We know talent lives in West Michigan. Together with out partners, we are creating career pipelines in growing fields and dismantling barriers to education, so everyone in our community can access opportunity and realize their dreams.

Many West Michigan employers say their most pressing issue right now is talent shortage. They share struggles of finding candidates with the training, education and skills to complete jobs in fields ranging from skilled trades to technology and beyond. Others bemoan shrinking applicant pools. And many share struggles of recruiting and retaining diverse candidates.

Grand Rapids Community Foundation knows that talent lives here in West Michigan. To remain competitive in a global economy, we must shift our narrative from finding talent to creating access to opportunity. We are committed to creating career and educational pathways to provide more opportunity and access to everyone who calls West Michigan home. That is why we work with residents and organizations who take innovative approaches to connect talent with opportunity. 

Inclusion is Good Business

Fred Keller is a donor partner of the Community Foundation. As founder and chair of Cascade Engineering and co-chair of Talent 2025, Fred has committed his life’s work to helping businesses understand how they can positively influence the communities they operate in.

“The notion of a talent shortage suggests that there isn’t much there. I prefer to think of it as an abundance. We have an abundance of talent in this community. We just need to look for it in different ways,” says Fred.

Fred Keller

Fred Keller and Milinda Ysasi

Milinda Ysasi, a Community Foundation donor partner, is executive director of The Source and co-founder of the Latina Network of West Michigan. For Milinda, shifting the narrative around talent in West Michigan begins with believing that people really do want to work and that some face real obstacles. The Source aims to reduce employment barriers and create mobility opportunities for employees who work for their partner organizations, including Cascade Engineering.
Milinda advises employers to focus on asking current and prospective employees what they need. “That’s collaboration and innovation,” she says. “We’ve seen our employers benefit from taking the same approach they do to their product development or research and applying it to their HR practices and employee experience.”
Milinda says flexible scheduling, increased pay, childcare benefits & tweaks to their work environment have reduced turnover for some employers by almost 40%!

Fred and Milinda agree that employers have an opportunity and responsibility to embrace and cultivate local talent in new ways.“ The traditional method is to comb through resumes that come through the door. We have an opportunity to look for folks who wouldn’t necessarily have had their resume in the pile before,” says Fred.

For West Michigan to remain competitive in a global economy, employers must prioritize a culture that welcomes an inclusive work force, where all people know they are valued and respected from the moment they arrive.

“The notion is changing from ‘why should we have an inclusive workforce?’ to ‘why should we not?’ The notion that our differences are compelling reasons for exclusion makes no sense. It absolutely makes sense to work as hard as we can to be totally inclusive so we can find talent, ambition, excitement, energy. Developing a culture that is inclusive and wants to retain and celebrate the differences is what today’s world is all about,” says Fred.

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Hear our partners speak about opportunity shortage.

Talent Lives Here

“There’s no talent shortage. We have a pipeline problem. We need to fix the pipeline, make it more efficient so that the talent that’s here can be part of the abundant opportunities,” says Jonathan Jelks, a Grand Rapids entrepreneur and nonprofit leader.

Jonathan and Alvin “AJ” Hills IV, two millennials from Grand Rapids, came together to expose and connect people of color to career pathways in technology. Midwest Tech Project—a think tank, advocacy and mentoring program—began in response to the 2015 *Forbes* magazine article naming Grand Rapids one of the worst places economically for African Americans.

"There's no talent shortage. We have a pipeline problem." - Jonathan Jelks

“If our people aren’t producing technology, maintaining technology or even in tech-oriented career pathways, they’re going to be left behind,” says AJ. “Coming from the de-industrialized Midwest, we understand that if we don’t create a solid pipeline to curate tech talent, it will continue to be inequitable. We want to make sure that black people in the 616, West Michigan and throughout the Midwest understand that technology isn’t this big, intimidating thing.”

Jonathan Jelks, Brenda Vazquez, and Alvin “AJ” Hills IV

With a Community Foundation grant partnership, Midwest Tech Project holds events across the city to expose people of all ages to different tech opportunities. They partner with Google, Microsoft, Open Systems Technology and Atomic Object to offer coding workshops, connect students to internships and connect startups to entrepreneurial support.

“It’s not just great for the residents, it’s great for the companies, because they’re able to reach a more diverse audience—and become a bit more global in their scope and understanding,” says Jonathan.

"Talent lives here. We wanted to make sure people know exactly where to go." - Alvin "AJ" Hill, IV

Jonathan and AJ believe that with access to knowledge, training and opportunity, we can rewrite the narrative around talent in West Michigan. They focus on identifying solutions and see themselves as concierges to the technology industry.

“Talent lives here. We wanted to make sure that people know exactly where to go,” says AJ.

A Pipeline of Future Leaders

The Community Foundation works to reduce or eliminate financial barriers to education. Through wrap-around programs like Challenge Scholars and the $1.36 million in scholarships awarded last year to students in college or skilled trade programs, we support homegrown talent.

We believe our students have what it takes to thrive professionally and, in turn, to pour back into our community to help future generations. We believe students like Brenda Vazquez—a Union High School senior who aspires to become a nurse—deserve the opportunity to realize their dreams.

Brenda is in the inaugural Challenge Scholars class of 2020 and will be among the first to receive a full tuition scholarship. “To be a Challenge Scholar is to have the opportunity to go to college and maybe have something in life that my family members didn’t have,” she says. She credits her family with instilling her pride in who she is and where she comes from.

Fun Fact: Brenda Vazquez is part of the first class of Challenge Scholars, graduating in 2020!

Yet, despite her family’s support, she knows that without Challenge Scholars, paying for college would be trying. And, Challenge Scholars is more than a scholarship. It’s a college readiness program that will set Brenda up for success once she arrives on campus and throughout her time there.

"To be a Challenge Scholar is to have the opportunity to go to college and maybe have something in life that my family members didn't have." - Brenda Vazquez

Changing How Business is Done

The Community Foundation is guided by our North Star, and we’re so glad for partners on this journey. Our partners leverage their influence and philanthropic dollars. They are changing how business is done in West Michigan and making room for those experiencing inequities to exercise their innate talent and creativity. We are privileged to collaborate with passionate nonprofit organizations and walk alongside exceptional scholarship recipients and Challenge Scholars.

Support from donor partners like you, Fred and Milinda make it all possible. Fred appreciates how the Community Foundation has helped him organize his giving to maximize his impact through his support of Challenge Scholars. “By focusing on that very high need area, we can make real change happen in the community,” he says.

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