Workforce issues haunt West Michigan community leaders


Leaders from business and community organizations are stepping up efforts to address West Michigan workforce issues.

They agree current career preparation is insufficient in creating talent to meet present and future workforce demands, threatening continued economic growth in the region.

There is a low unemployment rate and the labor participation rate is high, which is good, said Jim Robey, an economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute, but it makes attracting and expanding companies “difficult.”

Michigan has reported 105,000 unfilled jobs statewide, mostly in middle-skills areas. Business and community leaders attending the April 18 “Workforce Opportunity Forum: Casting a Wider Net” discussion explored the needed shift to a skills-based economy and the need for this to happen quickly in order to meet workforce demand.

They called for action toward solving the problem.

“If we aren’t focused on it now, we’re going to find ourselves in a world of hurt,” said Bill Pink, president of Grand Rapids Community College. “It’s not in 2025. It’s too late by then.”

Chaná Edmond-Verley, of Believe 2 Become, an initiative to help children succeed, pointed to a statistic from the World Economic Forum: 65 percent of children beginning school today will work in jobs that do not yet exist.

Pink said he is invited to participate in many conversations about defining the issues. He said it’s clear what the disparities are.

“Now, let’s create the action items to really make movement,” Pink said.

There needs to be a focus on education, inclusion and an investment in children and infrastructure, said Ron Koehler, assistant superintendent of Kent Intermediate School District. But a “one-size-fits-all” solution will not work, he said.

“When we have 21 percent of children who are living in poverty, we need to do something different,” said Milinda Ysasi, executive director of The SOURCE, an employment-focused nonprofit. “We need to stop criminalizing and penalizing people who are living in poverty who are trying to get those middle-scale jobs.”

Ysasi, who said she is “pissed off with purpose,” said there has been some work toward this — such as ending driver responsibility fees — but more can be done, like assistance with child care.

As long as there is a bigger focus to “filter” people from the system rather than creating opportunities, the problems will not be solved, she said.

In hiring, it will be important to “level the playing field” so all “qualified” workers have an equal chance, said Bill Manns, president of Mercy Health Saint Mary's.

When he began his job in 2013, Manns said there were unregulated hiring practices that did not give everyone a fair chance.

He worked to regulate interview questions and other hiring practices, and grew the rate of staff of color to 38 percent.

“Patient perception of quality went up as the workforce became more diverse,” he said.

Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss urged leaders in every sector to take “strategic action” to fix the “urgent” workforce need.

“We know this is a worthwhile cause that we have to work hard at solving,” she said. “But I can’t think of a cause more worthwhile than this.”

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