HighTech Workers Still A Top MEDC Priority

June 13, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — The slowdown in the technology industry hasn’t slowed down the state’s resolve to attract high-tech workers to Michigan.

Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC) President and CEO Doug Rothwell told the Business Journal last week that although the downturn has lifted some of the pressure from his agency to find these workers now, it hasn’t erased the need for the search.

“The long-term issue is still there, which is that Michigan is not turning out enough high-tech, high-skilled graduates through the educational system to fill its needs, even now,” said Rothwell during a visit he made to Grand Rapids last Tuesday.

Despite the industry pullback that has softened the demand for workers, Rothwell said thousands of technical jobs remain open in Michigan.

“But we just don’t have the supply to fill those jobs,” he said.

That means the MEDC, the state’s economic development agency, will still try to import workers from other markets in competing states, an effort it started over a year ago. And having to continue that marketing program wasn’t Rothwell’s biggest concern; rather, it was why the program has to be marketed.

“The real issue is that we are going to have to import these workers for the foreseeable future to fill the gap because our educational system, in the foreseeable future, will not be able to meet it. There are just not enough people going into these fields,” he said.

Adding to the difficulty that Rothwell’s agency faces to lure workers here is the fact that Michigan’s overall population increase in the 1990s was 6 percent, a good growth rate but one that was half of what most sunbelt states experienced.

Rothwell said the sunbelts weren’t turning out more high-tech grads than Michigan. But Michigan needs more of these workers than those states because its work force is more high-tech oriented.

As for the high-tech downturn, Rothwell said it hasn’t affected the response rate to the state’s worker-recruitment program, which has stayed relatively stable over the roller coaster ride. The numbers may have changed somewhat, he said, but the gaps are still there.

About 18 months ago, the MEDC wrapped its entire $5 million marketing budget into a campaign to attract workers in life sciences, computers, engineering and other high-tech fields to the state. The program was targeted to 440,000 professionals in Chicago, Columbus, Cincinnati and Indianapolis, and marked the first time the MEDC put all its economic eggs in a single developmental basket — a move that Rothwell called “a seismic shift.”

Rothwell said the CEOs of the state’s top tech firms were still “bullish” about the future. He reported that Michigan companies weren’t buried as badly by the Nasdaq avalanche as those in other states because the focus here is on the application end instead of the development side of the business — the sector that was crushed by the stock-price landslide.

What hurts the state’s tech core more, Rothwell explained, is when manufacturers suffer a slump, like many are going through now. Cutbacks in the industrial sector mean less money will be spent with the tech firms that do applications for the industry.

Still, Compuware of Farmington Hills, Comshare of Ann Arbor and Sun Microsystems, with locations in Allen Park and Grand Rapids, all reported sales gains for FY2001 from the previous year.

“They still feel very strongly that their companies are going to do just fine,” said Rothwell of what the state’s tech CEOs have told him, “and that this is a great state to be in.” 

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