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Jacques: Harness smart investments to connect workers with jobs

Mackinac Island — Businesses across Michigan are facing a common problem. The repercussions of the pandemic have shrunk the state’s labor force, causing some serious headaches.

The workers simply aren’t there to fill the thousands of jobs available. In Detroit, many of these jobs are in the manufacturing sector. And while this is causing frustrations for employers, it could also offer an opportunity to Detroiters, who have too long been shut out of the labor market. 

Business and political leaders are on the case. How to address this shortfall, and match people with good jobs, has been a focus of conversation at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference. 

Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the chamber, says workforce shortages are one of the most pressing issues facing the country. Post-COVID, the labor force is going to look different, with employees bringing new demands and expectations to the workplace.

And it’s going to take some work to bring these people back. 

The jobs may look different, too, which will necessitate new training and skills education. 

In an interview Tuesday, Mayor Mike Duggan addressed the employee shortages in Detroit.

“We can't fill the jobs that we have,” he says. “We've got huge hiring going on in manufacturing, huge hiring going on in distribution as the hotels come back, the restaurants can't hire people fast enough.”

Duggan notes the 7,000 jobs that are available between the new Detroit Jefferson North Jeep plant and Amazon facility. Many more will be coming online in the near future. 

“The demand is finally here,” says David Meador, vice chairman and chief administrative officer for DTE Energy and co-chair of the Mayor’s Workforce Development Board. “We really have to focus on the supply side.”

Meador and Duggan point to the efforts of Detroit at Work, which has helped match workers to some of these new jobs, and connected people with training necessary to step in these roles. 

Ramping up those efforts will be essential to meet the current demand. 

Meador says the next priority will be how to invest the federal COVID relief dollars, and he and other business leaders have worked closely with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to outline a plan for that funding. 

Whitmer offered some additional details on how she’d like the money spent this week in her “MI New Economy” plan. The proposal would devote $2.1 billion in federal dollars to supporting small businesses, investing in communities and growing the middle class. The state has at least $6 billion to spend. 

“These are the right priorities,” Baruah says. 

As details of the plan are hashed out with the Legislature, lawmakers should ensure that these new investments offer targeted support to businesses and workers without growing the scope of government long-term, beyond the federal pot of money. 

“We need one-time investments that change systems,” says Jeff Donofrio, president and CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan. 

Existing programs with proven records could expand on the work they are already doing. 

Detroit at Work, for example, is addressing residents’ immediate needs and then works to connect them with job training. 

“And that's the goal, to go to the folks who maybe in June didn't know where they're going to live next week,” Duggan says. “And by September, they've got good employment and a good source of income, and they've got stability.”

With so many jobs available, this is the perfect opportunity to help guide more Detroiters to a sustainable career path. 

"I'm spending my day trying to figure out how to fill the demand for jobs that we've got," Duggan says. 

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques