The Prosperity Agenda: Attracting and Retaining Talent Vital to Michigan’s Future

prosperity-agenda-thumbDo you know a recent college graduate who left Michigan for Chicago, Portland, Austin or some other community? When they left did they even have a job secured? Michigan continues to lose its college graduates at a rate higher than many other states. On this month’s Prosperity Agenda radio show on News/Talk 760 WJR we explore why this is happening and what can be done to retain and attract talent in Michigan. My co-host this month is Detroit Free Press award-winning columnist Nancy Kaffer and our guests are Steve Arwood, Tim Greimel and Frank Audia. The Michigan Prosperity Agenda is a monthly radio show that challenges listeners to help make Michigan a better place to live, work and play by creating vibrant and prosperous local communities. It has aired on News/Talk 760 WJR since 2010. The hour-long radio program is hosted by Dan Gilmartin, CEO of the Michigan Municipal League (the League). The show is sponsored by the League and the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA). The League’s next show airs 7 p.m., January 28 on News/Talk 760 WJR, but you can listen anytime at the League’s website or by subscribing to the FREE iTunes podcast. Learn more about the placemaking concept here as well as on this blog.

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Placing Local Government on the Talent Agenda

I often boast about my talented colleagues at the League and the inspiring work they do. This post about attracting young, talented people to careers in local government is from Jessica Reed. Jessica is one of those young, talented people that she writes about in her post. Her duties at the League include working with cities and villages to attract the best and the brightest to careers in city management, downtown development and other “on-the-ground” positions at the local level. I’m sure she would love your feedback on the blog. (  And… if you’re looking for work in this arena…


Earlier this week, during President Obama’s State of the Union Address and Governor Snyder’s State of the State Address, our government leaders reiterated a consistent vision of workforce development and talent attraction. In Michigan specifically, the Governor praised initiatives like the Workforce Development Agency and Pure Michigan Talent Connect to attract, educate, and retain talent in local industries. The message is clear: we want our talent employed in our businesses – but what about our local governments?

Millennials at City HallLocal government is the place where people can improve and empower their communities. For millennials looking for ways to better their world, local government should be ideal. The Center for State & Local Government Excellence 2014 report tells us that local government is experiencing a hiring spike. 40 percent of governments have either returned to the pre-recession workforce size or shown growth. 55 percent hired more employees in 2013 than in the previous year. 50 percent saw a higher retirement rate than the previous year.

Great news – but young talent is not flocking to local government or even staying in Michigan. The state has shown a net loss of educated 22-to-34-year-olds since 2009, and lost 3.5 percent in 2013 alone. It is no surprise where those who do relocate to Michigan are heading: Detroit, Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, and Lansing/East Lansing. Urban areas with a strong sense of place and a wealth of nonprofit employment opportunities.

It is becoming increasingly apparent we have a demand for talent to fill the local government ranks, and an inability to attract the workforce we need. Local government just doesn’t work without HR specialists, building inspectors, managers, and wastewater treatment plant operators – positions that are becoming difficult to fill. So what can we do? How do we put local government back on the talent agenda and make sure that our communities are staffed and run by the most capable individuals?

1) Create communities with a strong sense of place and amenities that attract young talent
2) Change the narrative that surrounds local government: it should be known as the place where one can make difference and be connected to the community
3) Question yourself: is your government somewhere that people feel challenged, empowered, and rewarded?
4) Plan and invest in your employees: offer professional development and training opportunities to allow existing employees to grow within your organization
5) Hire outside of the box: look for innovation and transferable skills over a strict definition of related experience
6) Examine the licensing process for many of your technical positions: do they create an unnecessary burden?
7) Partner with educators: our universities and technical institutes may need your expertise to anticipate the positions you need filled

Let’s be ahead of the curve and make sure to prioritize people in local government.

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Why the War on Infrastructure?

in·fra·struc·ture (ˈinfrəˌstrək(t)SHər/)
  1. the basic physical and organizational structures and facilities (e.g., buildings, roads, and power supplies) needed for the operation of a society or enterprise.
  • The United Arab Emirates has announced over US$300 billion in construction projects (pipelines, ports, transportation).
  • Japanese trains will soon carry passengers at speeds greater than 300 MPH.
  • China’s five-year plan calls for 82 new airports.
  • London’s comprehensive infrastructure strategy runs through 2050. The report affirms that, “Infrastructure is fundamental to every Londoner, every day, from turning on the taps in the morning, to traveling to work, to switching off the lights at night.”

infrastructureSo what is happening in the U.S., you ask? Not much. Sure there are projects. Some of them are sizable.  The current political climate, however, makes a long term, strategic infrastructure plan near impossible.  As a result the American economy suffers, innovation lags and quality of life suffers.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in urban America. Roads and bridges are crumbling, water and sewer systems are outdated and communication technology is applied in an inadequate, hopscotch pattern. The sprawling deployment of government funds over the last half century has left many cities (and villages) with outdated bones. To make matters worse, the sprawling pattern is unsustainable in the long run, too. Signs of this are everywhere. (Building a road is the easy part because nobody builds a road without funding in place. RE-building it twenty years later is an entirely different matter)

Which leads us to where we are in the U.S. today. The “built environment” (i.e. cities, traditional downtowns, inner-rings suburbs) is infrastructure deprived. The newer stuff is in need of updates. And nobody wants to pay to fix it, as evidenced by the recent (in)actions of the Michigan Legislature and the refusal of Congress to pass anything resembling a long term solution.

Without appropriate support from the Federal and state governments cities must fend for themselves. There are obvious deficiencies with the “go-it-alone” model. Skewed tax burdens and a lack of regional coordination top the list.  The end results, I fear, are less competitive cities.

One note on the elephant in the room- taxes. Infrastructure should not be a victim of ideological fights over the role of government and the size of budgets. In any society government plays a central role in providing the basics. Transportation, clean water, and public safety are base level services that American cities have offered from the start. It’s the stuff that allows for commercial activity to flourish and for people to enjoy their surroundings. State and Federal leaders who erroneously insert these essential services into the ideological war over more supplemental government functions demonstrate a failure in leadership. Whichever side of the political spectrum they find themselves is immaterial.

We need to fix things. Fast.

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Heritage Hill in Grand Rapids, A Great Urban Place

A colleague of mine recently authored a blog on the Heritage Hill neighborhood in Grand HHRapids, Michigan. Richard Murphy, or “Murph” to his friends, goes into great detail on the important urban elements that make Heritage Hill a jewel in the urban landscape. There are lessons for all of us here.

From Murph’s blog:

“This contrast comes from a few factors:

  • Homes are placed on relatively small lots–many less than 1/10 acre.
  • Most have very small “yard” areas, with front porches often within a few feet of the sidewalk, and the building occupying most of its lot.
  • While there are larger apartment buildings scattered through the neighborhood, the majority of dwelling units are in duplexes or  3- or 4-plexes. Some of these are visibly constructed as “flats”, but most are houses.
  • The historic streets are narrow, and off-street parking is limited, dedicating less of the neighborhood’s total acreage to asphalt.

Far from being less desirable as a result, data from GVSU’s Community Research Institute show these neighborhoods having above average shares of young, educated households and above average incomes; property values are strong and rising, and active renovation projects are visible on every block–just the type of talent attraction and local investment outcomes we hope to see from successful strategic placemaking efforts.”

To read the entire blog, go here. I’m sure Murph would enjoy your feedback, too.


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The Prosperity Agenda: Strong Towns

prosperity-agenda-thumbIs your town strong? You can find out by listening to this month’s Prosperity Agenda radio show on News/Talk 760 WJR. During this month’s show we talk about a recent Strong Towns Strength Test put out by the Strong Towns organization. It’s a great measurement tool to see how your community is doing. My co-host for the show is veteran Detroit Free Press reporter John Gallagher. Our guests are Chuck Marohn, president of Strong Towns; Cadillac City Manager Marcus Peccia; and Joe Borgstrom, Director of the Downtown & Community Services Division for the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA). The Michigan Prosperity Agenda is a monthly radio show that challenges listeners to help make Michigan a better place to live, work and play by creating vibrant and prosperous local communities. It has aired on News/Talk 760 WJR since 2010. The show airs 7 p.m. Wednesday, September 24, on News/Talk 760 WJR, but you can listen anytime at the League’s website or by subscribing to the FREE iTunes podcast. Learn more about the placemaking concept here as well as on this blog.

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