Port Huron — While Michigan’s unemployment rate dipped to a seven-year low in July, some analysts say the numbers aren’t as peachy as they appear.
Analysts say low the unemployment rate can in part be attributed to a loss of workforce in addition to a steadying economy. Michigan’s labor force has decreased by about 326,000 workers since 2000, according to a report released by the Michigan League for Public Policy.
According to the data, St. Clair County saw its workforce reduced by 15 percent between 2000 and 2016. That is a loss of nearly 13,000 workers. During the same period, the county population shrank by just more than 2 percent.
Sanilac County saw a 12 percent — or about 2,600 workers — reduction to its workforce, along with a 5.7 percent drop in population, according to the report.
“The job market has been very tight in 2017, particularly in manufacturing,” said Dan Casey, Economic Development Alliance of St. Clair County director. “We are expecting the automotive industry to soften in 2018, so that might relieve some of the pressure.”
Casey said young people are not being encouraged to pursue careers in manufacturing or construction.
“But I think the lack of supply of talent will create opportunities and drive up wages and eventually we’ll solve this problem,” he told the Times Herald.
In addition to an increase in wages, Casey said another solution to the lack of workforce is teaching the essential skills needed to excel at manufacturing careers. He said schools should focus on teaching mechatronics, programming languages, automation, maintenance and repair of robots.
“I think what a lot of (students) will discover that it’s pretty cool to design and build something,” Casey said. “They may not have been around when manufacturing was at its highest peak of employment, but the process of innovation is still exciting and rewarding. And this is what we do here. It’s what Michigan is known for.”
Jerry Solar, president of Huron Inc. in Worth Township, said the problem of skilled workers is not a new concept for his company and Huron Inc. has taken measures to side-step the challenge for this year.
Solar said Huron Inc. has always trained its workers itself and has built apprenticeship programs within the company.
While much pressure to find skilled workers has been put on the manufacturing sector, the trend hasn’t stopped there, but seeped into other areas such as retail as well.
Lee Jones, owner of Weekends in Port Huron, agrees that finding workers is a challenge.
“Before people would be out looking for and actively stop in and ask if we were hiring,” Jones said. “Now it’s hard to go down the street and not see signs for help wanted.”
Jones said he believes working retail is on the bottom of the job food chain and that those seeking part-time work gravitate toward tipped jobs where there is an opportunity to make more money.
“The logical answer is to pay more but the small business model doesn’t necessarily warrant that,” he said.
The policy report also attributed the loss of labor to workers leaving the state during the recession in search of jobs, and not returning following the rebound.
“How Michigan’s economy is doing depends on which worker or policymaker you talk to and what data you look at,” said Gilda Jacobs, Michigan League for Public Policy president. “Michigan’s declining unemployment rate is certainly good news, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Since the unemployment rate was this low in 2000, Michigan has been steadily losing workers, and our workforce is getting older, neither of which bodes well for our economic future.”
The workforce is also largely made up of older workers as opposed to those in the 16- to 24-year-old range. More retired workers are picking up part-time jobs and fewer young people are seeking work.
“We’ve all seen this data in action. Think about your daily life and the variety of workers you encounter in jobs that young people used to hold — a fast food worker, a grocery bagger, a restaurant worker,” Jacobs said. “Lawmakers need to look at these changing demographics and embrace polices that help younger and older workers alike get the education, skills and training they need to get the jobs they want.”
The league urged policy makers to make college education less expensive, encourage colleges to offer more relevant work-study options, and make more post-secondary training available for skilled trades.