It’s time for West Michigan to fix itself


This cannot be overstated.

West Michigan companies are in dire need of skilled workers. West Michigan, as a whole, lags the country — and the Great Lakes states in particular — in percentage of population with college degrees.

See the correlation here?

The Great Recession “officially” ended in late 2009 and early 2010. While many sectors of the economy — housing and employment to name a couple — are trending in the right direction, the recession’s “doughnut” in terms of education and talent still is evident. Many West Michigan residents opted against college five or six years ago, and those who did attend upon graduation often headed to greener pastures in search of jobs.

West Michigan was left with a hole in its talent pipeline, a pipeline that 10 or 15 years ago was so strong it was a selling point on the region’s business attraction thermometer. Come to West Michigan and take advantage of our skilled, dependable and trustworthy workforce, and your company will flourish!

Now, we have trouble finding workers for the companies already here, much less ones that may be considering a move to the area.

In true West Michigan fashion, it’s time for the region to bear down and fix itself.

There are several examples of fledgling programs in the community that will pay dividends in the long run. The Grand Rapids Center for College Success: T2C Studio is one such program that deserves a closer look.

The city of Grand Rapids, Grand Rapids Public Schools and nine area colleges and universities have teamed to create a space downtown for students to come with their questions and concerns about college — a place where they can learn how to apply to college, how to make it through financially and academically and help with whether they should pursue vocational or technical training in lieu of college. T2C is an extension of a 3-year-old initiative called To College, Through College started by the city and GRPS’ Our Community’s Children office.

There is no better way to repair the talent pipeline than to get a hold of students before they make career choices and direct them toward industries that are scrambling for qualified candidates.

This process also works with potential employees who already have completed some higher education and are adrift in an employment field where their skills are not being used.

For example, Grand Rapids Community College this month received a $6 million grant to maintain its medical assistant apprenticeship program. Last year at this time, there were 90 openings for qualified medical assistants in West Michigan. The first apprenticeship class is almost done with its studies and will be joining the full-time workforce in January. But with a class of just about 20, it will come nowhere near filling the employment needs of health care providers in the area.

The federal America’s Promise grant will strengthen the medical assistant apprenticeship and allow GRCC to work with area employers to form new programs, including ones for certified nursing assistants and sterile processing technicians.

“This grant will reduce some of the barriers to health care careers by reducing costs — or even offering training at no cost — to individuals,” said Julie Parks, GRCC’s executive director of Workforce Training. Also included in the coalition is West Michigan Works, along with health care providers Cherry Health, Mercy Health, Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital, Clark Retirement Community, Holland Home, Porter Hills and Sunset Manor and Villages.

The state of Michigan is kicking in funding, too.

Nearly 15,000 job seekers and workers will receive training for in-demand technical jobs through grants totaling $17.1 million awarded under Michigan’s Skilled Trades Training Fund, the state’s Talent Investment Agency announced last week.

The training program was established in 2013 by Gov. Rick Snyder and the Michigan Legislature to help employers develop the talent they need to fill thousands of available skilled trades jobs. The fiscal year 2017 funding is on track to create 3,873 jobs and retain 11,022 positions by providing additional training, with 481 employers taking part in the program.

“Michigan has made tremendous progress, but there is more to do as we help our residents gain the in-demand skills they need and help our businesses grow and thrive, creating more and better jobs,” Snyder said. “Companies often tell us that they struggle to fill openings, especially in the area of the skilled trades. This program has proven to be an excellent resource to help our state grow stronger.”

The Skilled Trades Training Fund provides competitive awards for training that enhances talent, productivity and employee retention, while increasing the quality and competitiveness of Michigan’s businesses. It ensures employers have the talent they need to compete and grow nationally and globally and people have the in-demand skills they need for good jobs.

Classroom training must lead to a credential for a skill that is transferrable and recognized by the industry and leads to permanent full-time employment or continued permanent full-time employment.

This is the fourth year of the program, with nearly 8,000 jobs created in the first three years, with about 26,000 employees getting new skills to retain their jobs. The state has invested more than $30.3 million in the program in the first three years, assisting 855 businesses, according to the agency.

Working with young people and disenchanted employees to funnel them toward careers that are in high demand is nothing new. It’s a tried-and-true method of ensuring continued employment that dates back to the days of blacksmiths.

West Michigan business and education leaders are too smart to let this talent doughnut go on for much longer.

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