Marketing Grand Rapids as a place for young people to live and work is becoming increasingly important to the local economy.
According to Paul Isely, professor of economics and associate dean at Grand Valley State University’s Seidman College of Business, people moving to Grand Rapids from outside of the community were responsible for the entire growth in the city’s labor force last year.
“That’s a little scary,” he said. “It means we have to continue to attract workers from other places in order to grow here.”
He shared the statistic during Colliers International’s 2019 West Michigan Economic and Commercial Real Estate Forecast breakfast event Thursday at DeVos Place.
Isely presented an optimistic yet cautious report on the national and local economy. He expects a short and shallow recession in the next 18 months and predicts the broader U.S. economy will be affected more than West Michigan’s.
While a recession no doubt posed a concern for the few hundred real estate professionals who attended the event, the talent shortage also remains top of mind for most industries in West Michigan.
Employment growth is expected to pick up slightly in 2019 after a slowdown last year. There are between 10,000 and 20,000 viable workers looking for work in West Michigan, far from enough to satisfy demand.
Most business leaders surveyed in West Michigan estimated employment growth in the 1.3 percent range, about the rate of sales growth expected this year, according to a GVSU survey of 212 executives in Kent, Ottawa, Muskegon and Allegan counties.
One asset for Grand Rapids: Millennials. The city, unlike other areas of the state, has more people between the ages of 25-35 than people older than age 65.
“That’s a big deal, because those Millennials are what’s going to drive our economy for the next 20 years,” Isely said.
Getting people to come to work in Grand Rapids is the main priority for Cindy Brown, now vice president of talent initiatives at The Right Place Inc. Brown previously served as executive director of Hello West Michigan, which promotes the region as a good place to live and work, but she transitioned to the full-time role at The Right Place to tackle persistent talent issues.
Brown said “boomerangs” — or people who have ties to Michigan and come back to the state — are crucial to the future because they will start or bring families to the region. As well, their children will hopefully attend Michigan universities and eventually join the state’s workforce.
“They left, they learned, they’ve grown and now they want to get back with their families, and they’re starting their families,” Brown said of the boomerangs.
This movement will be imperative for Generation Z, the people born in the mid 1990s and early 2000s, or the other looming “cloud on the horizon,” as Isely put it.
The cause for concern: Generation Z is smaller than the previous generation. According to Isely, the Gen Z ranks will result in a 1 percent drop in people enrolled in high school graduating classes every year for the next 10 years, meaning an easy solution to the continuing talent shortage may prove to be elusive.
Isely notes that Michigan’s economy was in recession longer than other states, causing some members of Generation X to leave to find jobs and start families elsewhere. One bit of good news is that Generation Z wants to come back because of the types of jobs and amenities West Michigan offers, he said.
“We’re seeing net positive numbers from places like Houston and Denver, much different from what we saw 10 years ago,” Isely said.