American Community Survey Shows Progress in West Michigan

Every year the U.S. Census Bureau releases several datasets that originate from the American Community Survey (ACS). Although a majority of Americans think of “the census” as the count of American citizens every decade, there’s actually much more to it. The American Community Survey continually collects a variety of social and economic information pertaining to everyone who resides in the U.S — regardless of citizenship status — and annually releases estimates for varying levels of geography.

Every Fall the 1-year ACS estimates are released for large areas with populations over 65,000. In December, the 5-year ACS estimates are released for all levels of geography, irrespective of population size, which averages estimates over a 5-year period. This allows organizations and localities to analyze information about geographies down to the ZIP code, Census tract, block group, and even individual block level.

Considering that Talent 2025 is composed of 13 counties (9 of which have population sizes below 65,000), we primarily rely on 5-year estimates to analyze our region in the aggregate. With the release of the 2015-2019 ACS estimates, we can now track progress throughout our region for a few key indicators.

Educational Attainment

Behind all of the work of Talent 2025 lies Goal 2025, which is our regional vision to have 64 percent of adults aged 25 and over in West Michigan possess some form of education beyond a high school diploma by 2025. This includes postsecondary nondegree credentials, like certificates, through graduate degrees.

New ACS data illustrates that the region continues to make progress toward our goal. In 2019, 60.5 percent of adults in West Michigan possessed some form of education beyond a high school diploma, an increase of 1.1 percent from the rate recorded in 2017. The share of adults holding a Bachelor’s degree or above increased by 1.2 percent, to stand at 28.4 percent in 2019, while the percentage of adults with less than a high school diploma or equivalency declined by 0.8 over this two-year period. As of 2019, just 9.1 percent of the adult population in West Michigan had yet to obtain a high school diploma or equivalency, which marks an improvement of 2.2 percentage points from 2012.

We are moving in the right direction, and progress is sure to accelerate with the introduction of two new initiatives to help adults afford the costs of upskilling or retraining. The Future for Frontliners program offers tuition-free options for essential workers to obtain their high school diploma/equivalency or postsecondary credential, while the Michigan Reconnect program aims to provide tuition-free community college opportunities for eligible adults to obtain an associate degree or skill certificate.


Labor Force Participation Rate

As with the rest of the country, West Michigan has experienced a slow recovery since the turn of the century with respect to the labor force participation rate of individuals aged 16 and above, and that trend continues in the new data. Overall, 64.6 percent of adults (16+) in our region were either working or looking for work in 2019, an increase of 0.5 percent from the rate in 2017. However, over 14,000 participants would need to be added to the labor force to match the rate of 65.7 percent recorded for the region in 2010.

Nationally, West Michigan would rank 42nd for this indicator when compared to 175 Combined Statistical Areas (CSAs) across the country — lagging a top 20 ranking by 0.5 percentage points. If West Michigan’s labor force participation rate could bridge this gap, nearly 5,500 additional participants would enter the labor force.

Commuting to Work

In order to illustrate the wealth of indicators available in the American Community Survey, we picked commuting to work as our final topic for this blog. By age group, we can view the method of transportation individuals utilized to get to work every day in our region, from driving alone and carpooling to public transportation, biking, and walking.

Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of the West Michigan labor force drove themselves to work, with 82.3 percent of workers 16 and older commuting to work in a car, truck, or van by themselves. The second-most popular means of commuting in 2019 was to carpool, with 9.3 percent of the 16 and over population engaging in ridesharing. Carpooling was the most popular among the 16 to 19 age group, at 14.3 percent, and least utilized by those within the 65 and over age group, at 5.1 percent.

While driving alone was the most popular means of commuting irrespective of age, there were large discrepancies across age brackets and industries of employment. West Michigan workers between the ages of 60 and 64 were the most prone to commuting alone via automobile, with 86.7 percent of the respective population, while those between the ages of 16 and 19 were the least likely to drive alone, at 69.8 percent. Irrespective of age, those working in management, business, science, and arts occupations were the most likely to drive themselves to work, comprising 34.3 percent of this population, followed by those employed in manufacturing occupations, accounting for 22.5 percent of this population.


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