Many in Michigan's business community complain of a talent shortage. But an inaugural Workforce Pipeline Summit at Washtenaw Community College this Monday presented that problem as intrinsically linked to broader issues of inequity in the county.
The all-day summit, sponsored by the A2Y Chamber and NewFoundry, offered a variety of fast-paced talks on local issues that play into the talent pipeline problem, ranging from educational inequities to biased and antiquated hiring strategies. The final two hours of the day were dedicated to visioning, with attendees breaking into groups to develop narratives about what they wanted the county's future to look like.
"We cannot solve this all today," NewFoundry CEO and summit organizer Rich Chang said in his opening remarks. "We are not in problem-solving mode. We are overall in learning and visioning mode."
As the first speaker of the day after Chang, Ginsberg Center director Mary Jo Callan set the tone for the summit's perspective on the workforce pipeline issue. Callan said employers got themselves into their current talent problem by thinking they could plug "mostly white people" into the traditional training and education system to produce fully formed employees on the other end.
However, she said, increasingly unaffordable housing, a lack of transit and childcare options, and decreasing spending on public education have all influenced both economic disparity and the weakening of that traditional talent pipeline.
"We don’t understand that we are part of the system," Callan said. "We don’t understand that there are always, always, always people downstream."
Speakers presented a variety of stark statistics on inequity in the county. United Way of Washtenaw County president and CEO Pam Smith noted that 43 percent of Ann Arbor residents and 65 percent of Ypsilanti residents are asset-limited, income-constrained, and employed (ALICE). Teresa Gillotti, director of the Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development, noted that 20,000 jobs were created in Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor Township, Pittsfield Township, and Saline between 2002 and 2015, while Ypsi and Ypsi Township lost 10,000 jobs.
Most speakers took an inspirational tone, presenting solutions to both the pipeline issue and inequity in the county. Many focused on the educational system. Eastern Michigan University professor and Southeast Michigan Stewardship Coalition director Ethan Lowenstein drew applause when he said "we need to create communities of love and belonging," starting at the elementary level.
Lowenstein told a story about Max Harper, an Ypsilanti Community High School student who has participated in numerous projects organized by art teacher Lynne Settles. Harper estimated to Lowenstein that he had presented in public over 100 times.
"It’s easy to point at him as an exceptional child, and he is. But he is not an unusual child," Lowenstein said. "... His education focused on the development of his human capabilities."
In addition to proposing broad systemic improvements, speakers also offered simpler and more direct ways for attendees to address the issues at hand. Michigan Works! Southeast deputy director Shamar Herron presented on the Summer19 program, which offers local young people a month of job training before placing them in summer jobs with area employers. Herron noted that 300 young people have already signed up for the program, but only 40 have been placed in jobs. He encouraged employers in the room to join the program.
"If you want to be able to help, this is how you do it," Herron said.
As one of the event's two keynote speakers, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer focused primarily on her plan to improve Michigan's roads through her 2020 budget. But Whitmer also referenced the fact that the budget would free up education funds to address the state's shortcomings in literacy and educational attainment, which she called "an abomination."
"I hope every one of us looks at that and knows that if we don’t fix this problem, our future is compromised," Whitmer said.
The event's second keynote speaker, former Duo Security CIO Raffaele Mautone, brought the focus squarely back to workforce with an address that emphasized rethinking hiring practices. Mautone noted his own humble beginnings and told his story about being recruited by Dell while he was working as a bartender.
Mautone said employers who post a job that requires 10 to 25 years' experience in a specialty area are looking for a "purple unicorn" that they probably won't find. He exhorted employers to invest time and energy in seeking diverse new hires with unconventional experience outside of traditional recruiting forums, and then training them on the job.
"Don’t get me wrong," he said. "They might fail. They probably will. They might mess up something. But if you can create the learning environment where they can grow … they can teach some old people a lot of new ideas."
The sprawling lineup of speakers concluded with presentations on three of Michigan's "hidden talent pools": people who are living in poverty, creatives, and people who have returned from incarceration. We the People Growers Association founder Melvin Parson gave the presentation on returning citizens, comparing his own mission to "change the soil and make a difference in some folks' lives" to attendees' opportunity to metaphorically change the "soil" of their community.
Attendees then formed focus groups to develop their visions for how the county and its workforce might change in two, five, or 10 years. Zingerman's cofounder Paul Saginaw offered some opening thoughts on that visioning process. Saginaw noted the recent Regional Transit Authority and Library Lot votes as examples of missed opportunities for Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County to address issues that had been discussed during the summit.
"We all talk about wanting to get better, wanting to bring everybody along," Saginaw said. "We had a couple of chances and we let everybody down. So when you go to do your work today, please keep that in mind. It’s not going to be a great community unless it’s great for everybody."
The summit's steering committee is planning to synthesize Monday's visioning work into a set of master plans that will be distributed to regional stakeholders. Updates on that process will be available at the summit's website.
Patrick Dunn is the managing editor of Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer for numerous publications. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere.
Photos by Patrick Dunn.