Seneca Powers took a familiar path among young professionals born and raised in West Michigan who left town with professional aspirations. She’s also part of the demographic that the region must lure back to meet its long-term workforce needs.
Powers, who grew up in Grand Rapids and graduated from East Grand Rapids High School, left the state to study fashion at Kent State University in Ohio. Upon graduation in 2020, she moved out to Los Angeles to serve as an assistant buyer for national discount store Ross Dress for Less.
“I kind of always knew I wanted to get a little distance and see what’s out there,” Powers said. “One of the things that pushed me outside of Michigan is that I wanted to study fashion. I looked at a few schools in Michigan, but Kent State had a big fashion program.”
The draw to leave Michigan for broader experiences is a familiar refrain for young professionals, and also a pressing issue that West Michigan must contend with as it struggles to regenerate its dwindling talent base and keep up with even modest employment growth.
In 2010, Kalamazoo-based W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research released a study called “Talent 2025: Assessment of the West Michigan Talent Development System,” which identified the talent trends and needs for the coming decade and a half.
In a 2012 update to the study, the institute predicted that half of the current workers between the ages of 18 and 49 will have moved out of the West Michigan region by 2025. Also, the region must entice 514,000 more individuals into its labor force over that time to keep up with demand.
Under those dynamics, 45 percent of the West Michigan region’s workers in 2025 will need to have moved into the region — many of them returning home after initially leaving.
Eventually, Powers plans to fall into this category, returning home where she would eventually like to raise a family.
“I’m a city person — I like being in L.A. and New York, but when it comes to settling down and having a family, Michigan sounds way more appealing to me,” Powers said.
And even though it’s far from a premier fashion hub, Michigan does provide professional opportunities for Powers.
“I think there is definitely opportunity in Michigan. It’s something I considered,” she said. “The route I’m going right now is kind of a merchandising path. Meijer is a huge company based in Michigan. … There are a lot of smaller companies and a lot of furniture companies based in Michigan. I like to keep my options open.”
Attracting new and former residents to move to West Michigan has long been the objective of Grand Rapids-based nonprofit organization Hello West Michigan, which uses a variety of resources to connect professionals with available opportunities in the region.
“West Michigan and Michigan as a whole has to grow its talent base. Just the natural growth of our region ... is not enough to keep up with forecasted demand,” said Hello West Michigan Executive Director Rachel Gray. “One study showed that one-third of our workforce needs to come from outside of West Michigan if we’re going to keep up with forecasted demand. That’s what Hello West Michigan works on all year round.”
Hello West Michigan will host its 10th installment of an event called ReThink West Michigan on Nov. 10 in a virtual format only. The event, which is a part of a broader Back To Michigan movement, normally takes place on Thanksgiving Eve as an in-person networking event in Grand Rapids, attracting both local and out-of-town professionals and connecting them with employers.
Similar events — both virtual and in-person — are scheduled in Detroit, Lansing, Ann Arbor and Traverse City this year.
To date, ReThink West Michigan’s spin on a traditional job fair has attracted 1,400 professionals and led to at least 85 new hires. The program is also available to more people than just young professionals.
“Our companies are hiring and doing incredibly cool things and hiring talented professionals. That’s why I always try to stay away from the word ‘young,’” Gray said. “If you look at the job openings employers are hiring for, they’re looking for experienced folks, too. I would say the majority of the people who attend ReThink (West Michigan) are anywhere between 20 and 30, and even on the most experienced side of that. It’s an experienced crew that comes.”
Gray also said her organization’s message may resonate a little more as upheaval from the COVID-19 pandemic has many rethinking their personal and professional lives.
“Especially the time we’re in, with the pandemic, people are assessing their lives differently,” Gray said. “If there are things they want to do, like relocate back home and be closer to family, I feel like now, the conversation is: ‘Let me show you how we can help make that happen — you don’t have to wait.’”
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