Reversing the ‘Brain Drain’ Is Just the Start

We have read the ominous headlines for years. Fair or not, Michigan became synonymous with Rust Belt “brain drain,” the idea that young, educated talent was leaving the state faster than it was moving in. And so, it was encouraging recently to read about census data indicating the Grand Rapids area has reversed this trend and the rest of the state is making gains as well.

Specifically referring to Kent County, MLive reports: “Between 2013 and 2017, the number of people age 25 and older with bachelor’s degrees or higher who moved to Kent County  —  from other states or Michigan counties — exceeded the number who moved out on annual basis by an average of 1,717, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s the largest net gain in Michigan.” MLive notes the advantage this provides for businesses meeting demand for skilled workers. It’s also important to note this is just a start, one of many factors necessary to build a world-class talent system.


Building a top 20 region

Talent 2025 uses six key metrics to track West Michigan’s progress against similar communities as well as our overall rank nationally. Population change is one of those six, and West Michigan’s ability to lead the state in growth in recent years has helped our region maintain its ranking at second among peer communities and 55th nationally. The goal, however, is to place in the top 20 nationally – in all six metrics. These include, in addition to population growth: median household income; employment in management, business, science and arts; poverty rate; labor force participation rate; and percentage of adults with education beyond high school.Population and demographic improvements support our progress, but we must continue to make advances in all categories, including educational attainment and the labor force participation rate.  


Improving labor force participation

The labor force participation rate measures the percentage of adults who are in the labor force. In West Michigan, the participation rate for adults of prime working age, 25-54, is 82.4% in West Michigan – below historical rates and below top-performing regions nationally. Recent national data, however, indicates that rising wages and job openings are encouraging more people to leave the sidelines and enter the labor force. Wages are having a similar effect on would-be retirees who are choosing to stay in the labor force. It will be interesting to monitor how this trend will influence the overall labor force participation rate in West Michigan. Our region has reversed its historic age demographic, and now has a population that is younger than the rest of the state and nation. While this is promising for the size of the region’s labor force, it also emphasizes the importance of reinforcing education and training opportunities. Education and skills are the currency for a knowledge-based economy, and will determine the success of workforces of today and tomorrow.


Starting with education

West Michigan’s economy, quality of life and opportunity for success depend on a K-12 system that ensures all children graduate high school ready for college or a job with potential pathways to careers that align with their interests and skills. Similarly, we need to raise awareness that education and lifelong learning are essential tools for success.Being able to attract educated workers to the region is a start – and something to build on. We know companies examine the quality and supply of a region’s workforce when considering relocation or expansion. West Michigan’s competitive advantage and economic success will be determined by the quality and availability of a skilled, trained and engaged workforce.

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