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.