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RapidChat: Kevin Stotts

As the organizer of Hello West Michigan and several other community programs, Kevin Stotts could be tagged as an entrepreneur at the very least. He currently holds the position of President of West Michigan's Talent 2025 program, and with his experience, he knows that there is much more that contributes to economic prosperity than simply creating jobs. 

As the organizer of Hello West Michigan and several other community programs, Kevin Stotts could be tagged as an entrepreneur at the very least. He currently holds the position of President of West Michigan's Talent 2025 program, and with his experience, he knows that there is much more that contributes to economic prosperity than simply creating jobs.
RapidGrowth: How long has Talent 2025 been around?
 
KS: Talent 2025 was created in 2010 with a purpose to improve the quality of the region’s workforce. The idea originated in 2007 with the West Michigan Strategic Alliance, funded by a U.S. Department of Commerce grant, to enhance the quality of life in the region.
 
A portion of that effort focused on talent as a strategic priority for the region. Cascade Engineering’s Fred Keller convened a group of business and community leaders to examine what would be necessary to ensure West Michigan’s workforce was able to meet the needs of employers now and in the future. From there, the conversation grew to include about 40 CEOs across the region to discuss what role employers could play in finding solutions.
 
At the time, West Michigan was emerging from the Great Recession, however it was clear employers were finding it more difficult to find quality talent and at the same time, too many college graduates were leaving the region.
 
The strategy that emerged was Talent 2025, a purposeful effort by business leaders to engage with West Michigan’s education, workforce, and economic development leaders to ensure the region was doing the very best to develop, attract, and retain talent.
 
RG: How did the program first get its footings in the community?
 
KS: In 2010, the W. E. Upjohn Institute conducted a study for us to assess the current state of the region’s talent and its future needs. It forecast more than 60 percent of the workforce in 2025 would need a post-secondary credential (i.e. a technical training, an associate degree, or greater). At the time, our region’s workforce rated just above 50 percent. So there was a lot of work that had to be done.
 
The early members of our CEO Council looked at the challenge from the perspective of their talent supply chain and decided to start with higher education. Two of our CEOs, Franco Bianchi of Haworth and Bill Payne of Amway, convened the Higher Education Working Group, which includes the region’s college and university presidents. Those meetings and the early successes of this working group served as our template to engage leaders in other areas of the region’s talent system.
 
RG: How did you first get involved with the effort?
 
KS: Prior to joining Talent 2025, I served as the vice president for community programs at the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, including Leadership Grand Rapids, which develops the next wave of community leaders for Grand Rapids.  During my eight years with the chamber, I started several new programs including one for young professionals, as well as Hello West Michigan, a regional effort to attract and retain talent.

RC: Hello West Michigan is one of my favorite local organizations. Are you still actively involved in their efforts?
 
KS:  Yes, Hello West Michigan is a key member of our Talent Attraction and Retention Working Group. We are working with them, employers in the region and others to do more to highlight West Michigan as a place for young professionals to intern and start their career. If we’re successful, they’ll be more likely to stay in West Michigan.
 
RG: What is your background in?
 
KS: After graduating from Michigan State University, I worked on several political campaigns and did some public policy work.  Following that work, I led a statewide scholarship program for low-income children, before joining the chamber.
 
When I look back on my career path, I feel blessed that each opportunity has complimented the next and each has informed the work I do now. My career has really been focused on making an impact in the community and making Michigan a better place to live and work.  
 
RG: What has made you so passionate about Michigan over any other state?
 
KS: It’s a beautiful state with great people. I grew up in metro Detroit, lived in the Upper Peninsula, Traverse City, Lansing/East Lansing and now Grand Rapids, so I’ve seen a lot of what Michigan has to offer. Few parts of the country can offer what Michigan can.  
 
RG: What sort of performance gaps have you seen here in West Michigan?
 
KS: From a pure metrics perspective, less than 60 percent of third grade students are proficient in reading and only 80 percent of the area’s students graduate from high school and less than half of these students pursue a post-secondary education. Only 54 percent of West Michigan adults have any post-secondary education and more than 105,000 adults, ages 24-54, have stopped looking for work. At the same time, too few of our kindergarteners come to school prepared to learn and our recent college graduates continue to seek career paths outside of the region.
 
But the challenge we face is more than just numbers. We haven’t reached a point where early childhood development, K-12 education, higher education, workforce development, talent attraction and retention and employers are aligned with each other.
 
Our work is focused on both, monitoring the performance of the region and working to improve and align the things we are doing to develop, attract and retain talent. 
 
RG: You take a very holistic approach with various education and workforce groups. What was the inspiration behind creating these so-called “working groups”?
 
KS: First, we take a systems approach and focus on the performance of the region, because employers don’t hire from only Holland, Muskegon or Grand Rapids. They draw their employees from across the region.
 
Second, our working groups are designed to engage business leaders to understand the problems in any given area and become a part of the solution. Our CEO co-chairs are passionate about the group they are involved with and as a result, they become content experts.
 
Third, we see our role as an advocate and accountability partner for the performance of the system. Talent 2025 convenes leaders from business and each segment of the talent system together to illuminate the gaps, evaluate solutions and advocate for leading practices that will improve the quality of West Michigan’s workforce. Each of these working groups is focused on a part of the system. They search for the root causes that are leading to the outcomes I mentioned.  Its through this process we’re able to co-define the problem and the solutions. As a result, the CEOs in these working groups become advocates for the policies, programs and funding that will achieve the results we all want. Then, they advocate this to our CEO Council. 
 
RG: Talent 2025 also has an “entrepreneur” working group. Does this have a specific degree of importance due to the heavy influence of entrepreneurs in Grand Rapids?
 
KS: Yes, it is very important. West Michigan was built on a spirit of entrepreneurship. But, when we compared the region’s recent performance to other parts of the country we found it lagged behind places like Ann Arbor, Austin, San Diego and the Research Triangle in North Carolina. 
 
Fortunately, the work of Start Garden has transformed the conversation and focus on entrepreneurship here. Talent 2025’s work led us to identify what San Diego has done to create an entrepreneurial ecosystem, which has been driven by linking and adding resources to support innovation and start-ups. Emerge West Michigan was formed to do the same thing here.
 
RG: What is your best advice for someone who is trying to make a difference within our community?
 
KS: Build your professional and social network and help others do the same. Find those things you’re passionate about and get plugged in. One great way to do that is through the community leadership programs offered by the Grand Rapids Chamber.
 
The community has an amazing capacity to make its own future and the more people involved, the more likely our community will be a great place to live and work for everyone.

Jenna Morton is the RapidChat correspondent for Rapid Growth Media.
 
 Photo by Adam Bird
 
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