[vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”Vocational Programming” font_container=”tag:h1|text_align:left”][vc_column_text]The Geek Group National Science Institute, the nation’s largest non-profit organization that provides lifelong education services, vocational access, and creative technological resources both to people in Michigan and around the world, invites you to invest in an educational endeavor to improve the quality of life of underserved people.

U.S. educational culture has remained static in the face of an economy in flux. Upon starting with us, new participants often tell us they perceive education as boring, irrelevant, or oppressive. These beliefs are a product of an educational system with many holes, through which too many people have fallen and been left behind. This position is harmful because people who believe them have no interest in learning. This is frightening because the ever-accelerating progress of technology will drive 50% of commonplace jobs out of existence by 2030, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Today’s students are training for jobs that will no longer exist when they graduate from high school just 13 years from now. Education must become more responsive to the real world and to the individuals looking to succeed in it.

The Geek Group teaches 21st-century skills, provides unprecedented access to relevant training, resources, and education, and is adaptable to new advances, devices, and systems in a manner unseen in other educational organizations. The Geek Group works because we address educational needs individually. We frequently introduce our members to completely new careers, qualifications, and opportunities for advancement. In this way, The Geek Group provides new opportunities in a time-frame previously thought impossible.

Virtually all of our programming serves to increase technological literacy. In the last year, we have provided over 3,200 families with computers loaded with the software students need to succeed in class. We provide tool training, exposure to robotics and manufacturing, online training, and self-paced curricula that individuals can do at home. Our programming is easy to digest and fits into any schedule. The auxiliary components we produce are a key part of our educational program as well. Between October 1, 2015 and October 1, 2016, we supplied students and teachers in all 50 states and in 231 countries with video content that has been viewed over 313,000 hours.

The Geek Group is strategically well-positioned for continued success. Our model refurbishes gently used technology and provides access at affordable rates for any income level. Over time, technology’s accelerating advancement reduces the cost of these raw materials for us. Our services then advance members through our programs, train them in valuable skills, and make them more successful.

Our staff and leadership are uniquely qualified to lead a new frontier of educational services. We have extensive formal academic training, and real-world experience, in education, manufacturing, the sciences, engineering, media and design. These fields are our passion. We live for them. We know the people who work in them. We want only to connect our vast network of industry leaders and workers to others with the desire to learn.

Our human capital is unparalleled because we are the world’s leading organization in the field of self-paced education. Our member base of over twenty thousand is by far the largest worldwide. This community has been the backbone of our organization for 23 years. Other educational organizations now look to our guidance as they develop programs, manage member relationships, and expand their services. We recently played a leading role in establishing the Nation of Makers — a White House-organized coalition of makerspaces dedicated to providing technology access and literacy around the country.

Grand Rapids has been focused on manufacturing since its founding, with a history featuring gypsum, furniture, automobiles, aviation, lumber and most recently brewing. After the 2008 financial crisis, Grand Rapids has embraced a diverse manufacturing model, choosing not to depend on any particular industry, and instead focusing on community-identified needs and markets, and manufacturing to fit those needs.

We work specifically with participants from underserved and underrepresented communities within Grand Rapids and its surrounding areas to help them discover their passion and pathway. The goal of our vocational education program is to help individuals discover what they want in their career and to empower them to develop the skills necessary. Many are budding entrepeneurs who wish to become small business owners, either full time or part time.

Many of our participants have been identified as those belonging to vulnerable families: those at or below 200% of the federal poverty level, first-generation college families, recent immigrants, people of color, single-parent households, households that lack technology, families without stable housing, and refugees and their children. Many have learned English as a second or third language, something they’ve found is a major barrier when it comes to finding new opportunities.

In order to find participants, we partner with local organizations. This includes local schools — Grand Rapids Public Schools, Wyoming Public Schools, Rockford Public Schools, Kent Intermediate School District, Forest Hills Public Schools — as well as local colleges and universities — Grand Rapids Community College, Calvin College, Grand Valley State University, Aquinas College, Kendall College, Davenport University, and Ferris State University. Educators often directly identify students who could use our assistance and refer them to our facility for projects, tutorials, or other learning experiences.

We work with other local nonprofits in a similar capacity. The Kent Public Library, the Hispanic Center of West Michigan, the Office of Veteran’s Affairs, Grand Rapids Public Schools Community Transition Campus, and the Michigan Women’s Foundation have all sent their members and patrons to us. We have a long list of social workers from programs both public and private, who consistently refer their clients to us.

While they come from a variety of backgrounds, we have identified common trends amongst our underrepresented participants. They are primarily from the two most central ZIP codes (49503, 49504) which are diverse, but share a high rate of individuals in poverty (over 23%), as well as low high school graduation rates (66%). External data, coupled with our intake survey of participants has shown that they face many obstacles and have had to make difficult choices with regards to their personal success. However, this has not quashed their drive and desire to succeed.

The largest barrier our participants have expressed is that, while they have big dreams and goals, to move forward with business development, they need to build their fundamental skills, which requires resources they cannot otherwise access. They have product ideas that fulfill expressed needs in their local community, but little ability to run through the research and development process, create prototypes, or do market testing. We help them step-by-step, at a pace that fits their lives and goals. We allow them to work freely while providing the safety net of case management.

With assistance at the beginning, they are able to build their ideas, put them to market, and then complete an initial production run. This empowers individuals to get their business off the ground without investing in equipment, and provides a low-risk way to try something that may eventually be a self-sustaining primary career path.

We are proud of the successes that we’ve had so far. They range in scale from small, auxillary businesses that bring financial freedom to full-time endeavors that eventually hire a team of people.

Some standout participants include:

  • Doug, who makes beer tap handles. He was able to take his existing small business to a new level and use CNC tools to manufacture tap handles in new designs, and integrate his existing woodworking skills to finish them.
  • Joey, who lives and works on his family-run farm. He identified issues in his farm and determined that they were not unique problems. Through his work in our machine shop and prototyping lab, he was able to develop solutions that work in the real world and market them to farms in the surrounding area.
  • Matt, who is a young woodworker that wants to develop his own furniture company. He needed to learn traditional woodworking skills which are no longer offered in his public school. Through our mentoring program he was able to access to the skills he needed as well as the tools, and now has a special focus on custom table manufacturing.
  • Jillian, who is part of a team of women who had an idea for a new type of medical device, but had no access to prototype their plans. She was able to do CAD drawing in the same space that she was producing her concept, and then developed a working prototype in under six months. She was able to turn her idea into a medium business that now has employees in three countries.

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