Make It Possible Here

June marks the return of visitors and seasonal residents ready to enjoy our weather and water. Our lakes, bays, and rivers will once again be the highlight of every Pure Michigan moment.

But of course, no visitor can truly appreciate warm weather and getting on the water as much as the locals who have just worked through an entire northern Michigan winter. Water is a big reason we live here year-round.

But remember that phrase that people used to use around here to explain why the water out your window justified a lower wage? You know the one I’m talking about. (I won’t put it in writing because it’s toxic.) However, the math has changed. We need to change the narrative to attract and retain the talent necessary to sustain our businesses and the population to keep our region vibrant.

Our region’s talent attraction efforts – Michigan’s Creative Coast and others – aim to be welcoming to new people, to get them excited about the opportunity to move here. We can do everything in our power to encourage people to move here, but we need to show them career opportunities that make a move possible. It’s easy for us to make the sale on the place. As employers, we also need to make the sale on the possibility.

The truth is, living ‘Up North’ is expensive. The cost of living index is 3% above Michigan’s average, but household income is 3% below the state average, thereby creating a ‘pinch’ between wages and expenses.

For example, in Grand Traverse County, 24% of households are ALICE households that earn more than the Federal Poverty Level but less than the basic cost of living for the county. The view may have helped a bit when our household costs were lower, but it’s a losing strategy when we are one of the more expensive places to live in the state.

Labor costs are always a pressing concern for businesses, but successful companies know that they can’t afford to not offer competitive compensation. Local companies that attract the best talent have embraced this reality. Go to their career pages and you’ll see that they seek to attract the employee by selling the complete package: company purpose, employee perks, health and well-being, flexible schedules, and competitive wages.

Job-seeker testimonials bear this out, such as this recent feedback from a local young professional: “As we look to attract younger people to the region, it might be wise to be very clear about what they can earn here. Pay is a huge hurdle for my generation struggling to live in a community we love but can’t afford. The employers that are transparent about the salary shift paradigm are more attractive.”

This year, Northwest Michigan Works! and several partner organizations are coming together to conduct a comprehensive wage study for northwest Michigan. This is the first time since 2013 that such a study has been undertaken. It will provide data for wages across our region, broken out by county and industry. The data will allow us to benchmark our wages with peer markets and help employers to better understand the relationship between sustaining wages and the cost of living.

For our region, sustaining wage is defined as pay that allows a family to cover childcare, housing and other costs necessary to fully contribute to and engage in the region’s vitality. Not all jobs can or should be high-paying, but we face a pivotal opportunity to evaluate our pay scale. Wherever possible, we can aim to offer family-sustaining pay and publicize the most competitive wages the business model will allow.

Success in business increasingly comes down to finding and keeping good employees. Talent attraction and retention are also the keys to the future success of our region. As business leaders, we can ensure the success of our region by evaluating compensation practices and publicizing detail for open positions. This summer, post the job description … then go a step further and post a competitive salary range. Make it possible for the next generation of workers and families to live in Pure Michigan.

Warren Call is the president/CEO of Traverse Connect, a regional economic development organization that includes the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce and Venture North. Contact him at warren.call@traverseconnect.org.

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