Economic Development, Human Resources, and Small Business & Startups

To keep growing, West Michigan must reduce barriers to opportunity

August 31, 2018
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Elissa Hillary. Courtesy Local First

Communities across the United States, both large and small, are undergoing revitalization. Restaurants, cafés and grocery stores are moving into neighborhoods, and new businesses are filling in long-vacant properties. Unemployment rates are at or near all-time lows, and many employers have open positions to fill. While this is good news for the local economy, it also brings a number of challenges for traditionally marginalized communities. As our cities evolve, we must ask ourselves: How do we ensure everyone can benefit from growth?

Without a doubt business is booming in West Michigan, with new storefronts opening every week. As our economy continues to grow and the region attracts new talent, it also brings challenges that affect our local neighborhoods, including gentrification. With new buildings going up, affordable single-family homes are being torn down, pushing longtime residents out of their neighborhoods. Some locally owned businesses have found it impossible to keep their business alive as more competitors move into their neighborhood. The racial equity gap is real in Grand Rapids. The short-term effects include people of color being denied access to good-paying jobs. The long-term effects could mean missing out on true economic stability.

A study released by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in June found that by 2050, the United States could realize an $8 trillion gain in GDP by closing the nation’s racial equity gap. The report looked at racial equity gaps in New Mexico, Michigan, Mississippi and New Orleans. The report found in Michigan, people of color earn two-thirds of what their white counterparts earn. Reducing this inequity would result in an additional $15 billion in annual earnings, increasing Michigan’s spending power and stimulating the economy.

If we want to continue our West Michigan success story, we need to make sure everyone can be part of it and bring about a new vision of what that success story looks like. Businesses are a key part of bringing about positive change and here are a few steps businesses can take toward creating equitable and inclusive opportunities in our community.

Reduce the skills gap

More than ever, West Michigan needs skilled talent. There is a shortage of people who can fill skilled jobs in industries such as manufacturing, construction and technology. To close this gap, employers should find creative and innovative ways to develop skilled talent, whether that’s engaging K-12 students in the skilled trades or creating additional skilled trades programs that equip people with the skills needed for 21st-century jobs. If you need help closing the skills gap, there are a number of community resources including WMCAT, West Michigan Works!, Urban League, The Source and GROW that can help connect you with talent development programs.

Create equitable job opportunities

Creating better employment opportunities for people of color is key to making sure everyone can participate in creating our region’s success story. With Michigan’s populations of color growing, there is tremendous untapped potential in Michigan for creating equitable job opportunities, according to WKKF. In fact, 40 percent of Michigan’s workers and consumers will be people of color by 2050. As you create new jobs and recruit talent, connect with organizations such as The Right Place, LEDA, Inclusive Performance Strategies, West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and GRABB to help you establish inclusive hiring practices and recruit talent from all backgrounds.

Attend equity and inclusion training

If you’re thinking about opening a business or expanding into an underserved neighborhood, consider taking a class on equity and inclusion. For example, in September we will host Anti-Gentrify: Moving Kindly into a Neighborhood, where participants will learn from One World Diversity ways to combat the negative effects of gentrification. This workshop will teach business leaders and community members how to support economic growth while reducing racial barriers and creating opportunities for all people.

Reducing barriers to opportunity is good for our community and for business. Businesses that have equitable practices create diverse and inclusive cultures, resulting in improved recruitment practices, better retention rates and increased access to broader consumer bases. When we create opportunities for all people to succeed, we can strengthen our community and local economy together.