Published in Economic Development
Latest Census findings play vital role for West Michigan economic developers COURTESY PHOTOS

Latest Census findings play vital role for West Michigan economic developers

BY Sunday, August 29, 2021 04:50pm

New U.S. Census findings that show some of the state’s strongest population growth is occurring in West Michigan provide an opportunity to help attract talent during an ongoing labor shortage.

That’s according to economic developers and business advocates who are now using the Census data as a vital tool to lure employers and workers to the region.

“This data is very important to our community’s long-term growth,” said Jennifer Owens, president of Lakeshore Advantage Corp., the economic development organization for Ottawa and Allegan counties. 

Owens added that regional population data are “often some of the first pieces of information expanding companies see when looking at a national or international site search.”

The data released this month show West Michigan as a bright spot as the state overall lagged behind the national growth rate. 

Ottawa County’s population grew by 12.3 percent, or about 32,400 people, from 2010 to 2020 — the highest rate in the state. Kent County’s population grew by 9.2 percent, or about 55,300 people, while Allegan County saw an 8.2-percent population increase. While a majority of Michigan counties lost population, the three West Michigan counties were among just five across the state that exceeded the U.S. population growth rate of 7.4 percent.

Owens said the population growth in Ottawa and Allegan counties is “worth celebrating and will help to continue to ensure long-term economic health” as her organization competes with similarly sized regions outside of Michigan.

Similarly, Cindy Brown, vice president of talent initiatives at The Right Place Inc., said the Census findings are “extremely important” to the Grand Rapids-based regional economic development organization’s work.

“Our employers are struggling with finding talent,” Brown said. “It’s really important to see where we sit with our population to see the amount of people who have relocated to Michigan.”

More diversity

The Census also shows minorities, particularly residents who identify as Hispanic, are driving the region’s population growth.

Guillermo Cisneros, president of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said companies that ignore the latest demographic shifts do so at their own risk.

“Companies are going after this talent of color, but there are companies that want to do it and others that just don’t care — it’s all over the spectrum,” Cisneros said. “I feel we have an opportunity to share hard data, to open their eyes and help them see that the demographics are changing quickly and they need to adapt.”

Kent County’s Hispanic population, for example, increased by nearly 30 percent from 2010 to 2020, according to the latest Census data.

“As we continue to see more professionals, more people of color at the table, the conversation has changed,” Cisneros said.

Brown agreed that companies need to better prepare.

“We know employers are going to have to accommodate workplaces for more diversity,” she said. 

Ongoing concerns

Michigan overall continues to grow its population at a slower rate than the national average. The state’s population also is relatively older, which implies a lower birth rate in the future. Owens called the state’s mild growth rate “a bit concerning.”

“We want the entire state to, at minimum, exceed the national average in order to attract the best talent and employers,” Owens said.

The aging population and expected lower birth rate in the future and their effects on the workforce are “absolutely” a concern, Brown said.

“We want to grow our own and make sure for the people coming through the (talent) pipeline that there are opportunities here in West Michigan,” Brown said. “We know we’re in a deficit with Baby Boomers and retirees.”

According to a recent third-quarter economic forecast from Comerica Inc., Michigan’s relatively stagnant population growth is contributing to the state’s talent shortage.

“The outlook for labor force growth in the state is held in check by weak overall population growth,” Comerica economists wrote this month. “The net result will be little growth in the labor force over the long term. Strong business investment will be needed to keep output growing in a labor constrained environment.”

Owens said raising college students’ awareness about local internships and other opportunities remains crucial for keeping more potential workers in the state. 

Coordinated efforts like Hello West Michigan — which The Right Place launched in 2010 and includes member companies to promote hiring in West Michigan — will “set our region apart,” Owens said.

“It will take employers, economic development leaders and local units of government all selling the benefits of working and living in our great community to continue this positive growth trend,” Owens said.

Looking ahead, Cisneros added that the region will continue to see growth.

“It’s just a matter of getting prepared and how we’re going to employ these individuals,” he said. “If they don’t find employment in Michigan, they’ll leave and the state will suffer.”

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