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‘Bridging Michigan’s Workforce Divide': Rural Areas Fight To Get Talent

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Dennis West helps businesses in the Upper Peninsula thrive.

Dennis West helps businesses in the Upper Peninsula thrive.

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By Dennis West

Recently I had a conversation with a growing manufacturer who was struggling to find engineers who were willing to come to his rural community. For him, the talent gap was real, meaning too few engineers and finding families who were willing to give his workplace a chance. It was not because the plant wasn’t modern and doing some great things in a vital industry, it was because he couldn’t sell its location to the entire family of his candidates.

That hardly means that rural Michigan should secede the talent fight to large communities, but it does point out how important place and its vibrancy is to succeeding in securing talent. That is true for the talent who will work in a business or start the next wave of businesses in a community.

Talented people can work anywhere (and that is no longer confined to the United States), so location matters; and talent begets talent. Here is my own story. I was being recruited to come to take the Northern Initiatives job and had reservations about a rural community and winters. At the time we lived in a Midwestern City. I was a loan committee member on a community investment committee for a regional bank. A lender from that bank had been sent from Lower Michigan to work on the analysis and underwriting of a loan that would support the renovation of a historic downtown hotel.

The loan committee meeting began with his peers laughing about his plight to be banished to the UP in January. He told them that they had it “all wrong,” and that Marquette offered much in the winter, the people were great, and his write up gave many reasons why this loan could succeed and what special things Marquette possessed. That conversation assuaged my doubts (that life itself must be impossible in the UP during the winters) and we interviewed in July and moved to Marquette that August.

So, if the world is open and available and in key work areas there are talent shortages, what does that mean for securing and keeping talent? It means that place matters. Place in rural areas has some keen advantages, beauty, outdoor recreation, low density, safety, and four distinct seasons. However, those advantages cannot be divorced from elements of place that also matter to keeping and attracting talent, specifically local infrastructure; schools, public places, an entrepreneurial climate that values local shops and businesses, and opportunities that support second household incomes and careers. Place matters, not for only for what it has, but also how it feels. How it feels to be single, married or married with children living there.

This is a difficult balance to be attractive both for work life and personal life. To be a place that is attractive requires both strong business leaders, and strong community leaders. In Marquette, fifteen years ago, there was a 7 mile paved bike path, and in the woods trails for the most gonzo mountain bikers. These were crazy trails of an “X –Games” like nature. Today there are plans to see 100 miles of bike trails for all types of riders and hikers, and about half of the planned trails exist. This unique feature is part of a secret sauce that appeals to many people and is an important differentiator for this community.

At the same time Marquette’s downtown, initially hurt by the big box stores, has bounced back in a very successful way. It is rare to have a downtown with an independent, locally owned, department store, and yet in Getzs we have one. In part we have it because of the early adoption of high speed internet and some savvy owners and managers, who saw the need to create early balance between walk-in sales and on-line sales. Anchored by a department store the downtown has been “recreated” with differentiated, locally owned businesses and it is thriving.

Marquette is hardly alone in competing successfully in the talent attraction battle; there are a number of rural communities that are succeeding. However, this is not by accident.

For businesses, place matters, as my friend is quickly learning. To that degree, involvement in the schools, civic organizations and supporting the vitality of place is squarely in a business’ interest. While the business can be modern and well positioned, it is where people live and enjoy community that is at least of parallel importance.

Dennis West is president of Northern Initiatives, which is dedicated to growing business in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

 

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