Population Headlines Are Grim, but West Michigan is Doing Something Right

A recent Bridge Michigan article might have surprised anyone accustomed to dismissing our neighbor to the south, Indiana.

Headlined “Indiana is beating Michigan by attracting people, not just companies,” the article pointed out that the Hoosier State’s population grew at more than twice the rate of Michigan’s from 2010 to 2020:

“Indiana is actually growing slower than the U.S. average (34 percent since 2010). All of the states that are sometimes derisively referred to as the ‘Rust Belt’ have grown at rates below the national average since 1990. But among them, Michigan is the worst of the bunch, and Indiana is, comparatively, a superstar.”

But looking beyond the headline and statewide perspective reveals another point. A graphic in the article notes that while the rest of Michigan has seen stagnant growth, the population of metro Grand Rapids “has soared.” It cites census data showing 75.5% population growth since 1970, far outpacing that of Indiana (30.6%) and even its biggest city, Indianapolis (64.4%).

This raises a question worth asking for the rest of our state: What is West Michigan doing right?

Attracting, developing, retaining talent

In response to Michigan’s population challenges, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has established the Growing Michigan Together council. (TalentFirst President Kevin Stotts is a member.) But the core problems are not unique to Michigan: Nationwide, birthrates are falling and the overall population is getting older. It’s why states like Indiana and Michigan are putting an emphasis on attracting, developing and retaining young, educated talent.

Thus, states compete for in-migration. That’s important, but so is preparing the population we have today for the workplace of the future. So is removing barriers to workforce participation and encouraging our home-grown talent to stay and work here. So is creating a welcoming and inclusive environment for an increasingly diverse population. And so is helping the adult workforce to develop in-demand skills and credentials they need to grow and thrive in their careers.

West Michigan is doing all these things, and TalentFirst and its member CEOs are playing a significant role in these efforts with initiatives spanning from preschool to retirement. Some recent examples:

Addressing scarcity and cost of child care: Working in partnership with the Early Childhood Investment Corporation, we recently published a report on the poverty-level wages that are driving early childhood educators from the workforce, resulting in shortages and increased costs that force many parents to opt out of the workforce — as was the case for more than 600,000 Michigan parents in 2021. Read the report, which lays the groundwork for a statewide unifying wage scale: “Balancing the Scales.”

Promoting early literacy: For years, TalentFirst has been raising the alarm about Michigan’s slide toward the bottom in early literacy. We have led many collaborative initiatives and most recently shined a light on the issue with publication of an interactive dashboard documenting third-grade reading scores for nearly every elementary school in the state. The purpose is to empower educators, employers, parents and school board members to recognize the crisis and seek solutions. We are using this tool as we engage with West Michigan superintendents to drive an urgent regional response.

Best practices in hiring and retention: Through the work of our HR Council, Talent Solutions Series, Talent Solutions Playbook, Inclusive Leadership Development events, DEI Benchmarking Survey and CEO Commitment, TalentFirst supports the work of our region’s employers to attract, welcome, develop and retain talent. These initiatives support every level of an organization from the CEO to the HR and DEI leaders on the front lines of our efforts to ensure West Michigan is a leading region for talent.

Growing and keeping skilled talent: TalentFirst this year launched the West Michigan Education-to-Employment Partnership, or E2P, a collaboration between employers, education and training providers, and community organizations. The purpose is to increase the skills and postsecondary credential attainment of our workforce faster and more efficiently, while also making it easier for more graduates to find promising career paths in West Michigan, so they stay to live and work here.

Supporting the adult workforce: Also launched this year: The Michigan Center for Adult College Success, a statewide initiative of TalentFirst authorized by the Legislature to tailor best practices for increasing adult enrollment and completion by partnering with postsecondary institutions across Michigan. The Center has over $7 million in grant funding that will be awarded over the next two years to support innovations that help adult learners overcome the barriers to obtaining a postsecondary credential.

Reinforcing the basics: Although the state has set a goal to increase the number of working-age adults with a skill certificate or college degree from 50.5% today to 60% by 2030, that credential will be out of reach for the estimated 716,000 adult Michiganders who lack a high school diploma. That’s why TalentFirst has led calls for reforms the state’s adult basic education system. In a report issued this year, “Restoring the Promise of Adult Education in Michigan,” we propose a set of strategic recommendations to reverse these shortcomings.

And these are just some recent examples of the work being led by our CEOs, partners and stakeholders.

West Michigan does not have all the answers. We still have work to do to ensure our businesses can compete and our families can thrive. But our progress to date can serve as an example of success that is within reach for the entire state.


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