Business leaders sound alarm


The disconnect between workers’ skills and what employers need is reaching “emergency” proportions.

The first in a series of three events hosted by Business Leaders for Michigan focusing on issues critical to the state’s success addressed opportunities in working with educational partners to strengthen the workforce pipeline.

Business Leaders for Michigan held a CEO Roundtable Discussion earlier this month at DeVos Place in downtown Grand Rapids, addressing barriers and opportunities in growing a skilled workforce to meet Michigan’s needs.

The event featured guest speaker Dane Linn, vice president for Business Roundtable, and a panel discussion made up of leaders from Michigan-based organizations, including: Mark Alyea, president emeritus, Alro Steel Corp.; Stephanie Comai, director, Michigan Talent Investment Agency; John Kennedy, president and CEO, Autocam Medical; Blake Krueger, chairman, president and CEO, Wolverine World Wide; and Mark Murray, co-chief executive officer and vice chairman, Meijer Inc.

Although the companies represent a variety of technical jobs and pursue talent with different skill sets, job providers across the state are struggling to fill open positions. From designers, machinists, technicians, product developers, brand builders and other positions, employers are competing for a smaller talent pool as labor supply slows and workers remain disengaged from the workforce.

Among roughly 216 members of the national Business Roundtable, Linn said there are approximately 4.2 million unfilled employment positions across the country.

“It is not that they don’t want to hire those workers; it’s because they can’t. There is a mismatch between what those candidates bring relative to knowledge, skills, behaviors and attitudes — not just the hard skills but also the soft skills,” said Linn.

“We have almost 6 million young people who aren’t working or in school. That’s a national emergency. If we can’t fill those jobs, not just Michigan but this country isn’t going to be internationally competitive.”

To address this issue, Linn said it is important to connect employers with the higher education community to expand on work-and-learn models.

“We all think of work and learn as separate,” said Linn. “The working world is very disconnected from the learning world, and I think that is what frustrates both the higher education community, including not just four-year but also two-year schools which are critical to this effort, and our career technical education centers.”

Kennedy, president of Autocam Medical, said one of the reasons employers may not receive the response they would expect from the education community is due to a lack of clearly articulated needs from employers.

“They don’t really hear from employers what they need, and so we have an obligation as employers to be involved in these things and make sure we are organizing and telling these schools what we need,” said Kennedy.

Murray, co-CEO of Meijer, said the company has deepened its relationship with a number of academic institutions in the state. For supply chain management, Meijer works with Michigan State University; it partners with Ferris State University based on its pharmacy programs. Other programs include Grand Valley State University’s information technology and Western Michigan University’s food management.

“That depth of partnership with institutions has made us a better company,” said Murray. “The new secret of the last 15 years for young people going to college is figuring out (their) internship path because that really is now the main path into the professional job.”

Murray said the soft skills traditionally gained through a liberal arts education are critical.

“I don’t think we are doing anybody a favor to say this is a pure question of capacity to run equations or know stress loads in an engineering program, because if you are actually going to be transformational and solve problems, engage customers, manage people — do all the work that is what business work is — getting that balance right is actually the path to success,” said Murray.

Alyea, of Jackson-based Alro Steel Corp., said his primary focus has been on communicating with the K-12 community to raise awareness of the viability of employment in manufacturing.

“Let education be what they pursue once they know what they want to do with their life, as opposed to spending money going to college and going into debt to try to ‘find yourself,’” said Alyea. “You can have an extremely successful career through different pathways (in ways other) than marching off to college. You do need to be able to re-train yourself to get better as life goes on. You are actually doing yourself a disservice if you think if you have a four-year degree, you are done.”

Comai, who leads the new state-based agency focused on the gap between skilled workers and employer demand, said 77 percent of students who take a career and technical education path in high school in Michigan go on to pursue some level of higher education.

“They go to an associate level or a four-year degree program and, I think, back to this work-and-learn, while you are in that career and technical education program, you are actually linked up with an employer,” said Comai.

Krueger said addressing the issue not only takes awareness but also leadership.

“We aren’t competing against Texas, Oregon or Indiana. We are competing against Poland, India, China and Mexico,” said Krueger. “If we collectively don’t make the connections and fill these gaps, just like we had a swath of our unskilled job opportunities move offshore, we are going to see that migration move up the ladder and continue to move offshore. It is a global marketplace; it is a global world, today.”

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