Despite COVID-19 and the prevailing narrative that no one is hiring, the fact is talent attraction is still an important topic in West Michigan. Although our unemployment rate rose to 24% in April, it has returned to 7.6% in August and a 4-6% unemployment rate is considered “full employment” (via Michigan Bureau of Labor Market Information for Region 4
MiTalent.com currently has 65,000 job postings. It used to be that people moved to where the jobs were. But now jobs, and the companies that provide them, move to where the people are — the educated and skilled people. Without a skilled and abundant workforce, our local economy will face challenges.
So what is West Michigan doing to address this issue?
West Michigan boasts a talent attraction and retention organization called Hello West Michigan
. According to its website, it was the first of its kind in the country: an employer-driven organization dedicated to attraction and retention. A lot of states, regions, or cities now have talent campaigns or short-term initiatives, but very few have an organization that offers individualized help to people interested in relocating.
Since its origin in 2007 and official launch in 2010, Hello West Michigan has promoted the region to over 40 million people through advertising campaigns, has 40,000 annual visitors to its website, connected with thousands of candidates at in-person events such as ReThink West Michigan
, and directly helped over 1,600 people get hired in West Michigan. In the last 10 years, with the help of Hello West Michigan, the region* has gained over 30,000 people who moved here from other states or counties (U.S. Census Bureau). Kent and Ottawa Counties had the largest population gains of any county in Michigan for 2017 and 2018 (U.S. Census Bureau).
But there’s still more to be done.
On an individual level, talent attraction and retention really comes down to communication. So many of us in West Michigan are proud to call this region home, yet we neglect to tell others about what it has to offer. As tempting as it is to hoard our insider knowledge of secret pristine beaches, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, or favorite neighborhood breweries, sharing these tips helps attract people to the community. Even simple things like posting positive articles or information about your community on social media can go a long way in helping talent attraction efforts. Contacting out-of-state connections to ask if they have ever considered moving to West Michigan takes it a step further and can be surprisingly effective.
Making these asks is important now since COVID-19 has started a new trend of “de-urbanization” with people leaving crowded cities that no longer provide the same amenities in our new socially-distant reality. Instead, people are seeking communities with abundant year-round outdoor recreation options and a lower cost of living.
Our goal shouldn’t be to beg people to come. Or, in the case of college graduates and young tradespeople, beg them to stay. Rather, we should do our best to educate them on the possibilities available here in their own backyard. West Michigan is home to 30,000 companies, spanning countless industries including healthcare and biomedical sciences, manufacturing, the service industry, and a host of other sectors. Like most companies around the country, West Michigan companies have embraced remote work where possible, which has enabled new flexibility for workers and a new tool for attracting talent.
Our region is also home to a burgeoning technology sector that may not rival Silicon Valley when it comes to size, but certainly rivals it when it comes to capability and the standard of living. West Michigan offers a work-life balance seemingly unheard of in Silicon Valley. There’s little logic to living in a beautiful area, only to spend every waking hour locked inside an office or the majority of your income spent on housing costs. The cost of living in West Michigan is much more reasonable, meaning people can afford more for less. Recent transplants report their friends poke fun at them for trading the West Coast for West Michigan. That is, until the friends come to visit and experience the area for themselves.
From 2009 to 2019, West Michigan added nearly 4,000 jobs in the technology sector, and all estimates point to that number rising as stalwart West Michigan technology firms like Atomic Object, Open Systems Technology, and Michigan Software Labs continue to expand.
Moreover, some of West Michigan’s largest employers such as Spectrum Health, alongside countless manufacturers and other large corporations, continue to grow their technology departments to prepare for the future. Additionally, with fewer companies than Silicon Valley, it can be easier for start-ups to gain the attention of West Michigan’s cadre of investor groups, such as Start Garden, Grand Angels, and others.
As important as it is to focus on attracting people to West Michigan, it is also vital we make every effort to embrace those who have recently relocated to the region and make them feel a part of the community. So often our own social networks are filled to capacity as we manage busy professional and personal lives. With so little time to devote to the friends we already have, it can seem impossible to consider adding more to our networks. But as locals, we must remember those who have relocated are struggling to build a fledgling social network of their own — all while acclimating to a new area and managing the same time constraints.
It is a difficult concept for those who have never relocated to understand, yet for those attempting to make friends after relocating, the task can be daunting. It is crucial that we all take the time and effort to truly connect with people who have recently moved to the area. Friendships require time and repeated interaction. It is a two-way street and something absolutely necessary to make those new to the area feel at home. During this pandemic, most people are keeping their social circles tighter, but with the rise of video-conferencing and the normalization of Zoom calls with family members or close friends, we actually have new tools at our disposal for making connections with newcomers in an easy, quick, and socially distant manner.
If our young people decide to leave, we should embrace it. Yet we must ensure they know they will always be welcomed back, and that down the road West Michigan may be precisely what they are searching for.
Without these individualized efforts to attract and retain talent, West Michigan will be challenged. The workforce is aging and statistics show that unless more people migrate to the state, employers will struggle to find the talent needed to grow their businesses. Yet, if we all work together to promote the region and welcome those newcomers into our community, West Michigan will continue to thrive. We all have a role to play in talent attraction and retention, and it is time we all do our part.
*The region is the Grand Rapids-Wyoming MSA which includes Kent, Ottawa, Montcalm, and Barry Counties.
About Cindy Brown
Cindy serves as the Vice President of Talent Initiatives and collaborates with other talent related organizations to address regional talent pipeline challenges.
Cindy worked jointly as Executive Director for Hello West Michigan and Vice President of Talent Initiatives for The Right Place for many years before stepping into her role for The Right Place full time. Under Cindy’s leadership, Hello West Michigan's membership, programming, and regional awareness grew exponentially, helping establish West Michigan as a destination for top talent.
In previous roles, Cindy served as Project Manager for the West Michigan Internship Initiative and had a lengthy career at Enterprise Rent-A-Car. She has over 20 years of leadership experience in, employee development, talent acquisition, training, and facilitation. She excels at attracting talent, generating awareness, and connecting individuals to resources.