Hello West Michigan tallies milestones


Speaker Maureen Walsh, chief human resources officer for Grand Valley State University, uses the Hello West Michigan forum to recruit faculty and educate students in her job. Courtesy Russ Climie Tiberius Images

Hello West Michigan was born a decade ago out of a collective need to promote the region as a place “where business thrives and people want to live and work.”

In 2007, members of the Chief Information Officers Council of The Right Place and a number of community partners realized they all had the same problem: They couldn’t find the talent they needed to fill jobs, and when they did attract candidates from outside the area — investing “substantial” financial resources into relocation packages — the new hires were leaving after six to 12 months.

This had many causes, which Hello West Michigan says included the fact that recruiters sold candidates on jobs and companies but paid little attention to community; if questions were asked about a community, resources were scattered and incomplete; and minimal emphasis was placed on the employment needs of a “trailing significant other” or family — those left behind when a candidate accepts a new position in West Michigan.

Ann Harten, then vice president of global information systems at Haworth and now the company’s VP of human resources, and Patrick O’Hare, then CIO of Spectrum Health who has since retired, teamed up to work on these problems.

Three years later, after many surveys, focus groups and engagement of transplants to the region, Harten and O’Hare co-founded Hello West Michigan with the help of many partners.

The membership-based nonprofit agency is now celebrating a decade of attracting and retaining talent in West Michigan.

Its services and strategies, detailed at hellowestmichigan.com, which receives an average of 40,000 visitors a year, include outbound marketing; connecting job applicants with employers; and promoting the region and all it has to offer through information and events geared toward “boomerangs” — those who used to live here and might consider coming back — interns and trailing significant others.

Rachel (Bartels) Gray, Hello West Michigan’s executive director since 2019, spoke to the Business Journal on Feb. 27 before the organization’s annual meeting and 10th anniversary celebration.

She said when Harten and O’Hare were forming Hello West Michigan, they could not find any other organization like it in the entire U.S.

Since then, the employer-driven and -governed model has been “copied in several states,” including Maine, Ohio and South Carolina, Gray said.

Cindy Brown served as the agency’s executive director from 2011-19 before starting a new role as VP of talent initiatives at The Right Place in January 2019.

When Hello West Michigan added Gray as program manager in 2013, the organization having two full-time staff members on its team — Brown and Gray — allowed it to grow at a faster clip.

Hello West Michigan increased its employer membership; added the Intern Connect event, a professional development conference to which member and nonmember employers can send interns; started the weekly resume pack program; and began outbound marketing, or advertising campaigns targeting markets such as Chicago and the greater Midwest where people have connections to this region.

“They’re the ones that are going to be most likely to click on an ad when they’re scrolling through their Facebook feed at a mile a minute,” Gray said. “What we’re really trying to do is to plant the seed with those people who would be the most likely to consider a relocation.”

Hello West Michigan also runs summertime ads in warm-weather states including Arizona, California and Oregon, touting Michigan’s pleasant summers and winter recreation opportunities.

“In Arizona (in the summer), they go from their air-conditioned house to the remote-start, air-conditioned car to the air-conditioned office,” Gray said. “They really can’t go outside. We, in the winter, during our ‘indoor season,’ we can go outside, and we can enjoy it, doing things like snowshoeing or skiing.”

Hello West Michigan cited among its 2019 outcomes 9 million ad impressions through its outbound marketing program; 600 Intern Connect participants; 247 calls made by member volunteers through the Candidate Concierge; and 3 million ad impressions for ReThink West Michigan, resulting in 157 attendees at six sites and three hires last year alone.

Since 2010, Hello West Michigan has connected 1,554 people to full-time employment in West Michigan, educated 2,800 interns from 286 companies about West Michigan, reached over 300,000 people through hellowestmichigan.com and delivered over 52 million ad impressions through outbound marketing.

Gray said for anyone who lives here now, it’s impossible to miss that Grand Rapids tops dozens of national rankings for its positive features, but that’s a relatively new development.

“Back in 2010, that was not happening, and so people didn’t understand what type of lifestyle you could have when you live here,” she said. “They didn’t understand that we have the symphony, Broadway Grand Rapids, the state’s only professional ballet company, access to outdoor recreation, a low cost of living and short commute times — all of these things that we talk about as the main selling points of West Michigan — people just didn’t understand that then.”

Gray said Hello West Michigan is one of the organizations that has played a big role in changing that perception and growing greater Grand Rapids in the past decade.

“From 2010 to 2018, there (was a net gain of) 31,000 in-migrants from out of state or internationally that came to our MSA in Grand Rapids,” she said. “That accounts for 39% of the total MSA population growth for that time period. So the needle is moving. We are helping that needle to move and to grow West Michigan. It’s important for our region to grow, because if we don’t have available talent, our businesses can’t grow, and if our businesses can’t grow, that’s not great for our economy or anyone who lives here.”

At Hello West Michigan’s annual meeting last month, six storytellers were featured: a mix of local business leaders and individuals who have benefited from Hello West Michigan’s services and/or transplanted to West Michigan:

  • Sander Schoof, CEO at Muskegon-based automotive supplier Scherdel Sales & Technology, who immigrated to the region 12 years ago from Germany.
  • Carson Wyckoff, a West Michigan native who chose to stay after Hello West Michigan connected him to his current role: manufacturing manager at Scherdel.
  • Candace Matthews, former president of the Consumer Products Division of L’Oréal USA in New York who moved here a dozen years ago — before Hello West Michigan existed — and now is Amway’s chief reputation officer.
  • Soniyaa Dighe, a native of India who moved to the U.S. for she and her husband to attend graduate school and fell in love with West Michigan’s “beaches, outdoors, state parks,” family-oriented culture and work-life balance. She now works in global brand management at Amway Nutrition.
  • Maureen Walsh, chief human resources officer at Grand Valley State University, who was a trailing spouse and chose to stay in West Michigan for its coffee shops, breweries and culture, and now uses Hello West Michigan to recruit faculty and educate students in her job.
  • Bart Merkle, a longtime Grand Valley professor who used Hello West Michigan to convince his Marine Corps veteran son to return to West Michigan for a job as director of business operations for the Smart & Connected division at Steelcase.

All six of the speakers spoke about the culture, values and opportunities found in West Michigan that convinced them to stay.

Matthews said when she joined Amway, she was able to shave three hours off her daily commute while still living in the country on a farm. Although she also praised other positive attributes of the region, she issued a challenge to Hello West Michigan — help make this a better place for people of color such as herself, who may face micro-aggressions as they try to adjust to their new surroundings, like she and her family did.

“As you’re recruiting and doing all the wonderful things that you do to help people settle in this community, also help the community help people settle,” Matthews said.

“This community is so wonderful, and it has embraced us so well, but we also have to help the community understand that there are so many people that are coming to West Michigan (from all over the world), and we want them to stay. And I think there’s no one better than Hello West Michigan to be a part of helping people stay in this community.”

10 years of community impact

2007-08: Discussions about the region’s talent problems began among 16 partner organizations that comprised the Chief Information Officers (CIO) Council of The Right Place, including Haworth, Steelcase, Amway, Spectrum Health, Mercy Health and Meijer.

2010: Ann Harten, of Haworth, and Patrick O’Hare, now retired from Spectrum Health, co-founded Hello West Michigan; hellowestmichigan.com officially launched at this time.

2011: First full-time executive director, Cindy Brown, was hired.

2011: Hello West Michigan added a job board to its website.

2012: First ReThink Michigan event was held. In the past eight years, the event has added locations across the state and garnered 1,175 attendees, resulting in 80-plus hires.

2013: First full-time program manager was hired, Rachel (Bartels) Gray, who was promoted to executive director upon Brown’s departure in 2019.

2013: The organization’s first weekly resume pack was sent out to interested companies. Since then, 1,594 hires have been made out of the 2,857 resumes sent out.

2014: First Intern Connect event was held, and the organization began its first continuous ad campaign.

2016: Strategic partnership was officially formed with The Right Place and Hello West Michigan became its official talent partner. Hello West Michigan is now housed inside The Right Place office, at 125 Ottawa Ave. NW, Suite 450, in Grand Rapids.

2017: ReThink West Michigan became a multi-site event.

2018: The Candidate Concierge Program was launched.

2019: Team transition happened and new Program Manager Jessica Kuster was hired.

2019: ReThink West Michigan was awarded Best in Show at the 2019 Excellence in Economic Development Awards by the International Economic Development Council.

2020: The organization is celebrating its 10th year and now has more than 80 member companies.

Source: Hello West Michigan

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