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7 ways to address Michigan’s tech job gap

Artist Rendering of Governor's Economic Summit and Tech

The jobs gap is talked about a lot in the Detroit region and in Michigan. There’s currently a space between the people we have and the skills needed.

What is the answer? How do we get people employed? After all, we’re at an inflection point in Detroit and Michigan. I spent two days shoulder to shoulder with employers at the Governor’s Economic Summit, and there were a ton of great ideas in there, but also, I believe, some of the answers came from the attendees.

Michigan's regions

Artist rendering of a 10 region map for Michigan

Sitting in these sessions, it was obvious we’re talking about multiple issues. The solutions aren’t simple, but they’re possible.

When we come to tech, let’s lay out the disconnect. The state’s general unemployment rate sits at about 8.6%. However, when it comes to the tech sector, people there were passing around the number of 4% unemployment. A much better jobs picture, sure, but I looked for confirmation.

I found some in the report about tech sector jobs. Did you know, nationwide the tech sector unemployment is 3.3%? So 4% for Michigan seems plausible.

So, nationally, if you are a database administrator, your field unemployment rate is 1.5%. Let that sink in for a second.

Web developer? 3.5%. Programmers are at 4.6%.

Here are a few different ideas I heard from multiple people in work sessions. This isn’t comprehensive … just some areas of thought that seemed to percolate often.

Packed house at Governor's Economic Conference at Cobo HallWork on the culture clash

Some employers don’t understand (especially) tech employees are going to have earbuds in and may use email as their primary communication channel. There are plenty of companies willing to hire those folks away, pay them and let them keep their culture. For instance, I’m writing this listening to Daft Punk on Spotify.

That said the feedback was prospective employees also have to work on their soft skills to work with a team as well as their leadership abilities.

Getting real about the unemployment mismatch

People in top positions are looking at the state employment, not the industry unemployment levels. As a result they have unrealistic expectations for what people need to be paid. The playing field is national. With top talent is poached by Google and others and shipped off. We need to compete both on culture and cash and make clear the cost of living is much lower in Metro Detroit while reinforcing our assets. Arts and culture were listed as the No. 1 strength for the Detroit region. Money goes a lot farther here than Silicon Valley, Boston or New York.

Leaders need to get back in the hiring process

There’s an over-reliance on using technology to find people. We’ve talked before how companies use giant databases and don’t read your resume, but Mary Kramer, publisher of Crain’s Detroit Business, told the crowd her publication was having trouble finding certain key people through these tech methods, but when she dived in and got involved in the process herself, going through the candidates, she found her people quickly.

Artist Rendering of Governor's Economic Summit and TechBringing apprenticeships to technology fields

This practice has been around for centuries for trades. You invest in talent to teach them what they need to know and give them a real job while they’re in school. This is not an internship. They stay at the firm hosting the apprenticeship two years.

Change skill expectations for fresh graduates that are too high

College is designed to give you fundamentals, but employers are expecting extremely specific skills (hence the reliance on the resume keyword search). The smart employers have partnered with colleges to give them the resources (equipment, money, adjunct professors) to get institutions up to speed.

Rethinking state unemployment data collection

The state data in some industries flat out isn’t good enough. Right now, surveys are sent out to employers to predict the need for new employees, which are filled out if they have time. The resulting data is laughable to anyone who knows anything about the sector.

IT Workforce Development Numbers provided by the state of MichiganAccording the data shared, there’s only the need for one more programmer in the whole state each of the next five years and five new marketing people each of the next three years. Then, there’s a jump of exactly 44 new marketing folks that are needed in 2017. The estimation numbers the state provided are to the right (you can click the image to make it larger).

Even counting for losses in other areas, Dan Gilbert’s company contributions alone will probably blow that measly amount out of the water.

Now, this survey practice isn’t new, but it is outdated in an age of big data. Even the business leaders thought it was flawed. A spot poll at the conference showed only 3% of attendees thought it was a good way to gauge future needs. If the governor wants to reinvent Michigan, he needs to reinvent how that data is collected.

Focusing on continuing education

We need to accept the reality that constant learning is going to be required if you’re going to work around technology. To that end, college or tech school can’t be the end. It is not a valid assumption that getting a college degree means getting a job forever. The thousands of millennial Michiganders living at home already know this. Whether it’s official or unofficial education, the industries are moving so fast employees in fields such as health care can become outdated with the switch of a technology vendor.

We owe it to workers to get serious about retraining. Here’s an interesting way to rethink this.

The Capitol Area IT Council is a group of about 300 companies that have pooled resources, identified common needs and accessed grants. For instance, 15 people were trained as Java programmers for targeted positions through a partnership with a community college in a paltry couple of months, not years like most people assume is required. I like this model because it gets rid of the “if/come” model of job development, and says “here’s a need, let’s fill it.”

Locally, what if groups like Techtown could foster that alliance here in Detroit? Or maybe an organization like Automation Alley could be well-suited to have a job training component to meet the specific needs of members?

I believe there are some solutions to this problem if we’re willing to get serious about it and stop saying we have to do things the same way.


Note: Obviously, there is more to this story than just the tech sector. In a future post, I’ll be addressing the needs for skilled trades in the state.

Michigan's regions

Artist rendering of a 10 region map for Michigan

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2 comments on “7 ways to address Michigan’s tech job gap

  1. Providing a hands-on education in high-tech fields is key, as are co-ops and internships that give students the opportunity to practice what they've learned in the classroom in a real-world work setting. Michigan Technological University is providing this kind of education, and the pay-off is clear in the university's job placement rate – nearly 96 percent.

  2. I definitely agree with the continuing education element. Here at Grand Circus (, we are super passionate about offering really high quality classes in the skills that a lot of businesses here in Downtown Detroit are clamoring for.

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