G-Sync: I'm Moving to... Kalkaska!

So, where am I heading? To a place that is rich in art. There is easy access to the area's natural beauty. The downtown area has plenty of retail space, including the ability to walk to the local grocer. The city's DDA provides free WiFi.

This bastion of cool isn't Ann Arbor, Traverse City, or Kalamazoo, but Kalkaska! But before I say more, let's unpack what labor reports reveal and why it matters.

Looking at the income opportunities presented in the latest Department of Labor quarterly report, including details of Michigan's 83 counties, it is easy to discern why some folks are considering leaving Kent County.

Labor Day is upon us, and it was historically meant to be a time of joyous celebrations of the economic and social contributions of the worker to the U.S. economy.

Many have observed that Labor Day has become, like most holidays, bastardized over time to become less about reflecting on collective civic pride. Locally, it's been reduced to a quick dash to the beach featuring the mass consumption of grilled meats and the reminder that these are the last days of vacation season -- even if that only meant one allotted week off a year.

Labor Day is a Federal holiday enacted and recognized by President Grover Cleveland just six days after the end of the Pullman Railway Strike in which several protestors were killed at the hands of the U.S. military after more than 4,000 people walked off their railway jobs, thus shutting down all transit west of Detroit.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, Labor Day was to be a commemorative display of "the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations." It was also intended to be a time for workers and families to be joyously recreating. That would explain why the celebration evolved to include the American pastime of grilling everything. It was meant to be a celebration that not just built up community by recognizing the role workers had on the local economy, but the role these folks play in sustaining our nation's economy.

Rapid Growth dared last week to declare the recession over for West Michigan -- a fact others have yet to pick up on and report. How our publisher Jeff Hill got there is laid out in his piece aptly titled "The Recession is Over."

Taking a cue from Hill's piece, I began to wonder what it means for all of us who were asked to take pay cuts and work the positions of two or three people as we all collectively tightened out belts to help area businesses weather the recession's 10-year storm -- the worst since the Great Depression here in U.S. We have weathered much and have emerged on the eve of our Labor Day celebrations with more than just dark circles under our eyes and less in our bank accounts -- we have pride that we did it.

Adding to the proof is that nationally as well as locally, our numbers show that growth is happening at above average rates.

While the country has rebounded, adding 2 Million jobs in the last year, the number that matters is that U.S. labor rose 4.7 percent.

As we unpack these numbers, starting with the national statistic that the average weekly wage in the U.S. is $1,000, benchmark figures begin to emerge that we should be carefully monitoring.

For example, according to the most recent Department of Labor Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (QCEW) program, Kent County's average is actually below average with just $879 a week.  

Areas around our state that are worth noting not only show that we have some work to do, but that we might be shocked at who bests us on this list.

Locally, we might be reading that Ottawa County's Holland is one of the happiest places in America until you consider their $831 average weekly wage. And while you'd be hard pressed to place Holland in the same category as economically depressed Flint, Flint's Genesee County is $800 a week, making them closer to Holland than we perceive. How happy are you feeling now, Holland?

Even the places like Wayne County (City of Detroit) that many have traditionally and unjustly held up with scorn or ridicule deserve a fresh look as they best the average with $1,043 a week.

Surprises and not so surprises abound all over the state: Kalkaska's $945 per week to Ann Arbor's $1,030, to Oakland’s $1,141. Clearly, it is not too hard to see why some people are choosing truly greener pastures in light of our recovery.

Kent County is an area with much growth and thus no shortage of cheerleaders. We are growing wealth in a region that seeks to attract talent, but also retain our workforce.

But with numbers like these beginning to emerge in the recovery, competition is only going to grow stronger -- and not just because Rapid Growth's revelation of what others are reporting or paying.

This is where the local challenge comes in, and I am going to use language I believe speaks directly to the very people who have within their power to create a revolution in our region while rewarding our labor force.

Let's start with the premise we are below average in our country and our state. On top of this challenge, let's consider that we want to be better than average. How do we get there?

The answer is remarkably simple: pay people more.

I'll wait for the escaped air to fill the lungs of stakeholders around the boardroom. Seriously, though, there are real incentives beyond just attraction and retention; there is a chance to showcase a national model in such a bold act.

In our region, we have seen much interest in creating a community where venture capital will flow to area innovators, but these business scientists need a population not tied to economic inequalities and the fear that grips their every action.

Rather, let's get back to the test market we used to use where the world came to us to see how we would respond -- only this time, we are the ones doing the research.

If we look at our area's employed -- from the fast food worker all the way up to the CEO -- we have 400,000 people working both part-time and full-time (and in some cases, greater than full-time).

Our challenge is that if we are talking about 40 hours a week translating into 800 Million wage hours a year, then imagine what would happen should area businesses invest in a $1 per hour wage increase.  

I am purposefully trying to avoid the often-heated topic of living wage and strictly address a much simpler model that would surely garner more press than, say, just a Kalamazoo Promise (the city's commitment to invest in higher education). This could be a model for the rest of the country as to how a nation handles its recovery. It would be national news overnight that this region decided, in light of the recession's retreat, that we are the people who rewarded the very folks who got us through it. It would be a reason to truly parade in the street this Labor Day.

Here is our moment to hit the national stage and lead as headlines proclaim "$1 for $1 Billion."

So how would this be implemented?

This is the tricky part. I am the Lifestyle Editor, so I will admit that my area of expertise is to just dream it; the suits will need to carry the next baton.

But I have faith that should the big three furniture firms of our region or Hello, West Michigan take up this challenge and lead, then we would have our Dan Gilbert moment here in our area where we invest in our region by investing in our people.

If we invested just $1 an hour to our 800 million working hours, that would be nearly an infusion of $1 Billion dollars to our local economy. Can you just imagine how that could play out? Local individuals, who have been primed to think of our local businesses in a supportive role, could begin to see great reinvestment in our region.

If you thought the phenomena of Kickstarter and Indiegogo was the limit of their willingness to get involved, imagine what comes after these platforms?  

The real world benefits are there for us if we are willing to take the chance. When we reward the workers who got Michigan through the decade-long recession, we are not just giving them a raise in the bright light of our growth, but we are asking them to step out of the shadow with dignity knowing they were a part of this recovery. We are investing in them.

They may not individually walk through your door or even empower any professional associations to advocate for them, so someone who has always been a bit of an outsider his whole life has to be the one to ask, "Will you commit to paying these laborers of our region $1 an hour more to ensure that our growth is equitable, helping to restore our work force to an above average wage, knowing that all struggled to help us get past our worse days?"

Heck, let’s go for $2.

The Future Needs All of Us.

Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor

Most will hit the beach, but come the following weekend, it is a bloody good time at G-Sync Events: Let's Do This!

Editor’s Note: This is the last G-Sync editorial that Rapid Growth’s managing editor Juliet Bennett Rylah will oversee as she has departs from our region for her new home in sunny Los Angeles, CA.  

Over my time at Rapid Growth since 2006, I have had the honor and privilege to work under some amazingly talented editors. But under Rylah’s leadership, Rapid Growth would not just venture to cover new ground, but we were rewarded for her fearless leadership with tremendous growth delivered via our readers.

Rylah became our longest serving editor, clocking in at three years. But in all honesty, it felt much shorter somehow in the end, proving the old adage of time flying when having fun.

She will be missed by so many in our city -- from our arts scene where she rose up from their ranks, to the business leaders who would grow to appreciate her candor and fresh voice to the topics she would dare to tackle. Our editorial staff and contact writers will be especially missing her, as her editorial style was always to let our voices soar under her red pen. It is this quality of illuminating and preserving our community’s diverse voices that I admired the most over the years.   

As our editorial staff, photographer, and publisher gathered last month at City Flats’ CitySen to say our goodbyes, I truly felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz who, when preparing to leave said to her friend she’d met on this all too brief of a journey, "I will miss you most of all."  

Rylah, you rocked all of us like a hurricane. Best of everything in this world; you earned it.



Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.