Economic Development, Higher Education, and Human Resources

West Michigan retaining young, educated residents

Grand Rapids is most popular destination for people from other states.

January 30, 2015
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LANSING — While many of Michigan’s counties are experiencing an exodus of the young and educated, the Greater Grand Rapids region is bucking the trend.

According to 2013 census data, Michigan lost 3.5 percent of its population of people ages 22 to 34 with bachelor’s degrees to other states. This follows net migration losses of the young and educated of 2.2 percent in 2012 and 2 percent in 2011. In 2010, the state lost 4.4 percent of this group to outbound migration.

While much of the data shows the state continuing to follow this trend, a recent survey of the Greater Grand Rapids area tells a different story.

Among Michigan’s metropolitan regions, Grand Rapids was the most popular destination for people moving in from other states. In fact, Ottawa and Kent counties saw population increases of people between the ages of 25 and 30, said Paul Isely, associate dean at Grand Valley State University’s Seidman College of Business.

“We certainly aren’t seeing the net migrations on this side of the state that you are seeing on the east side,” he said.

Isely revealed the findings of his benchmark survey of the regional economy Jan. 16 at the Colliers Annual Economic and Real Estate Forecast at DeVos Place.

The study focused on the Kent, Ottawa, Muskegon and Allegan county areas and was conducted during November and December 2014. The findings included a higher-than-expected employment rate for the Grand Rapids metro area and an increased business confidence in the area.

In December, the four-county Grand Rapids-Wyoming labor market reported an unemployment rate of 3.5 percent, tied for the lowest in the state.

“This year the confidence of business is above any seen since the 1990s. It’s very impressive,” Isely said. “When businesses are more confident, it leads to a lot more investment and new businesses being started.”

More than three-quarters of the businesses responding to the survey expect to hire in 2015. About 80 percent of hires are expected to be for permanent positions, Isely said.

Isely said the overall migration increases in Ottawa, Muskegon and Allegan counties also are supporting housing prices, with real estate markets above 2000 levels.

“The only negative slowdown to be seen is in export growth,” Isely said. “Job growth is also starting to be constrained in West Michigan because we don’t have enough people to fill jobs.”

The good news, he said, was this would result in higher wages in the area.

Joshua Lunger, public policy coordinator for the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, echoed Isely’s sentiments when it came to a lack of skills in the area.

“We actually conduct our own survey, and 80 percent of respondents added jobs last year,” he said. “At the same time, more than 50 percent were having trouble finding quality applicants.”

Lunger said there needs to be a focus by policymakers on enticing the young and educated to stay in Michigan.

“We want to create a place where they want to be and where they want to stay and take their skills to the businesses here and help us grow,” he said.

Despite the job growth and improved economic outlook in the west side of the state, many of Michigan’s young and educated are still making the move out of state.

According to the U.S. Census data, the nearby Great Lakes states were the most common destination for people in this demographic who left Michigan, with Illinois and Ohio accounting for two of the top three destinations. California was the third. Young and educated Michiganders also considered Wisconsin and Indiana favorable destinations.

State demographer Eric Guthrie, who analyzed the data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, said the Chicago area was a big draw.

“The migration trends have indicated that young, educated individuals are favoring urban environments. These areas offer the vibrancy and opportunity they desire,” Guthrie said.

It’s normal for people to move from state to state, Guthrie said, but when young, college-educated people leave, you want new ones moving in.

“The situation that is problematic in Michigan is a lack of enough in-migration in that group to balance out our population dynamic,” he said.

“As far as solving the so-called brain drain,” he joked, “if I knew the answer to that, I’d send you a copy of my book.”

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