A focus on workforce development and growing the middle class is poised to pay big dividends for Michigan’s economy—and help more women find better jobs along the way.
MICHIGAN—Raquell Rivera was homeless when she graduated high school.
After a family dispute pushed her to leave home during her senior year at Potterville High School, she said she had nowhere to turn except for a shelter for homeless youth in Lansing. At age 19, she had her diploma—but no money, no job, and no immediate prospects for her future.
“I had no idea what I was going to do,” Rivera told The ‘Gander. “It took me five years to graduate high school, so I figured college wasn’t the best option for me. At the time, I was just in this headspace where I was going through the motions, and just not really striving for anything.”
Weeks turned to months. And months turned into almost two years living at the shelter—until one afternoon, Rivera stumbled upon an appealing new idea: A union job in the skilled trades.
“My case manager at the shelter actually showed me a Facebook advertisement for this training program in Lansing,” Rivera said. “She thought it would be something I would like because I’m always doing stuff around the house, and I just kind of like working with my hands and stuff.”
Fast forward about three years and Rivera is a certified carpenter. She’s the proud owner of a home just a few miles from her old shelter. And she’s earning about $65,000 a year as a journeywoman carpenter for the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights.
The pay and benefits are nice, Rivera said, but better yet: she found a sense of fulfillment in her career. Nowadays, when Rivera drives around Greater Lansing (in her brand new car), she can proudly point to several local projects with which she helped to build over the last few years.
“There’s this sense of immediacy—like you can see your work,” Rivera said.
There was a luxurious new 10-story hotel in downtown East Lansing, and then a new hospital from McLaren Health Care on the edge of Michigan State University. Rivera’s latest job is building out a massive $750 million expansion at Pfizer’s production facilities in Kalamazoo.
“It’s like: Hey, guess what: I built that,” Rivera said.
Jumping into a new career, especially in a field dominated by men, wasn’t the easiest decision—but it’s one that Rivera said she would easily make again. And thanks to recent state and federal investments to help bolster the workforce and grow the middle class, thousands more Michiganders, including many women, are on the path to finding similar success.
Lifting Women Up
The ad that would ultimately get Rivera back on her feet was for a pre-apprenticeship program called Women in Skilled Trades (WIST). The 16-week program, designed specifically to help Michigan women succeed in construction careers, has two goals: Provide basic construction industry training through classroom and hands-on activities, and get more women employed.
Federal statistics show that women make up 47% of the US workforce—but only about 5% of the construction industry. And with a growing demand for skilled workers spurred by recent investments in manufacturing in Michigan, the program aims to expose more women to opportunities, fill the labor gap, and better the lives of women across the state.
Carol Cool, a seasoned industry professional who co-founded the WIST program as a nonprofit group in 2016, said the initiative is working. So far, the program has produced 53 graduates.
“We’re promoting better lives for women through skilled trades,” Cool told The ‘Gander. “It’s all designed to help lift women up so they can earn a livable wage, a pension, and benefits.”
Women who participate in the free program—which recently expanded from 11 to 16 weeks thanks to federal and state investments—get a crash course in a variety of industry basics from framing and electrical work, to welding and roofing. Among the biggest perks: Every graduate is guaranteed an interview for a full-fledged apprenticeship program with a Michigan labor union.
Kristyn Volk enrolled in the WIST program in pursuit of bigger paychecks and better benefits—and for anything else besides sitting behind a desk at an insurance sales company.
She said her training led to a full-time job in the construction business about a month before she even finished the pre-apprenticeship program. She now earns an hourly wage of $40 through the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights Local No. 1045 in Warren.
The highly competitive pay (and benefits) was enough for her to afford the down payment on her first home last year—and she just bought a new set of wheels in March, she told The ‘Gander.
“I can’t lie. It’s really nice to get those paychecks, and to afford to go on a vacation or anything else,” Volk said. “But it’s also good to be a part of something lasting and to see my work when it’s finished, and being proud of my work and working with people who are proud of their work.”
Cool said that the vast majority of the women score full-time employment within weeks of leaving the pre-apprenticeship program, and end up making far more cash than where they started. In fact, the latter is a promise; graduates earn about $3,200 just for participating.
Those subsequent union apprenticeships also pay well, and the jobs they prepare women for are in high demand. State officials expect professional trades will account for about 47,000 new job openings annually through 2026. With a median salary of $54,000, the wages are also about 45% higher than other occupations—including careers that typically require university degrees.
After a 20-year career as a pharmacy technician in Jackson, Qiana Moore had finally climbed the ladder into management—to the long-sought rank of assistant manager, with an hourly salary of $21. After taxes, that meant she was bringing home only about $36,500 a year. And for Moore, that just wasn’t enough to support the lifestyle that she felt she deserved.
Moore enrolled in the Women in Skilled Trades program, which led to an apprenticeship at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, where she currently earns $18.65 an hour and is on track to make nearly double the hourly rate she made at her old pharmacy job, she said.
“The biggest part for me was how they made it a realistic goal to go into the trades as a woman,” Moore told The ‘Gander. “It’s not something I would’ve considered before the Women in Skilled Trades program—and it’s been my support system through this whole process.”
Follow the Money
In 2021, Women in Skilled Trades was among several workforce development initiatives in Michigan selected to share in more than $10 million in federal grant funding from President Joe Biden’s administration. The cash, which was distributed through the state Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, included $6.2 million to expand apprenticeship programs statewide.
Women in Skilled Trades operates under the Workforce Development Institute, which is a nonprofit arm of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO)—the largest federation of labor unions in the US. It’s essentially a feeder system for union jobs, and it’s funded largely through grants authorized under the federal government.
Two years ago, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer billed the funding from the Biden administration as a way to help put hundreds of Michiganders back to work while also offering easy on-ramps to lucrative, high-demand careers in the skilled trades. It also aligned with Whitmer’s “60 by 30” goal to have 60% of Michigan’s adults with post-secondary education or skills training by 2030.
Since 2021, the rate has climbed from 45% to 50%, according to Whitmer’s office.
And the state still has more than $90 million in grant funding available to keep growing the skilled trades workforce—including enough cash to support 8,000 more registered apprentices through 2026.
State officials told The ‘Gander that a large portion of the state and federal funding will be earmarked for underrepresented populations—specifically women, people of color, veterans, people with disabilities, and those without high school diplomas or equivalency credentials.
Expanding apprenticeship opportunities is just one aspect of Whitmer’s “Make it in Michigan” agenda, which aims to continue driving down unemployment and building up the workforce.
In 2021, Whitmer also launched the Michigan Reconnect program—the largest effort in state history to ensure Michiganders who are 25 or older (and do not have a college degree) have an opportunity to earn an associate degree or certificate with free or steeply discounted tuition.
To date, more than 122,000 Michiganders have enrolled in the program—68% of them women. More than 2,800 Michiganders have also already earned their credentials, and thousands more could soon benefit from expanded access to the program as passed in the latest state budget.
State officials said lowering the eligibility age to 21 will open tuition-free doors to roughly 400,000 more Michiganders, and put them on the path to better-paying, in-demand careers.
Whitmer’s administration has also poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the state’s Going Pro Talent Fund, which was created in 2014 to assist Michigan businesses with training, developing, and retaining newly hired and current employees. Over the last nine years, the fund has trained more than 170,000 workers at over 6,000 businesses across the state, officials said.
“Lowering the cost of higher education is essential to ensuring every person can make it in Michigan,” Whitmer told The ‘Gander in a statement provided by her office last week. “To grow our economy and build a brighter future, we must continue investing in programs like Michigan Reconnect, Going Pro, and Michigan Achievement Scholarships, which are putting tens of thousands of people, especially women, on paths to support themselves and their families.”
All told, nearly $600 million in federal cash was also included in the last two federal budgets to help support apprenticeship programs nationwide—including a record-setting $335 million this year. The big idea: Grow the middle class and the workforce, because it’ll become necessary.
State reports show that recent (and ongoing) infrastructure spending on construction projects authorized under Biden’s infrastructure law could lead to thousands of new jobs in the construction industry, as well as in materials manufacturing, engineering, and technical services.
New data from the BlueGreen Alliance also shows that recent federal investments in workforce development (including through the Inflation Reduction Act) could create more than 167,000 new jobs in Michigan over the next 10 years—primarily in the state’s clean energy industry.
“We’re also focused on expanding affordable childcare and pre-K for all so parents have a safe place to send their children while they work, increasing workforce participation,” Whitmer added. “Together, we will build a stronger workforce, meet talent needs, and grow our economy.”
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