While Michigan economic developers have long focused on attracting businesses to the state, Dean Whittaker believes those organizations will increasingly need to focus instead on talent attraction. The president of Holland-based Whittaker Associates Inc. spoke to MiBiz about how a lack of available talent could affect companies and what’s being done to attract more workers to Michigan.
What are some key issues that economic developers will face in 2017?
What I see right now is a concern over the staffing of companies, specifically the attraction of talent and being able to fill the positions available. From an economic development point of view, it’s kind of an interesting quandary because normally they’re out trying to attract companies to move here, and now I think the strategy is going to be how do we attract people.
One of the challenges with that is we need to have companies here rethink how they approach employees and talent. In the past, the company had the power. What’s happening with the talent shortage is the power has shifted over to the employee side of the table. Now, it’s ‘why would I want to work with your company’ not ‘do you have a job for me?’
What can economic developers do to address these talent issues?
We’ve designed a system recently to help Start Garden be able to attract talent for their startup companies to fill some of the I.T. positions that have been difficult to fill. We’ve designed a system that will identify where the pockets of talent are and then start a social media marketing campaign that targets those geographic areas for people from West Michigan that have moved to those areas, such as California, and are at a stage in their life where it may be attractive to move back to West Michigan.
For example, you’ve had your second child, you’re in a small apartment and found that you can’t afford a house in California, particularly Silicon Valley. You have to move farther out to find housing you can afford, so then you’re commuting an hour and a half each way. There’s just a quality of life issue.
Are there really that many Michigan expats living in California who are ready to move back?
We don’t know yet. What we’re proposing right now is a pilot project to find out, and that’s the best way to learn. We won’t know until we try. It may turn out to be that there might not be that many people from West Michigan who live there, but there’s people out there who may find the Midwest lifestyle a preference to what they’re experiencing in the high-cost location in California.
Many companies are automating to resolve the talent issue. What impact could that have on workers?
I’m concerned that we’re about to chop off the bottom four rungs of the employment ladder. It’s already been happening. As we automate more and more of our operations, there’s a lower and lower demand for low-skilled (workers). There will always be a demand at some level, but the question is at what cost. At what wage rate are you going to be able to work in order to earn a living?