Rick Haglund: Why does Michigan still lag in the race to attract and keep talent?

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Local officials cheered Amazon’s recent announcement that it would build a $400 million distribution center, promising 1,200 jobs at the long-vacant Michigan State Fairgrounds in Detroit. 

“We need good-paying jobs and jobs of the future,” Mayor Mike Duggan said about the positions, which are expected to pay about $15 an hour, plus benefits.

State Sen. Mallory McMorrow was less enthused. She’s concerned about reported widespread worker safety problems in Amazon’s warehouses and the potential for the online retailing behemoth to destroy locally owned businesses.

McMorrow, a Royal Oak Democrat, said Michigan could do better.

“I just think as a state and region, we often settle for good enough, or whatever we can get,” she told me.

The problem is that Michigan sorely lacks enough talent to provide employers with the numbers of engineers, nurses, marketers, accountants, managers and other educated workers they need.

Michigan recently updated its “Hot 50” job list showing careers that have a favorable mix of projected-long term growth, forecasted annual job openings and median wages.

It shows that 38 of those jobs will require at least a bachelor’s degree in eight years. All but three of the remaining jobs require at least some college, associate degrees, apprenticeships or licenses.

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But just 29.6% of adults age 25 and older in the state possess a bachelor’s degree or above, ranking Michigan 32nd among the states, according to census data calculated by University of Michigan economist Don Grimes.

A study by the Lumina Foundation found that 48.9% of Michigan adults have at least an associate degree or a credential. That’s below the national average of 51.3%. Michigan can’t afford to be below average in the race for talent.

McMorrow was named in June to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Michigan Workforce Development Board, which is working to help the state meet Whitmer’s goal of having 60% of adults with a college degree or credential by 2030 — just 10 years away.

How do we get there? McMorrow said the state has to flip its economic development strategy away from tax abatements and other business incentives toward a stronger focus on spending on education and worker training programs.

“Investing in talent is going to get us where we want to go,” she said.

That includes supporting communities to make them more attractive to young college graduates and young families who want to live in vibrant cities and in suburbs with strong connections to those cities, McMorrow said.

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Thirty-six percent of 2017 graduates from the state’s 15 public universities left the state, according to a survey conducted by Michigan State University’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research.

While that might not seem like cause for alarm, the percentage of those leaving was slightly higher than when researchers asked the same question in 2013.

The survey found graduates left for better job opportunities in other states and for cultural, social and recreational activities.

“Michigan is especially losing graduates with engineering degrees, those who go on to work in education or scientific or technical fields, and those with advanced degrees,” the study found.

An even stickier talent problem is that Michigan is just plain running out of working-age adults.

Employment in the state is expected to be almost flat between 2018 and 2028 because of an aging workforce and a lack of new residents, according to a new report by the Michigan Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives.

Of the 42 states that have made projections through 2028, Michigan ranks 41st in projected employment growth. The report cautions that the impacts of COVID-19 during the forecast period are unknown.

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“This is coming up faster than people think,” McMorrow said. “We can’t attract businesses if there aren’t any workers.”

Already, McMorrow said robotics and other tech companies in Oakland County have told her they’re having a hard time finding skilled, highly educated workers for open jobs paying as much as $200,000 a year.

And some are moving out of Michigan to where that talent exists. One example is Rivian, a Plymouth-based electric truck maker that reportedly is moving much of its engineering and product development workforce to California.

If Michigan doesn’t do a better job of developing, retaining and attracting talent,  “We will no longer have a technology or auto industry,” McMorrow said.

But McMorrow is hopeful, in part, because she thinks Michigan has a better story to tell than the one it claims.

A 30-something millennial, she has lived in five other states. They included California, where she designed Hot Wheels cars, among other jobs. But none could compare to “unbelievably beautiful” Michigan.

“I immediately found that people here wanted to collaborate and work together, and we all bought in on wanting to build metro Detroit up, not compete with each other,” she said. “And on top of that I could afford to buy a house.”