Talent will continue to reign as the top issue Southwest Michigan First needs to tackle in 2017, according to CEO Ron Kitchens. He believes that the future of communities will depend on their ability to attract and retain Generation X and Millennial workers. To do that, his organization plans to integrate some of its employees into universities around the region, advocate for affordable downtown housing and promote an “open culture,” he said. Kitchens spoke with MiBiz about how economic developers’ jobs are shifting to focus on talent.
What issues are top of mind for economic developers going into 2017?
There is shortage of talent from an employer’s standpoint at every level. It’s not uncommon to see shortages of talent and people in certain key areas, but we’re seeing a shortage of management folks, on the assembly line, really every wage level. That’s not going to get better organically. The fact is we’re going to see a lot of people retire.
Is this problem particularly acute for Michigan?
We in this state lost more than just jobs and economic viability in the (economic downturn), we lost a whole generation of people and they’re not here now to step into those promotable roles in organizations. Our dependency on Generation X and Y is far greater than other regions around the country. We have to develop strategies around holding ourselves accountable as a region to what it takes to accelerate the leadership, development, attraction and retention of Generation X and Millennials.
What are some of those strategies?
It’s internships. We’re moving forward to actually put our staff people on campus on a daily basis (to) serve as mentors and concierges. Universities do a great job of preparing students for the workforce, but they don’t have the relationships we have in knowing how to connect them into the workforce. The data is pretty clear that the students who work in internships and have relationships with employers while in college have a far greater chance of staying in your community, and a far greater chance of having jobs immediately upon graduation.
How has that trend influenced economic development?
We have to ensure that we are ‘sticky’ to college graduates and millennials. That means something much different for the previous generation than it does now. (It’s an) open culture that allows people to participate at all age levels. We’re committing a large cohort of millennials who are in the community and are active to partner with them on developing strategies for public infrastructure on what it takes to be sticky for those groups. It really is much more than ‘let’s go put up a factory on the edge of town and people will come to work.’ People have much more information and freedom of movement than they’ve ever had. The number one indicator of future success of places is their ability to grow and retain next-generation workers.
How big of a role will developing downtown living play in your strategy going forward?
If you were to ask me five years ago what we’re doing for downtown urban growth, I’d say that’s not what we do. (Now) we’re neck-deep in downtown and significant transformational projects, particularly around housing, because it’s that millennial issue. If we want to become sticky to next-generation residents, then we’ve got to create housing that’s market-rate but entry-level and affordable.
Some people have been talking about forming a medical device hub in Southwest Michigan. Is that on your radar and is that viable?
Absolutely. We moved the Southwest Michigan Innovation Center to be managed by the Western Michigan University medical school so we could create stronger collaborations. Western’s new product design program is a collaboration of design, medicine, art, business and engineering with the idea of developing products that meet the needs of the market and community. Where Kalamazoo and Southwest Michigan thrive on medical device is on those consumer, human-based products.
Does having a president-elect that dabbles in economic development make your job harder?
It’s already a hard job. I never get to make the rules of the game, I just get to play in it. I wish his rhetoric was kinder. I don’t like bullies and some days he’s clearly a bully. But I really love the fact that we have a president (elect) that says jobs are the most important thing. We’re going to find a way to adjust and win.