Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The West Michigan brain gain

At one point in time, only a few decades ago, Michigan was essentially synonymous with an achievable middle class lifestyle. The Big Three employed a variety of people from all socio-economic strata, and manufacturing was strong state-wide. Unfortunately globalization, NAFTA, and the economic meltdown of 2008 took a harsh toll on the average citizen’s income, and the result was many people left the state looking for other opportunities.

The economy in West Michigan, however, has diverged from that pattern and is also attracting young professionals to the area, reversing the trend of brain drain the rest of the state has experienced. As the West Michigan economy continues to improve and grow, what will be the effect on its Millennial demographic?

What we know right now is good news. Last year Kent County topped the list for jobs gained in the state. Population-wise, the area has seen growth as well. In the Greater Grand Rapids area, including Barry, Kent, Montcalm, and Ottawa counties, the total population last year was 1,034,840, with a growth rate of 4.6% over the past five years. Out of that population approximately 60% of adults have at least some college education.

According to Paul Isely, Associate Dean of GVSU’s Seidman College of Business, 80-90% of GVSU’s graduates remain in Michigan. Given the trend of Millennials continuing to live with their parents after college, no doubt a significant number of GVSU’s graduates remain in state because their families are here. The diverse economy, however, has given rise to a number of professional jobs that require skill and training, and that means that West Michigan gets to keep more of its young people for itself.

In 2015, Aaron Renn released the findings of a study that indicated that the Greater Grand Rapids area had seen a 45.6% brain gain - that is, an increasing population of highly educated residents between the years 2000 and 2013. Due to this gain, we are seeing Grand Rapids and the West Michigan area remake itself to cater to a resident with more urban sensibilities. The improvement of Grand Rapids’ bus transit system, the RAPID, and the spreading reach of bike paths through the area have allowed young people to live within the city and more easily commute to a job elsewhere.

Downtown and throughout the city more live-work spaces have been developed from former commercial and manufacturing buildings, allowing for neighborhoods that are not just residential, but multi-use. This kind of housing availability will serve to attract more young professionals of the creative class to West Michigan.

The area is not experiencing an aging population trend like many places, but has a mixed population of old, middle-aged, young people, and children. This is a much more positive sign for the future of this city and larger West Michigan. Its hospitals, research facilities, engineering software companies, and manufacturing sector will have talent to draw from to improve the area's future well into the twenty-first century.