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Frank A. Douglass Insurance Agency

Worker shortage: The shrinking labor force

Michigan’s unemployment rate has dropped to 4.9 percent, with Houghton County at 5.4 percent unadjusted in March. Both are below the national average, but aided by a shrinking labor force. In February 2020, before economic consequences from the COVID-19 pandemic caused havoc in the area, Houghton County had 17,009 people employed or actively looking for work. Department of Technology, Management and Budget data for March of this year shows the labor force at just 15,855. While that can be expected to rise for the summer tourism season, it is clear that many people have not gotten back to work.

That can be verified through the number of help wanted signs dotting storefronts throughout the Keweenaw. Michigan Works! Director of Workforce Services Debb Brunell says businesses are taking unprecedented steps to coax people into applying for a job.

A couple of businesses, while both of them I think did bump up their hourly wage, but they also tried to incent people to apply by offering a signing bonus, and it made zero difference. They got no applicants.

A McDonald’s restaurant in Florida is offering gift cards just to find applicants who will sit through an interview. At corporate owned locations, starting wages are up to $14 an hour. The Houghton restaurant is owned by a franchisee, but don’t be surprised if you see area fast food chains follow suit. In some cases across various industries, starting salaries being offered and those for managers with years of experience are nearly equal, causing friction.

The labor force reduction is even more stark when you consider the segments of the population who have used the crisis as an opportunity. When MTEC SmartZone hosted its “Return North” job fair Thursday, they kept it in a virtual format to allow for companies from across the state and region to hire those who can work remotely here in the Keweenaw Peninsula for offices or manufacturing plants hundreds of miles away. Houghton, Baraga, and Keweenaw Counties now count many in their labor forces who utilize an arrangement not possible as little as a year ago.

Hancock School District has revamped its career advice department. Students will be allowed to graduate mid-trimester in coming school years, says Superintendent Steve Patchin.

The other option that we introduced to the board is this idea of being able to graduate mid-trimester or mid year. There will be a plan that goes along with that, that will have to be approved by the board. The student will present the plan on where they’re gonna go next, whether it be working or taking other courses and that kind of thing.

Last spring, once school was closed, Patchin says students rushed out to find jobs. Maintaining coursework consistent with the requirements of a four-year university will be just one of many paths going forward. There are avenues now tailored to students who seek work in the skilled trades or other alternative career options. High school seniors can receive credit through work experience.

You’re going to be able to take an elective in taxidermy. You might be another elective if you wanted to to learn how to be a licensed contractor. And so, we’re giving these kids these other options to help them explore where they fit once they graduate.

Anecdotally, housing shortages suggest the area’s population is growing. Taking a second look at the labor force decline in spite of all these hidden factors reveals the scope of how many people are out there in the shadows waiting for the right opportunity. Businesses, especially retail, restaurants, and hospitality, are still looking for the secret to bring them back.

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