2017-09-24 / Editorial

Region must address skilled trades gap

Nearly 200 people from a seven-county area attended the I-69 Thumb Region 6th Annual Regional Summit held Thursday at the Lapeer Country Club. Representatives of businesses, public utilities, higher education, local government, chambers of commerce, and local economic development offices met here to share progress as well as identify shortfalls that exist to optimize prosperity in the counties of Lapeer, Genesee, Tuscola, Sanilac, Huron, St. Clair and Shiawassee.

Patricia Lucas, executive director of Lapeer Development Corporation and Dale Kerbyson, Lapeer City Manager began the meeting with a brief overview of the success and challenges the region faces. Kerbyson is board chair of the I-69 International Trade Corridor Next Michigan Development Corp. In the six years the I-69 Corridor coalition has been in existence more than 3,500 jobs have been created in the seven-county consortium.

That’s a lot, and more can be added. Many businesses have a “Help Wanted” sign outside their door, but there’s a problem. With an increasingly robust economy, particularly in manufacturing, there are many job openings going unfilled because employers can’t find qualified people with the skillset they need. Lapeer County and the state of Michigan are at full-employment — what economists describe as an economy where those who want a job have found one.

More than a half-dozen business owners The County Press spoke to during Thursday’s summit meeting said they can’t find enough people to fill the job openings they have owed to strong sales and orders for their products. Many of the jobs mentioned were high-paying engineering and skilled trades positions necessary to keep their shops and manufacturing facilities running at full capacity. Due to the tight labor market and the shortage of qualified applicants, companies increasingly are experiencing what several called “pick and pull.” Competing companies, sometimes in the same locality, are “picking” and “pulling” people from other businesses through offers of higher pay and a path for advancement. Because of the shortage of help, some companies are left with no option other than “sniping” from their competitors — another term overheard in the room to describe the desperate need to fill positions or lose orders because they’re unable to deliver products and services in a timely manner.

The inability to fill open job positions is not a problem many might have imagined coming off the Great Recession when tens of thousands of Michigan residents lost their jobs.

As one of 10 Michigan Regions, the I-69 Thumb Region boasts a population of more than 860,000 residents and a workforce of more than 395,000. Nine percent of the state’s population and over eight percent of the state’s workforce live and work in the region.

But what continues to be lacking in Lapeer County and the seven-county I-69 Corridor coalition is a vocational training center for adults to obtain the skills sought by local employers. The Lapeer County Education and Technology Center operated by the Lapeer County Intermediate School District (ISD) is a gem in our community. Whether it’s to learn to weld, become an auto mechanic, learn the building trades or pursue a career in culinary arts, Lapeer County students have many options at their disposal.

But what about their parents, the adults in the community? What about the millennial population that realizes they’re not up to speed where they need to be to get today’s jobs?

Lapeer County and our I-69 Corridor neighbors need one or several state-of-the-art training centers to provide area residents with a nearby and affordable place where they can learn the skills necessary to erase the skilled trades gap we’re experiencing.

Maybe it happens through a partnership between ISDs and two-year colleges and four-year universities, private industry and state government. But whatever the answer something has to happen or the problem will only worsen.

Worst-case scenario is that companies, whether they’re already here or prospective ones looking to open a facility, will choose elsewhere if they can’t be assured they will be able to find the workers they need.

The region must develop a cohesive plan to help train today’s workforce, or we will lose out to other regions of Michigan or other states who made the investment that we failed or were too slow to implement.

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