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"Finding Creative Approaches in Uncertain Times" an Article by Elaine Wood

Finding Creative Approaches in Uncertain Times


Elaine Wood, Chief Executive Officer

Northwest Michigan Council of Governments & Northwest Michigan Works!

Member, Governor’s Talent Investment Board



We live in uncertain times. We have always lived in uncertain times, but there’s a sense of even greater unpredictability now, since we are members of an increasingly global economy and because the pace of change is growing exponentially. Yet people throughout time have recognized and managed uncertainty as a means toward prosperity, turning risks into opportunities. The quality of our future depends on leadership that embraces an uncertain environment with prosperity in mind. 

That uncertainty has had a good influence on Michigan’s workforce development community. It has made us realize that it no longer works to use standard-issue labor market information and general trends to draw assumptions about what kind of education and training employers will need people to possess. Correspondingly, it is no longer a safe bet to respond primarily to what job seekers say they want. Now we have become completely demand-driven: what skills do employers need right now and what are they anticipating they will need within the next few years? We also tell job seekers they must be prepared for continual learning and skill upgrading throughout any career path. 

The picture of “talent” today is almost certainly only a piece of what it will be in 2020.  Looking at the goal of prosperity – for individuals, families, businesses and communities – we see that in today’s world talent is the key economic driver for most businesses. Yet every day we hear businesses, especially manufacturers, talking about the challenges they face with the work force. A recent survey showed that 49% of U.S. employers can’t fill certain positions. How can we have a worker shortage when our unemployment rate is so high? It’s called the Skills Gap. Many of our region’s strong and successful businesses can attest to this gap.  The most difficult positions to fill these days are the skilled trades (welding, electronics, machining, heating/air conditioning).  Skilled trade salaries are typically $40,000-$80,000. Other labor shortages exist for engineers and IT workers, for whom wages can go significantly higher.

Finding employees who have the necessary skills is difficult, and employee training is expensive and often risky. The problem is exacerbated by the decline in manufacturing that has made many people believe it is a dead end. Actually, the only aspect of manufacturing that has declined significantly is that which required unskilled labor and very little education. Yet there’s a bias from parents who don’t want their kids to go into the skilled trades or manufacturing, and as a society we are not introducing our kids to these solid career opportunities. Manufacturing companies have become very sophisticated and highly technical. People working in manufacturing today are, for the most part, very involved in product development, problem solving, programming and process management. We need to do more to grow our talent pool for these jobs.

One of the most impactful initiatives the Grand Traverse community could undertake now is a training consortium among businesses and education. On a small scale, Michigan Works has had tremendous success with this model in communities like Charlevoix and Cadillac, where groups of companies are pooling resources to address common training needs. Michigan Works is facilitating the process whereby the business leaders design the exact content, process, numbers and timing of the training, and the education groups team up to provide it with the employers actively engaged throughout the training, even holding some of it on site in their companies. This method addresses immediate talent needs and also promotes positive information about great career opportunities. 

We have excellent programs at the TBA Career Tech Center and Northwestern Michigan College that integrate academics into project-based learning for careers in manufacturing, machining, skilled trades, IT and robotics. But we need more business representatives actively telling parents, youth, school counselors and teachers about these good job opportunities. We need more short-term, intensive training programs to help fill gaps now while we build the longer-term work force pipeline. And we need more business-education partnerships that will foster company visits, internships, and other opportunities for young people to experience firsthand how academics apply in the real world. Let’s make our businesses the educational laboratories they could be. It’s an investment that would pay off for everyone involved, and it’s a sure way to help turn uncertain times into a new era of growth and prosperity.


Originally published in the 2013 Economic Outlook, presented by the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, November 13, 2012.




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Ty Wessell, Leelanau County Commissioner