Talent Chasers: Upping Michigan’s Talent Game

By Rene Wisely

When Consumers Energy sought to fill 50 gas distribution worker positions in 2015, the company was inundated with more than 1,000 applicants. But after a lengthy screening process, only 15 people were found to have the requisite skills. The Jackson-based gas and energy provider hired them but realized then the real-world implications of Michigan’s talent gap. 

 It cost the company time, money and the chance to grow its business quickly. 

 “We knew we had to come up with a non-traditional solution to fill the jobs with qualified people,” said Patti Poppe, president and CEO of Consumers Energy and CMS Energy. 

Consumers isn’t alone. Employers across Michigan are fighting the talent gap – the disconnect between the skills applicants have and the skills employers need. Michigan must fill more than 811,055 positions in the next six years or risk losing $49.1 billion in potential earnings by 2024, forecasters project. 

“We need people, we need workers, we need talent,” said Roger Curtis, vice president of public affairs for Consumers Energy and former director of the state’s Department of Talent and Economic Development. 

And Michigan needs businesses to help turn the numbers around, said Michigan State University economics professor Charles Ballard, author of three books spotlighting the economy. 

“Some are very forward thinking and are trying to make decisions for long-term profit and viability,” Ballard said. “Others, though, are only focused on profit in the short-term.” 


Thinking Outside the Box 

Consumers Energy, which services 6.7 million of the state’s almost 10 million residents, is on the forefront of creating a talent pipeline. Poppe, who firmly believes businesses learn from each other, has been crossing the state to share some of her company’s successful tactics used to attract and retain talent. 

To solve the gas distribution worker shortage, for instance, the company studied its existing team and noticed that many of its successful employees are military veterans. Consumers partnered with the Utility Workers Union of America, its training support consortium, Power for America, and the Department of Defense to create a three-month internship for veterans. 

“They got the skills and then they took the qualification test,” Poppe said. “We had a 98 percent pass rate and we hired them all, so we matched supply with demand, taking a different approach to the talent problem.” 

Consumers also has formed partnerships with Lansing Community College and Alpena Community College, which have utility line worker programs. Consumers helped create the curriculum to ensure that graduates have the skills line workers need to contribute from day one.  

Closing the Talent Gap 

To help others, Consumers partnered with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation in October 2017 to create the Michigan Talent Pipeline Management Academy, the first of its kind in the nation. The academy brought together community leaders to learn how to apply supply chain fundamentals to solve the talent shortage. About 200 companies have been schooled to date. 

“We taught them how to fish,” Poppe said. “Each of the trainees went back to their communities, gathered businesses and educators together and ran a workshop for that community. Suddenly, the schools have direct access to employers to learn about what skills they need.” 

The state is doing its part, too, said Poppe. She is encouraged by the Marshall Plan for Talent, which infuses $100 million in Michigan’s education system to grow the talent pipeline through career counseling, job shadowing, scholarships, etc. 

“It’s bringing the business and education community together in ways that we never have before,” Curtis said. “It’s going to take a while, no doubt, but we have to create that pipeline now.” 

Rene Wisely is a metro Detroit freelance writer. 

Key Takeaways: 

  • Michigan faces a $49.1 billion loss in potential earnings by 2024 if it doesn’t fill more than 811,055 jobs in the next six years. 
  • Businesses can play a key role in talent attraction and retention via partnerships with universities and innovative apprenticeship programs. 
  • Campaigns like “Choose Michigan” are helping positively change the perception about the state’s lucrative careers among expats and outside talent, but it will take time. 

Consumers Energy CEO Patti Poppe: Lead with a Purpose

When it comes to motivating coworkers to produce top-quality work, infusing individuals with a sense of purpose is key, according to Consumers Energy President and CEO Patti Poppe. Poppe, who delivered a keynote address to nearly 50 regional business leaders, said “Show your coworkers that what they do every day makes a difference.” The presentation was a part of the Detroit Regional Chamber’s ongoing Inside the CEO Mind series and was held April 19 at the Townsend Hotel in Birmingham.

Consumers Energy’s mission statement is, “World-Class Performance Delivering Hometown Service.” This mission, Poppe said, was born out of an experience she had at the post office in her hometown several years ago.

“I remember walking into the post office and the woman I spoke to asked me, ‘How is your dad doing? We all love Bill here.’ My dad had not visited this post office in several years, but the staff still remembered him. Now that is hometown service.”

Poppe said that simply “being nice” is not enough.

“If you cannot deliver your service or product efficiently and effectively, customers will not continue their relationship with your business.”

This is where the “world-class performance” component comes in. By combining world-class performance with hometown service, Poppe believes Consumers Energy is truly making a difference in the energy industry.

While Poppe was collaborating on a new mission statement, she simultaneously worked on the new triple bottom-line model Consumers adopted.

“Consumers Energy is focused on three things: people, the planet and prosperity,” she said. “Businesses cannot disregard the people their products and services affect. We are really taking a customer-centric focus at Consumers as part of our mission to deliver world-class performance with hometown service.”

Through Poppe’s leadership, Consumers Energy has retired more coal plants than any other energy company in the country. At the same time, it has decreased its water usage by 35 percent. In her closing comments, Poppe said the key to encouraging these large-scale changes was leading with confidence and being intentional.

“People will follow a leader they believe in,” she said. “So make sure you are leading them down a purpose-driven path.”

Consumers Energy CEO: Tap Into Your Employee Melting Pot To Tackle Business Solutions

As one of the region’s most successful leaders, Consumers Energy CEO Patti Poppe says collaboration is the fuel that can drive the growth of a business. She also says that giving employees a voice at the table offers them a sense of ownership and pride in a company’s long-term vision. Poppe, a Detroit Regional Chamber Board member, sat down with the eDetroiter to share her secrets for business success. Read the Q&A below.

Hear more from Poppe at the upcoming Inside the CEO Mind event April 19 at the Townsend Hotel in Birmingham.

You were named in Crain’s “100 Most Influential Women.” To what do you attribute your success and what is the biggest lesson you can share with aspiring organizational leaders?

I attribute my success to having the ability to harness the power of others and being able to get a team of people committed to an outcome instead of pushing an individual agenda, alone. It is better to be effective than right. I have learned that there are times when I may be right but if I force my authority or power, I will not be effective.

In your opinion, what should be the next steps for the Detroit region to foster business growth?

For the economy to grow in any region there must be a supportive business community. Encouraging local businesses to work together when contracting for supplies and services is a must; that’s why we helped establish Pure Michigan Business Connect (PMBC) and continue to encourage our Michigan-based suppliers and contractors to pay it forward. When Detroit businesses work together, the community will succeed.

How does Consumers tackle the issue of attracting and retaining talent? What can others learn from your success and/or challenges in that capacity?

We attract talent with our strong employment brand, commitment to customers and inclusive culture. We retain talent by offering fulfilling careers where a person can bring his or her full self to work and succeed. Our employees tell us that their work offers them a deep sense of pride and purpose. Everyone comes to the table with a unique perspective, and it is important to recognize that a melting pot of ideas propels a company to succeed.

If you were to give your 20-year-old self some business advice, what would it be?

You can have it all! Surround yourself with people who encourage and enable you to do what you were uniquely born to do so that you can make your mark on the world.

What is most important to you and your organization – mission, vision, or core values? Why?

At Consumers Energy we make promises every day to be Michigan’s trusted energy provider, delivering affordable, reliable energy and valuable services to enable our customers’ quality of life. It is important work because our customers are family, friends and neighbors.

What are the most-important strategic priorities for Consumers in the coming year? How will you gauge success?

To create a culture of continuous improvement through the Consumers Energy way of doing business: working safely, completing work right the first time, at the lowest cost and on schedule. Focusing on safety, quality, cost and delivery provides us with a strategic advantage so that we can continue to deliver on the promises we make to Michigan each day.

Hear more from Poppe at the upcoming Inside the CEO Mind event April 19 at the Townsend Hotel in Birmingham.


Three Upcoming Chamber Events You Do Not Want to Miss

In March and April, the Detroit Regional Chamber has approximately 15 events. For Chamber members, it can be difficult to know which events are the most important to attend. Non-members often have the same issue, especially considering the numerous obligations and events around the region that can quickly fill calendars.

To help you slim down your choices, check out three key events for businesses the Chamber is hosting over the next two months:

  1. State of the State: Now and in the Future. During a conversation over lunch on Tuesday, March 27, Gov. Rick Snyder will discuss how the state has grown over the past eight years while also looking at the long-term impact of those accomplishments. Following his remarks, the Governor will participate in a moderated discussion with business leaders from three key industries to forecast how Michigan will continue to grow in the coming years. This Chamber members-only event is $65. Please note that prices will increase on March 20. Register here.
  2. Inside the CEO Mind: Patti Poppe. Hear from Consumers Energy President and CEO Patti Poppe on Thursday, April 19 as she shares her journey in the energy and automotive industries that have led to her current position and how her commitment to customer-first management allows her to be a successful leader. Following her presentation, audience members are invited to participate in a question-and-answer session. This event is $30 for Chamber members and $50 for non-members. Please note that prices will increase on April 12. Register here.
  3. Networking Reception: Meet the Candidates. Attendees will meet the candidates who are running for the U.S. House of Representatives in Michigan’s 9th, 11th and 13th districts while mingling with fellow Chamber members in attendance. This event offers early access and the first opportunity to meet the declared candidates. This Chamber members-only event is $15 and takes place on Tuesday, April 24. Please note, pricing will increase to $25 on April 10. Register here.

For a full list of upcoming Chamber events, visit the events page.