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Ken Winter

Ken Winter

Help Wanted

July 28, 2017

Jim Tisdel isn’t quite a household name in northern Michigan, but if you’re interested in knowing or finding job training, he could fast become your best friend.

Tisdale is North Central Michigan College’s Corporate and Community Education

Director, who monitors the Up North job market and writes a column regularly in the Petoskey News-Review providing job preparation tips and where to find current openings.

Help wanted signs continue to glut business and retail store windows and fill help-wanted classifieds, people like Tisdale, as well government agencies like Michigan Works with its Michigan Jobs Bank, and other public and private agencies work to prepare and connect people for available positions.  In northwest Michigan, most of the openings occur in healthcare, hospitality, building trades, and light industries.  Even now, lower paying fast food and service industries are short staffed after increasing hourly wages and benefits.

While much of the available employment data in some sectors is sketchy, most employers and their human resources staff will tell you openings continue to grow for lack of affordable housing, highly skilled and trained workers, and lower wages for the same positions compared to downstate.

The reasons vary, but many work two or three jobs to support families and are often forced to move to other parts of the state or regions of the country.  Those looking for better paying heavy construction jobs or working for larger retailers, like Meijer and Walmart, find people’s criminal records a roadblock for gainful employment.

“If I check the box on a job application that I have a past criminal record, I won’t even get a job interview,” said one Gaylord man training and spending nearly a year working through Michigan Works.  “So now, I don’t even check the box.”

Michigan Works staff confirm the issue and wonder if at one point minor infractions, sometimes from many years past, will be overlooked by employers desperate to fill positions instead of automatically not granting interviews.

It is no secret that many employers have come to depend on foreign workers to take on jobs in the agriculture, restaurant and hotel seasonal employment sectors that can be found in the local job pool.

Unfortunately, the federal government has been little help as it tightened up on guest-worker visas instead of making them more available.

“Employers from Cape Cod bed-and-breakfasts to Alaskan fisheries have been begging the Trump Administration for more seasonal guest-worker visas,” opined Wall Street Journal editors last week.  “Summer is nearly half over, and on Monday the Department of Homeland Security finally agreed to issue 15,000 additional H-2B Visas.”

The H-2B visa program covers a myriad of industries that rely on seasonal workers from construction and skiing to tourism and landscaping.  Most of these jobs are grueling and short term, which deter local residents from seeking them, and force employers to look elsewhere if they expect to operate.  Youth, who used to work many of the resort and retail jobs, now spend their time summers studying or volunteering.

Last year, Congress exacerbated the annual available 66,000 permits by not allowing those who had previously worked with visas to be exempt from the limit.  With recent Bureau of Labor Statistics showing there were 755,000 job openings in food services and accommodations in May, up 12% from year ago, the shortage has hit many businesses hard.  Some have shuttered their windows permanently, others stay open for less hours and other change their service offerings.  All have a ripple effect on local economies, particularly in resort-based dependent economies found in northwest Michigan.

Some have looked toward a previously ignored employment pool, older Americans between 68-70, who aren’t completely ready to retire. While they don’t have much in common politically, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump share a lot in common with almost 20 percent of Americans 65 and older working as do many others including major corporate giants.

“Veteran older people represent a vast majority well of productive and creative potential,” observed one labor writer. “Veteran workers can bring knowledge to the table, as well as well-honed interpersonal skills, better judgment than the less experienced, and a more balanced perspective.”

Long before the current market, local Petoskey downtown employers like Cutler’s retail shop and Meyer Ace Hardware have used seniors as part-time workers, as well as resorts like Boyne Resorts, who find retired workers valuable for lawn mowing and as golf course rangers. The benefit, besides the pay, is receiving free golf and ski passes to use when not working.

Now many larger retailers, like Lowe’s and Home Depot, tap the market of semi-retired skilled trade workers to server as customer service workers in areas that require specialized knowledge to the “do it yourselfers”.

Healthcare providers find themselves in the same position, as they attempt to keep recently retired nurses and healthcare workers to continue to work short staffed shifts, particularly during summer season peak periods or as vacation time substitutes.

The recent 2017 ALICE study done by the Michigan Association of United Ways released in the spring, points to another growing segment—far too many people live in poverty or near poverty in northwest Michigan. The document revealed that 25 percent of Grand Traverse County, for example, is financially struggling with another 10 percent even in more dire straits living at or below the poverty level.

Out of this has grown a new and sometimes older sector of non-profit, mostly volunteer organizations, ranging from food banks and other charities, like Goodwill, Habit for Humanity and Rotary Charities to provide some help. 

“Added together, those figures mean that more than one third of our Grand Traverse County neighbors are engaged in a daily struggle to physically to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads,” reported the Traverse City Record-Eagle last April. “That needs to change if the region is to survive.”

They, like many others, feel the problem has been sufficiently identified and analyzed. Now it’s time to act.

Ken Winter, former editor and publisher of the Petoskey News-Review and member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, teaches political science and journalism at North in Petoskey and Michigan State University.

July 27, 2017 · Filed under Winter



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