Pandemic, Brain Drain Issues
Even before the pandemic, experts were anticipating a workforce crunch as baby boomers retired, and Michigan’s declining birth rate means there are fewer young adults to take their place. The Trump Administration’s more restrictive policies on immigration also curtailed an important labor source.
Those issues were all exacerbated by the pandemic. Retirements rose. Immigration became more problematic. Child care issues, health concerns and COVID-related burnout pushed some out of the job market. College enrollments dropped, even as the demand for skilled labor has increased.
Jeff Donofrio, CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan, said his organization surveys its members every quarter. In recent surveys, 70% to 80% say they’re having trouble with hiring.
“That talent availability and quality is something they’re concerned about,” he said. “It’s across the board. They need people with journeyman cards and apprenticeships. They need people with associate’s degrees, and there are a significant amount with jobs that require a bachelor’s degree or higher.”
To complicate matters, Michigan is experiencing a brain drain as well-educated adults leave the state, Donofrio said. “It’s about 8,000 a year, and where are they going? To places that are growing fast in the knowledge economy and where their skills are needed and where there’s a density of higher-paying jobs that require higher education.”
Corewell Health, formed after a merger of the Beaumont and Spectrum health systems, employs about 60,000 people. These days, about 10% of those jobs are vacant, about twice the typical vacancy rate, says Jan Harrington-Davis, Corewell’s senior vice president for talent attraction.
“Before the pandemic, we were in a position where people would just come to us when we had an open position,” Harrington-Davis said. “Post-COVID, we’ve had to invest in programs with colleges and universities, invest in marketing, things where you really have to set yourself apart to be chosen in the job market.”
It’s the same story for his and many other organizations, said Bob Nykamp, chief operating officer for Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services, which is headquartered in metro Grand Rapids and employs about 2,000 people.
“I heard a speaker at the Economic Club of Grand Rapids cite statistics that in 2018, there were 10 applicants for every job,” Nykamp said. “Now there are 10 jobs for every applicant.”
Pipeline is Shrinking
Michigan’s workforce shortage cuts across almost all sectors and all levels of skilled and unskilled jobs. But growing the skilled workforce is especially critical as the state seeks to increase the number of high-wage jobs and to retain and attract employers who pay those wages.
Among the Michigan jobs most in demand right now, according to the state Department of Labor & Economic Opportunity: Nurses and nurse’s aides, automotive service technicians and mechanics, computer support specialists, heating and air conditioning technicians, machinists, medical assistants, respiratory therapists and welders. All require a post-secondary degree or training.
Yet almost half of Michigan’s workers lack a post-secondary credential such as a bachelor’s or associate degree or an industry-recognized certification.
In 2021, 50.5% of Michigan residents age 25 to 64 had a post-secondary credential and 33.5% had at least a bachelor’s degree. That’s below the national averages of 53.7% and 36.5% respectively. Indeed, Michigan ranks last among the Great Lakes states in working-age adults with a post-secondary credential, according to data collected by the Lumina Foundation.
Even more disturbing, the numbers in the state’s higher-education pipeline are shrinking.