Economic Development, Human Resources, and Lakeshore

Survey: 72 percent of firms plan to expand

Employers in Allegan, Ottawa counties also are addressing talent shortage.

August 12, 2016
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For the third straight year, employers in West Michigan see an increase in sales, according to a report from Zeeland-based Lakeshore Advantage.

In its 2016 Business Intelligence Report, compiled through a survey of 118 major employers in Allegan and Ottawa counties, 78 percent of respondents reported increased sales last year. Increased sales were reported by 77 percent of respondents in 2014 and 2013, as well.

Additionally, 72 percent of the companies surveyed indicated that they plan to expand in the region within the next three years.

However, Lakeshore Advantage President Jennifer Owens said she was surprised to see that the percentage of companies that reported declining sales also saw a slight uptick, from 2 percent to 6 percent this past year. Conversely, she was encouraged by the numbers showing that 49 percent of surveyed companies saw an increase in foreign sales.

“That’s a very positive sign that our community is serving the entire world, and we’re going to continue to export all over the world,” she said.

Owens said the report shows the economy in West Michigan “continues to be very robust” but cautioned the region’s growth could soon stagnate if the talent drain isn’t addressed.

As of May, Ottawa County boasted the lowest unemployment rate in the state at 3 percent, but that hasn’t helped with the growing talent divide. Of the surveyed companies, 76 percent said they were experiencing recruiting issues, and 72 percent of companies said there were barriers to growing in the region, with the lack of skilled labor the primary culprit.

“I feel like we’re on the right path, but that sense of urgency continues to grow,” Owens said.

To address those concerns, 59 percent of employers are increasing their training development, and Owens said Lakeshore Advantage is pouring resources into talent attraction and development. She also said an aggressive approach to the region’s college systems to retain as many graduates as possible will be crucial in the coming years.

One resource Lakeshore is focusing on is creation of a K-12 high-demand career exploration program. With 30 percent of the workforce in West Michigan tied to manufacturing, Lakeshore Advantage is working to facilitate pathways into skilled labor industries by connecting employers with the school districts.

“We’re connecting those dots and putting the right people together to solve these challenges and issues,” Owens said. “I think the beauty of West Michigan is that this is a community that continues to re-create itself, innovate and rise where the tide goes. I believe it will continue to be strong, but it will take a team effort. It will take businesses and community colleges and K-through-12 educators to create a path to the future.”

The report was unveiled at a briefing Aug. 4 at the Howard Miller Community Center in Zeeland, where Owens presented the findings to about 60 attendees. She said the purpose of the 38-question survey is to determine where the business community believes Lakeshore Advantage should direct its resources to have the greatest impact.

Lakeshore Advantage has conducted the survey since 2010, and Owens said each year the economic development organization takes steps to improve on it. For instance, one topic not addressed on this year’s survey but likely to be added in future years is the impact of affordable housing on the region’s talent draw.

“We’re hearing that the access for affordable housing is becoming an additional challenge,” she said. “That’s one that we’re watching and had been raised as something that can hopefully be addressed.”

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