Note: This is the ninth in a series of posts analyzing the nine key strategies cited in our 20/20 Vision Report.
In its efforts to become a top region for talent, West Michigan faces a math problem.
An aging workforce, a declining population of 10- to 18-year-olds, plus a shortage of educated and skilled workers equals not enough people to meet the needs of the region’s employers. When that happens, our economy stagnates and everyone suffers. The data is clear on this. Fortunately, so is the solution:
West Michigan must attract and retain more educated talent.
This is the ninth and final strategy listed in the 20/20 Vision Report issued by Talent 2025 last year. (You can find posts examining the other eight strategies on our blog.) Although it was the last strategy listed, it is one of the most comprehensive: Our success demands we keep more of our educated and skilled talent while becoming a more welcoming and inclusive place for all.
The skilled workforce is limited and aging
Even during the recovery years following the Great Recession, as our region added population and trended toward record low unemployment, labor force participation was headed in the wrong direction. From 2010 to 2018, the number of working-age (25-54) participants in the labor force dropped 2.2 percent, led by the volume of talent between the ages of 35 and 54, which fell 7.8 percent.
Meanwhile, labor force participation increased every year from 2010-18 for workers 55 and older. Similarly, older workers posted by far the biggest increase in education beyond high school – 12.6 percent growth for workers 65 and older, compared to 3.5 percent growth for those between 25 and 34.
These trends can be attributed in part to demographics. Like the rest of the nation, West Michigan’s median age is going up. However, that doesn’t erase the problem: When older workers retire, fewer skilled replacements are available. As recently as 2012, there were approximately 2 jobseekers for every 1 job posting. By 2019, that ratio had completely inversed, with just 1 jobseeker for every 2 postings.
Of course, this data precedes the economic devastation of COVID-19. However, we know these conditions are temporary – already the region is adding back jobs. More importantly, the pandemic did not remove the challenges we face. If anything, it underlined them as lower-skilled workers suffered disproportionate job losses.
These factors limit West Michigan’s progress toward top 20 status. They restrict the growth and success of employers, growth in employment, economic activity, and the quality of life for all. These were starkly evident before the pandemic began when job openings exceeded the number of job seekers.
A full and sustained recovery for all demands urgency in our efforts to improve the skills of our existing workforce even as we work harder to attract and retain diverse talent. Fortunately, we have promising opportunities to succeed.
Becoming a welcoming region for all
Opening the door to diverse talent starts at the top, with corporate CEOs and presidents being champions of diversity and inclusion. This has long been a priority for Talent 2025, and we have developed a robust set of resources to help employers:
- CEO Commitment: Currently 77 CEOs have signed our pledge to publicly demonstrate their commitment to advancing workforce D&I in West Michigan.
- Annual Benchmark Survey: This tool provides employers with confidential baseline data to better understand their organizations from demographic and cultural perspectives.
- PIVOT online toolkit: Segmented into 15 categories that align with the benchmark survey, PIVOT provides access to real-world leading D&I practices, regardless of a company’s starting point.
- Support for building organizational champions: Opportunities include small intimate roundtable meetings and large scale Inclusive Leadership Development Events on various D&I topics.
It’s also important to remember that West Michigan is home to more than 70,000 college students from West Michigan, across the state and nation. Internships are an effective way to introduce this emerging talent to local organizations. This creates a pull to keep them in West Michigan after they graduate. The region’s excellent colleges and universities are always looking for more opportunities to connect their students to employers.
The opportunity of education and training
Too many adults in West Michigan lack the education or skills beyond high school to meet the increasingly technical needs of employers for talent.
We have seen progress toward the Talent 2025 goal that 64 percent of adults over the age of 25 in the region have at least some college (including non-degree certificate programs) by 2025. But illiteracy remains unacceptably high, and we need to continue to elevate credential attainment as a priority.
To meet their long-term need for middle skilled talent, employers will have to invest directly into developing their existing workforce or partnering with organizations such as Michigan Works! or training providers like Goodwill.
Adult education also plays a crucial role in this effort. We need to increase the number of adults with a diploma or GED, along with the employability skills and training to succeed in the workplace. Here again, employers can leverage organizations like Michigan Works! and Goodwill.
Our success also requires an intentional effort to attract and retain talent from outside the region to lure young people who left West Michigan for college in another state, attract niche talent employers to meet certain needs, or give confidence to a trailing spouse or partner that they can continue their career in West Michigan. Fortunately, Hello West Michigan has done this for years with a considerable success.
Meeting the challenge
Not one of these efforts is enough by itself. We build a diverse, educated and skilled pool of talent through by simultaneously attracting new workers and investing in the existing workforce. Combining these efforts is essential to our goal to become a top 20 talent region by 2025.
We have the tools and the willingness to accomplish this, and we cannot afford the alternative.
As stated in the 20/20 Vision Report: “The willingness and ability to make this leap, from good to great, will be the defining factor between achieving our objectives or settling for something less. This will be some of the most challenging work we have yet faced. And yet the stakes are too high to turn away from the challenge.”