT Adult Career Training Program

Job placement rates

82 percent of all graduates from the class of 2017 were placed in related careers within three months of completing the program.

Since 2005, about 80 percent of graduates were placed in related careers within six months.

Cost of the program

The cost to cover each student in the WMCAT adult career-training program is about $14,000 a year.

Economic impact

In 2014, 38 percent of students who started the program on public assistance were no longer on public assistance two years after graduation. In 2015, that rate went up to 42 percent.

Wages and benefits

Average starting wages for students coming out of each program in 2016-17:

Medical coding: $14.79 per hour

Pharmacy technician: $12.71 per hour

Medical billing: $13.88 per hour

Thirty-eight percent of those employed received a raise during their first year on the job. Raises ranged from 25 cents to $3.25 per hour and averaged $1.45 per hour.

74 percent of alumni report having a higher individual salary than they did prior to attending WMCAT.

75 percent of those employed have health care benefits through their employer.

Placement and preparation

Overall, 85 percent of those employed following graduation felt the experience at WMCAT prepared them well for their job.

Partners and backers

WMCAT is supported by individuals, corporations and foundations, including Meijer, the Literacy Center of West Michigan, Women’s Resource Center, Grand Rapids Urban League, LINC UP, Spectrum Health, Metro Health, Mercy Health-Trinity Health and The SOURCE.

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