Grand Rapids has a big problem to solve, one that cannot be resolved only by the public or private sector but — once again — by cooperative actions from both, and it is far overdue. The Business Journal often has commented in warning on the stressors that now beset the city: employee recruitment and affordable housing.
Grand Rapids orchestrated a siren call to millennials — by head count, perhaps a comparatively successful siren call — dressed up by more than five years of post-recession building to create an attractive showplace. Prideful boasting and the pretty packages ignore the facts of the city’s reality and of the millennial generation, one graduating from college at the height of recession, joblessness and stagnant wage growth. Their recruitment has been necessary in a manufacturing region cited for more than a decade for its low percentage of college-educated workers. Now, it is a region cited as among the worst for worker compensation.
A Forbes/Payscale study reported by the Business Journal in January placed Grand Rapids among the worst regions for worker compensation among the 100 largest metro areas in the U.S., and like every other metropolitan community in the country, pay rates are flat — not up — for employees who hold at least a bachelor’s degree. The compensation report measured not just early career pay but mid-career and median pay for those holding at least a bachelor’s degree. Add to that dismal —though likely unsurprising — report the fact the Grand Rapids region continues to show much lower education rates than other regions, even in comparison to other Michigan cities, such as Detroit and Ann Arbor.
The 16th annual Economic and Commercial Real Estate Forecast, hosted by the Seidman College of Business and Colliers International West Michigan, underscored those issues in the annual study presented early this year. Paul Isely, associate dean of Grand Valley State University’s Seidman College of Business, noted during the forecast report that, while more jobs were added in the past year, few of them were filled with homegrown talent. Isely said one of the region’s biggest issues will be the low levels of regional educational attainment and the low unemployment levels, making recruitment essential — and businesses recruiting employees will have stiff competition.
Add to these long-studied facts that affordable housing in the central city has become a significant problem. Suburban affordable living options are more plentiful. Public transportation options are far behind the numbers the Business Journal reported last year: 61,580 commuters to downtown offices were counted in the 2011 U.S. Census data and have risen in each consecutive year. Parking areas have been or now are under development for market-rate housing and entertainment venues. The businesses employing young professionals, like the young professionals themselves, are forced back to the suburbs and surrounding cities.
A task force of public and private sector downtown stakeholders must begin to address the realities with real solutions rather than continue its entrancement of its own siren song.
Business Journal opined on the occasion of Mayor Rosalynn Bliss’ first “state of the city” speech in January: The plans made of optimistic visions must be balanced with real money and real facts.