The talent needs of employers are a constantly moving target that requires companies to foster and maintain close ties with educators to keep up with the demands of the 21st century economy.
That’s one of the perspectives participants shared in a recent executive roundtable MiBiz hosted on education and talent development. The region’s talent shortage results from a number of forces, including a lack of population growth for more than a decade.
Participating in the roundtable on education and talent development were:
- Paul Isely, associate dean of the Seidman College of Business at Grand Valley State University
- Andy Johnston, vice president of government affairs for the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce
- Jacob Maas, CEO of West Michigan Works!
- Aaron Maike, president of Baker College of Muskegon
- Dale Nesbary, president of Muskegon Community College
- Bill Pink, president of Grand Rapids Community College
Here are some highlights from what they had to say:
In the last few years, everyone from small business owners to corporate executives tells us their top challenge is difficulty finding and keeping talent. That certainly wasn’t the case a decade ago. How did we get from there to here?
Pink: It’s several things. Number one, the region was coming out of a recession 10 years ago and now we have an economy that is booming and with individuals who are working. But at the same time, I think there’s a parallel piece here because while we have this vision that everyone’s working and the unemployment rate is so low, right here in this neighborhood, blocks away (from the MiBiz office on Wealthy Street in Grand Rapids) that’s not the story necessarily in terms of unemployment. We have people in these communities, communities that are lower socio-economically and people of color, in Grand Rapids and West Michigan that do not enjoy that low, low unemployment. While we do have some talent needs out there, I do think there are people who are not part of this economy at the scale that we envision so much.
What we see right now in terms of unemployment, I do think there are still opportunities out there. This idea of a talent shortage that our employers are seeing, when we look at it, we know that when it comes to Boomers, they are continuing that trend of retiring and moving elsewhere, and that means moving out of their offices. We know that (we have) this ‘perfect storm.’ We’re not at the beginning of the storm, and we’re certainly not at the end of it. We’re seeing this phenomenon in working with many of our partners across the region and continue to have these conversations of, ‘How do we connect you more to some of these populations who truly aren’t in this economy at this point.’
Maike: Michigan’s population hasn’t recovered since the Great Recession. There’s 10,000 Baby Boomers retiring on a daily basis (nationally), and we have such high poverty and education deserts. We need to do more to lift folks out of poverty with some type of education. We have 30 years of really disinvestment in career technical education. We said, ‘Everybody has to get a four-year degree.’ That’s not for everybody. There is a huge pool of people out there right now who are not employed, and employers right now want the best talent and they’re sometimes not willing to take a risk on somebody that might not be exactly what they need for that job, to train them up and watch them be successful. That can help with this as well.
Nesbary: This issue goes back decades. We could have had the same conversation in 2002 and 1979 when we were suffering from a recession, and we didn’t in any meaningful way attempt to fix the issue then. The culture here in Michigan has not changed substantially in terms of the view of our residents on what skills and talents they need to be successful. … In higher ed, I don’t think we were as aggressive as we needed to be back then to help convince our communities that that was the case, and our business community was far too insular in their approach to help us approach this issue. We’re making progress. I don’t want to sound like we’re not, but that really hasn’t changed much. Until we address that issue substantially, we’re going to continue to have these conversations whenever our economy goes up and down.
Maas: Part of it, too, is the wage gap. We have a tremendous amount of entry-level jobs, but frankly, we haven’t seen the earnings bump up enough to really push the demand in certain industries and occupations. The wages have been relatively flat, and I think part of it is the wages just aren’t there yet to bump an interest in certain industries.
Johnston: Our members keep telling us that talent is their top issue. They’re starting that wage increase, but it’s slow and it doesn’t keep pace with other things in the economy, necessarily. But some of our companies are also competing on an international basis, so it’s hard to make some of the numbers work. The reasons we’re having this discussion is demographics, changing skill needs, and a steadily growing economy that keeps applying more and more of that pressure. The benefit of it is that it’s exposing these things that we’re talking about in making sure it’s a thriving and prosperous community for all, and really digging in and trying to create access. Because we need everyone if we’re going to keep growing in this new economy.
Isely: Obviously demographics is an issue. We obviously don’t have enough people. It doesn’t matter whether we are training them correctly, there’s not enough people to do the jobs that we have. We had a 10-year-long recession (in Michigan), not a two-year-long recession, and that 10-year-long recession caused Generation X to leave Michigan at a rate much greater than others, and their kids now are growing up in other states. That’s the future workforce. A lot of those people left with skills that we needed. Because our housing crisis started before the rest of the United States, construction trades left the state and went someplace else, and then when everything fell apart, they couldn’t come back. That is part of the play of why it feels so bad here in Michigan.
How do you overcome some of those cultural issues and raise awareness of the need for some form of education beyond K-12?
Pink: The direction we’re trying to push more toward is to get rid of the ‘either/or’ conversation and start in on the ‘both/and.’ Right now, we have this society that wants to separate associate degrees, skilled trades, whatever you want to call it, and four-year degrees in that conversation. In our space, it’s a both/and, because when an individual finishes one of these skilled trades, we talk about it a lot. ‘Look at what you just did. You finished a certificate. You’ve done college work. What does that next step look like if that’s what you want to do?’ We have to help people understand it doesn’t have to just be this ‘either/or.’ It can be both.
Nesbary: We have to drive that cultural change that is required as leaders in education and business. Do we want to be more like the ‘three Ms’ out there? Do we want to be more like Massachusetts, Minnesota or Mississippi? What social, economic, racial and political efforts did they put in to make their societies improve over time? Minnesota was much less robust in terms of their economy than we were 40 or 50 years ago, but they changed their higher education system in a way that allowed them to work effectively together to do that. They diversified their economy in ways many others didn’t. We’re getting there now, but we’re roughly 20 years behind where they are. Massachusetts is kind of a different story, and Mississippi hasn’t done it at all and you can see where they are.
Is part of this conversation that we need to get rid of a one-size-fits-all approach in higher education?
Pink: That’s a big part of where we need to be, both from a higher ed perspective and education in general. In some ways, the way we’ve always done business as far as higher education is concerned may not necessarily be the best way people need to receive the (instruction), and they will vote with their enrollment. If our offering is, ‘We’re going to give you this 16-week class and you can come and get your degree in 16-week classes,’ we (cannot) keep thinking that way to a constituency that says, ‘Yeah, but I don’t have time to do that. I have two jobs and I’m trying to take care of a family. Can you give that to me in this way?’ We have to start and are starting that process of not only rethinking how it’s delivered, when it’s delivered, the format and how that looks. It has to be that way.
What are the consequences over the next decade if this problem doesn’t get better?
Pink: From a higher ed perspective, I honestly believe that if we are not responsive, we will find ourselves irrelevant, and if we’re irrelevant, it makes you wonder how long our doors will be open. There are many colleges across this country that are seeing that happen. Part of that is the fact that our business partners, if we’re not being responsive to them, they’ll stop coming. And I don’t blame them. If our responsiveness to our constituents is, ‘Here’s how we do it and here’s how we offer it,’ and they’re saying, ‘That’s not how we need it,’ we go away.
Johnston: No matter what organization you are, you have to continue to redefine and evaluate your value proposition for the changes. What we’re hearing from the business community is, ‘Stop trying to train folks for what you think I need for my facility. Give them the basics and give them the foundation, and then give them the soft skills.’
Maike: We need to change that methodology to give them the skill sets to be life-long learners, and that goes for the current employees as well because as a population, I don’t know that we’ve done a good job of saying, ‘Great — you have a four-year degree and whatever, but you need to go back and get this skill set because your work environment has changed.’ We have this paradigm of all those folks who are out working but are not as good as they could be.
Johnston: It’s a two-sided coin because a lot of employers need to hear that message, too, about what they’re really looking for. Perfect candidates do not walk through their door, so what skill sets do you really want? If I was hiring somebody, I need hard workers that can work in a fast-paced environment and have a high degree of integrity. That’s what I really look for at the end of the day because we can teach them the other stuff.
Isely: We’re no longer in a world where you go and you get an associate’s degree, or a four-year degree or you go and get a master’s degree, and that skill set will serve you for 10 years. Those times are gone and we’re moving much faster than that. Something the employers are forgetting is that they’re changing what they’re telling us, and they’re changing what they’re telling us very quickly because their world is changing very quickly. They need to be understanding that once they tell us, it takes a little bit of time to put together a curriculum to give it to them.
Should you train for attitude or aptitude?
Johnston: With scarcity, attitude becomes more important. You have to have the aptitude, but I just can’t go down the street and get someone. So how do I cultivate the people that I do have that are going to be with me, hopefully, for long?
Are you as connected with employers as you need to be?
Pink: From my experience, I think this is as strong (in West Michigan) as anywhere I’ve ever been in terms of higher ed and employers. I think the relationship is there. I think there is even more that can be done. Some of the things we’re starting to see more in our region is K-12 becoming involved in that conversation because we can look at this from the whole education pipeline, K-12 through our four-year partners, and start saying, ‘Some of those soft skills, those employability skills, truly can be embedded and found at the K-12, high school level.’ We’re seeing more of that.
Maike: We have six career counselors out at our ISD in Muskegon that are in those districts talking to those young kids, taking them on tours of factories, talking about higher ed, and then you couple that with thousands of students in West Michigan doing college work starting in 11th grade where they are biting off a lot of that associate degree for free. That really drives that pendulum and gets younger workers out quicker without that loan debt.
Isely: What we’re solving is what people know and the needs of the community, but we’re not solving the fact that we don’t have enough people. Quite frankly, in being proactive in education and showing this cooperation, some of the reasons we see catalytic effects are where people come here because of what we have: public-private partnerships, those interactions between business and education and those interactions between businesses. I sit in rooms where two manufacturers are talking to each other and I go to the other side of the state and they go, ‘There’s two people talking about that in the same room from two different places?’ That’s special to West Michigan and we need to pay attention to that and take advantage of that, and we will convince more people to come here. We are drawing more people to West Michigan, and we are drawing more young people to West Michigan.
What’s new that employers need in terms of skills?
Johnston: We’re working with GVSU and some other partners on another employability skills survey to talk about what soft skills are needed. Number one by a lot is good choices and responsibility. The other is team management, and tech management also surfaced, and your ability to learn and adapt, and also work in those small teams that are so critical to making any organization run.
Pink: Many employers want to tell us, ‘Can you tell them to either leave the phone at home or keep it somewhere?’ We hear it a lot from employers that so often people come into their shop that are the traditional 18- to 20-year-old graduate from our school and (employers have to tell them), ‘You’re working now,’ or ‘When you respond to the email, it’s not in ‘LOL’ texting language.’ What I’m hearing more and more is the interpersonal piece and how important that is in just interpersonal communication.
Maas: I don’t think it is new but it is certainly more defined than it used to be. Employers used to tell us, ‘Give me somebody who will show up on time and pass a drug test.’ We’d send them somebody and they would do both and we would say, ‘Hey, why didn’t you hire them?’ We ask the employers to be a little more specific when it comes to the soft skills piece of things. Our Talent Solutions Committee of the Workforce Development Board worked with the West Michigan talent triangle — Ottawa Area ISD, Muskegon ISD and the Kent ISD — to develop curriculum. We wanted a pre-test so we could identify some of those skills that need improvement because all of us around this table could probably use some level of improvement, whether it’s communications or teamwork. With that, then they do a pre-test and a post-test to make sure you’re competent in the curriculum. We still are in the process of evaluating it, but we asked about 100 employers and had them really identify what they were seeing or not seeing in candidates and what they were looking for. It really came down to nine soft skills or professional skills that we focus on. (Editor’s note: Those nine soft skills are time management and punctuality, communication, teamwork, responsibility, workplace management, adaptability, reasoning, decisiveness, and innovation.)
Isely: What we’re hearing over and over again is they want our students to be able to use data in their critical thinking. Now it’s taken a while to discern what’s meant by that. Do they want a bunch of statistical people? Or do they need somebody who can make cool graphics? Or do they need somebody who understands what the data is telling them in decision making? And the answer is all three, but I think in the broader context, it’s being able to look at data and use it in decision making.
Do employers who have persistent problems with talent attraction and retention sometimes need to look at themselves?
Maike: You have to be competitive in this market. (Rather than saying you have a job opening) will you look at your pay, will you look at your benefits, will you look at your work environment and (are you) somewhere that our students are saying they want to go?
Johnston: It’s about setting expectations on both sides.
Pink: In higher ed, we’re part of an industry also because we have to hire as well, so we do understand that dynamic. But from an industry perspective, for years, we were so focused on helping people be aware of what we do. Surely, if we make you aware, you’ll come to us. Now awareness has to be coupled with attractiveness. What makes this the place (that someone chooses rather than) over there? I may be a construction company. Over there might be in health care. I have to attract you to me, rather than over there, and that attraction is compensation, it is benefits, it is work environment, it is ‘do I see people there that look like me and I feel like I belong.’ It is all of those things.
Many of our students now are more focused on making sure they have their time. ‘I’m not working for you 60 hours a week. I want my ‘me time.’ Even though I know 60 hours a week may be overtime, it’s OK.’
Johnston: But once they’re there for the 60, they want to know what they’re doing is meaningful to themselves and to the broader community, and some employers can do a better job of connecting why working in this manufacturing company does make for a little better place.
Do employers need to look at talent more strategically, just as they do business growth, product development or new markets?
Maas: I feel that employers understand that it is almost their number one commodity, and that they need to start to do a better job of embracing and figuring out how to nurture and create this life-long learner.
Maike: For the Employers Association of West Michigan (in Muskegon), the HR council roundtable is the most heavily attended. It is all full of HR representatives who are trying to figure it out because they realize how aggressive they need to be to find talent now and what this new generation expects for the work environment. There are a lot of employers highly engaged, and I think there’s a few that either don’t want to do it or they don’t have the time to share best practices. They’re not talking to the other employers in that group and saying, ‘What are you doing because I’m really struggling.’