Arts & Entertainment, Economic Development, and Human Resources

Michigan House expands scouting collaborative

'Embassy' at SXSW adds more local partners to help attract talent to the Great Lakes State.

March 1, 2019
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SXSW Michigan
Michigan House’s appearance at South by Southwest will promote the state’s career and lifestyle opportunities and its signature attractions. Courtesy David Green

Michigan House, an experiential platform in its fifth year at South by Southwest, is opening its doors a little wider this year.

Founded in 1987, South by Southwest Music, Film and Interactive Conference and Festival (SXSW) is a massive event held annually in Austin, Texas. Last year, 432,500 people attended, according to SXSW.

This year’s event runs March 8-17.

Among the many attractions, several municipalities and even nations stage programs during SXSW, but Michigan has more of “a robust presence” than any other state there through its Michigan House platform, organizers said.

Michigan House is a public-private partnership that serves as an “experiential embassy” at SXSW by promoting Michigan’s career and lifestyle opportunities and the state’s signature attractions.

When it first debuted, Michigan House mainly focused on displaying Michigan-made products and putting on performances, panel discussions and mixers to tell the many stories of Michigan.

Now, its talent attraction and retention emphasis are increasing as the event’s power to improve perceptions of the Great Lakes State and attract “new collar” job seekers have become more evident.

For 2019, more than 40 organizations statewide — about 15 of which are from West Michigan — are part of the program with their sights set on recruiting and raising awareness of their organizations.

Ted Velie is among the co-founders of Michigan House. He said 2019 is its most ambitious year yet.

“Attraction and retention are hot-button priorities for businesses of all sizes throughout Michigan,” he said.

“SXSW provides a unique pathway to connect with a highly sought-after demographic, and our Michigan House activities offer an ideal environment designed to make a great first impression of everything our state has to offer. Michigan has to boldly go where no other state has gone before because we recognize the critical importance of helping employers dispel the myth that Michigan is still a ‘Rust Belt’ state.”

Local partners involved in 2019 include Start Garden, Spectrum Health, Brightly, Bell’s Brewery, Seamless IoT, Whirlpool, Amway, Steelcase, Wakestream Ventures, Varnum, HR Collaborative, Management Business Solutions and Grand Rapids SmartZone.

West Michigan membership-based talent partners include Hello West Michigan and Southwest Michigan First, which are providing marketing and consulting support toward the effort, including sharing information about job openings, candidate information and résumés.

Rachel Bartels, executive director of Hello West Michigan, will be at the event. She said last year, she attended the Michigan House mixer, mainly to observe and gather ideas, and it led to an opportunity.

“I discovered that they have this career fair at South by Southwest,” she said. “And what I noticed that was out of the 25 exhibitors that were there, five of them were cities or regions, and they were attracting talent to multiple companies just as a region, so Choose Atlanta; Lincoln, Nebraska; the state of Louisiana — all of them were down there doing what Michigan House really wanted to do.

“I said, ‘You know what, if these other organizations are here doing it, and it was not their first time, because I talked to all of them, then we really need to do this, too. So, I made that recommendation to Michigan House, and it has been fantastic that we have been able to collaborate, both Hello West Michigan, Michigan House and the other talent partners around the state, (and) we’ve been able to make this happen.”

The Michigan House talent partners’ focus is on a specific SXSW demographic, according to organizers. Forty-three percent of festival-goers are between ages 21 and 34, and 27 percent have careers in management, followed by 23 percent in creative development, 17 percent in “something else,” 15 percent in sales and marketing, 10 percent in business development and 8 percent in communications and public relations.

For a state producing a flurry of tech startups and creative firms like Michigan is, Austin is the perfect place to find global talent, they said.

Katie Hoekstra, director of recruiting and professional development at Varnum, said her firm is not attending SXSW but is taking advantage of the job posting service offered by Michigan House.

“For the legal industry in particular, when we’re looking for experienced attorneys to come in and work for our lawyers here, we have had trouble finding associates at the appropriate level,” she said.

“There’s a pay difference between Grand Rapids and even Detroit than what you’d get in Chicago or New York. We have been trying to convince people it’s worth coming back to the state. … Here you can have a great, sophisticated practice, be paid more for the cost of living and have a better work-life balance than in a bigger market.”

Beth Kelly, president of HR Collaborative in Grand Rapids, said hers is one of the companies paying the Michigan House sponsorship fee to attend and be part of the contingent, and she believes it will be worth the cost.

The first day, she will attend the Michigan House Mobility Day, which is hosted in collaboration with Planet M, the Detroit Regional Chamber and Ann Arbor SPARK and includes a luncheon and “mobility mixer” with Michigan-made food and drink and music from Michigan bands.

The next day, HR Collaborative will be part of the Michigan House booth at the SXSW Job Market on the trade show floor — the same career fair Bartels noticed last year.

“We’ll be recruiting for our client companies and then also keeping an eye out for good talent for us, as well,” she said.

Kelly also hopes to meet startup founders eyeing West Michigan for a possible new location, as they will need help finding talent.

She said she is thankful to be attending SXSW after years of interest in the event.

“This is a really strong collaborative effort, and the folks who are there are there to bring talent back to the region, all under the notion that a rising tide lifts all boats, and if we can get them back here, then it will be good for the state.”

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