What the rest of Michigan can learn from West Michigan's Talent 2025

Talent Special Report
Talent development appears to be a national Catch-22. The education system struggles to keep pace with the economy and employers can’t seem to find skilled workers.
 
7.9 million American people were unemployed in September 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, with millions more underemployed. Yet, 5.4 million job openings were available the month prior.
 
We’ve long been told to look at cities like Portland, Washington, D.C. and Denver as examples of places that have figured out the talent formula. Sure, there are lessons to be learned from these usual suspects, but often when you mention these giants, Michiganders roll their eyes. It’s not that their successes are unimpressive; they’re just hard to relate to as a state that has been through so much in the last seven years.
 
What about those regions more closely aligned with our set of challenges and struggles? What might we learn from them?
 
Pittsburgh - “America’s Most Livable City” in 2010. St. Louis’s Forest Park - one of the “Ten Great Public Spaces” for 2013. Milwaukee - one of “The 35 Best U.S. Cities For People 35 and Under” in 2013. These can feel more relatable for us.
 
Take Pittsburgh, for example. Once a victim of the fallen steel industry, it has been called the "miracle city," "America's smartest city" and "America's most livable city" by the likes of Forbes and The Economist.
 
Why?
 
These places aren’t flashy - they’ve picked themselves up by their bootstraps just as we’re in the midst of doing in Michigan and have made placemaking and talent retention top priority.
 
How?
 
They’ve made it to the other side of the talent attraction and retention question by being thoughtful about creating places that people want to put down roots and digging deep to answer tough questions. Pittsburgh has attracted the next generation of workers by being affordable and offering “social mobility,” according to The Atlantic.
 
Michigan has been increasingly focused on the issue of talent in recent years, with much discussion on how to improve and expand our talent pipeline. Everything from K-12, adult education, workforce development and higher education policy have come to the table as needing to be addressed to face the challenge.
 
“We should be looking at the models of regions like Pittsburgh, Minneapolis-St. Paul or northeast Ohio, because, in our global economy, we are competing for talent,” says Shanna Draheim, senior consultant at Public Sector Consultants, a Lansing-based public policy consultancy.  “None of these efforts is perfect, but there are best practices that could be very applicable in many of Michigan’s regions.”
 
Building talent starts early
 
Public Sector Consultants recently released Building a Brighter Future: Recommendations for How to Improve Michigan's Education System, which provides recommendations on what Michigan can fix in regard to broken educational practices negatively impacting workforce development.
 
“The concern is that for Michigan to be successful and for our children to be successful, we need to do better on the talent front,” says Jeff Guilfoyle, vice president at Public Sector Consultants.
 
Having to take remedial courses is the norm at a two-year college degree, and common at four-year institutions.
Source: Talent 2025.Guilfoyle explains that employers are having trouble filling some jobs because they cannot find workers with the right skills and some workers are struggling to get into good jobs because their skills don't fit what employers are looking for. That should sound familiar - Michigan is no exception to the national trend.
Source: Talent 2025.These problems are expected to get worse as the workforce ages and much of future job growth will be in areas that require a higher skill set than jobs did in the past.
 
However, there are other key parts of the talent pipeline equation that haven’t been as included in the conversation as they ought to be.
 
“I don’t think this is something that is recognized as an issue in our state,” says Guilfoyle. “People need to be concerned about improving the whole system. We ought to raise the concern we have for talent to the level of concern we have for, say, roads.” 
 
Having high quality, economically diverse and vibrant places where talent wants to live, and ensuring we have a strong entrepreneurial and welcoming culture that fosters innovation and new businesses and industry opportunities are just two examples of important ingredients for growing a strong talent pipeline, according to Public Sector Consultants. And they’re ingredients that have been largely ignored.
 
“Michigan has many assets that could help us leverage these places, including entrepreneurial and innovation ingredients that could help expand our talent pipeline,” says Draheim.
 
Draheim names a few:
  • Abundant natural resources that contribute to the beauty and character of our communities, create jobs and provide recreational opportunities, such as biking, fishing, paddle sports and sailing. Michigan is surrounded by Great Lakes and this alone provides us such a strategic advantage for attracting and retaining talent.
  • Top-ranked research universities, particularly the partnership of the University Research Corridor, which provide extensive education and research opportunities and are spurring both innovation and entrepreneurial activity.
  • A strong immigrant community, which accounts for large and growing shares of our state’s economic activity, and welcoming policies that have helped foster job opportunities and immigrant-friendly communities
  • Cities that are rich in history, architecture and cultural resources, and still provide affordable living, but which need investment in diverse housing, commercial activities, public spaces, parks, and other critical infrastructure that contribute to quality of life.
What we haven’t gotten right as a state, according to experts like PSC, is combining all of these ingredients for success.
 
“We haven’t been very aspirational,” says Guilfoyle. “There’s not a statewide conversation about raising Michigan’s stature into a top 20 region for talent.”
 
What we can learn from West Michigan
 
Despite this lack of conversation, there is one region that has started to wrap its arms around the big picture. West Michigan has begun to whip up those ingredients into gourmet talent development.
 
Well on its way to being globally recognized as a top region in the U.S., West Michigan has Talent 2025 to thank for its workforce aspirations and signs of success. A catalyst to create a truly integrated talent development system designed to make the region a magnet for both talent and jobs, Talent 2025 is an inspiration for how the rest of the state can address talent issues. 
 
“Talent 2025 is a coalition of nearly 100 CEOs from across West Michigan coming together to drive performance improvement across the region’s talent system,” says Kevin Stotts, Talent 2025 president. “Our vision is to align supply and demand to be a top 20 talent region by the year 2025, with the primary goal of 64 percent of our workforce acquiring post secondary credentials by the same year.”
Source: Talent 2025.Forty of the 100 CEOs from premiere employers in the region serve in regular working groups, and offer a high level of engagement as advocates and partners in accountability.
 
The working groups convene in eleven different areas - early childhood development, K-12 education, post-secondary education, workforce development, entrepreneurship, Michigan work ready communities, talent demand, inclusion, talent attraction and retention and veteran employment.
 
Each workgroup has a goal, accompanies by measurable strategies. Overarching strategies include linking employer talent demand to educators and talent, exposing K-16 students to today’s world of work, attracting and retain talent, establishing an entrepreneurial ecosystem and engaging small- and mid-sized employers.
 
Talent 2025 also acknowledges the need to address occupations requiring extensive post-secondary education.
Source: Talent 2025.Stotts attributes Talent 2025 successes so far to two things: engagement of West Michigan talent at scale and enthusiastic alignment around its vision. Improvement has been reported in 12 of the 17 indicators the organization actively measures.
 
“We work with higher education, economic development, workforce development and post-secondary education employers across all 13 of our counties to engage the system,” he says. “You can’t just pull out one element.”  
 
Stotts notes the enthusiasm of Talent 2025 CEOs as being a major part of the solution.
 
“Our CEOs really care and want to be part of the solution, and are becoming content experts within their workgroups, which is especially appreciated by stakeholders.”’
 
He also recognizes this as a potentially non-replicable accomplishment specific to West Michigan, noting other communities lack of a critical mass of family-owned businesses headquartered in the region.
 
“In the past 10 years, we’ve come to appreciate the value of the region as an asset, rather than value the individual places in the region. The region is the asset.”
 
He agrees that Michigan is lacking in the placemaking element crucial to driving talent attraction and retention.
 
“We could definitely to more as a state to make communities more attractive to people for live and work. Millennials want to work in diverse, urban communities that have equitable outcomes, and we’re struggling with this. They can live anywhere in the country, so the question to employers is how do you become an employer of choice?”  
 
As for the takeaway Stotts hopes for?
 
“For others to see the valuable role that business leaders can play in solving these issues,” he says. “Business leaders coming to the discussion saying ‘how do we help you do your job better?’ can be extremely powerful. Talent 2025 advocates for demand and data driven organization and looking at problems from a different perspective - we’re trying to solve the problems of while contributing to a vibrant community. It’s quite special.”

Steps in the right direction aren’t limited to West Michigan. Organizations like Michigan Talent Agenda, The Grand Vision and Inspire Michigan are talking about place and cities and talent attraction, too.
 
So, what can we do about it?
 
Draheim recommends strategies like evaluating what level of public and private investment is needed, what partnerships work most effectively and where we should be focusing our resources and energies based on the successes and lessons learned of other regions and states.
 
Guilfoyle says what is most important is that the state set a vision for where we need to go on the talent front and then actively works to implement this vision.
 
“This will not just happen,” he says. ”It will happen through the concerted effort of the Governor, legislators, education leaders and stakeholders, business groups and others. Improving outcomes is hard work. But other states have demonstrated that it can be done, and we need to focus on these issues here and start down the path to improvement.”
 
Photos of Kevin Stotts of Talent 2025 leading a group of West Michigan CEOs in talent-focused workgroups. Photos by Adam Bird.
 
This piece was made possible through a partnership with Public Sector Consultants.
Q&A with Talent 2025 President Kevin Stotts
Q&A with Talent 2025 President Kevin Stotts
What does it mean to you to be an advocate for talent development in Michigan?
It’s all about harnessing the great talent we have in our state. Advocacy to me means bringing together business, education, workforce development and economic development leaders to find creative solutions to solve the region’s talent needs. Talent 2025’s vision is to make West Michigan a top 20 region for talent. Achieving this would strengthen our communities and businesses, so the work is incredibly fulfilling.
 
We know that job seekers need technical abilities in addition to soft skills, which are not always easy to come by. How do we instill those qualities in the up and coming workforce?
Employers have to be explicit with what it takes to be a successful employee. Employers feel strongly that these skills - which we describe as character skills - are just as important as technical knowledge. So, it is important for employers to engage in direct conversations with not only students, but also parents, teachers, guidance counselors and so on, laying the extremely important foundation for the up and coming workforce.
 
On the educator’s side, it’s a matter of figuring out how to integrate experiential learning to really help students in middle school, high school and college develop these skills so they are prepared when they enter the workforce.
 
Ultimately, it takes employers and educators working together to accomplish both.
 
What qualities do you think a community should have to attract quality talent for the long term?
A key component in West Michigan’s attractiveness is placemaking - we’re striving to create livable communities. The organization CEOs for Cities talks about the importance of vibrant, walkable, diverse communities as a key to attracting and retaining talent. Grand Rapids has seen the result of these efforts over the past 10 years. 
 
Yet, more needs to be done. If you compare unemployment, educational attainment and per capita income, many are achieving at the same rates as the majority, so that has to be a priority. When everyone is succeeding, that leads to the true diversity that people want to see in the communities in which they live and work.
 
Strong regionalism is crucial to the success of Talent 2025. What can other regions learn from how West Michigan values the region?
Collaboration is really valued and is intentional in West Michigan. It is a big part of the success we are seeing bringing business, education and workforce development together.
 
Regionalism is also important. It is a matter of seeing the assets and understanding the challenges is a regional issue. And, to go a step further, that the region is responsible for finding the solution, which is both a challenge and an opportunity.
 
West Michigan has embraced the spirit of public-private partnerships and has moved beyond laying blame. A big part of our work is to lay out the facts, including identifying where we’re underperforming and get to the solutions that make a difference. Everyone has something to bring to the table.
 
It’s been neat over the past several years to watch everyone take responsibility and move toward a truly regional mindset. The former West Michigan Strategic Alliance deserves a lot of the credit for laying the foundation for this evolution - it’s one of the legacies of the organization.
 
Any predictions for what the year 2025 will look like in West Michigan?
I’m optimistic that as region with education, workforce development and industry working together, we can make it to a top 20 region by 2025. We’ve got the commitment and we’re showing early signs of success.
 
Tangibly we’ll see our workforce measuring up globally, local employers will thrive because they have the talent to be competitive and more industry will move to the region because we have created this dynamic system where education, workforce development and business is aligned.
 
I think you’ll continue to see placemaking efforts across the region continue to enhance the quality of life of the community.
 
And, I’m encouraged by the efforts to increase equity across the region. Ultimately, we can’t be a prosperous region unless everyone is part has the same opportunity for success