Supporting Diverse Workforce, Improving Equity Are Key to Growth and Prosperity

Last April, Michigan’s unemployment rate hit nearly 23% as the full force of the shutdown hit our economy.  Northwest Michigan fared even worse, with regional unemployment exceeding 25% and well above 30% in several counties. Spring 2020 was bleak.

Today, the situation looks a bit different, with northwest Michigan unemployment sitting at 5.8%, well below the state average of 7.3%.  Our unemployment is still above pre-pandemic levels but is rapidly dropping as the available workforce fills open positions.  The quick snapback to near normal unemployment levels is a clear indicator of our key economic and community development challenge, the ongoing struggle to attract, retain, and develop sufficient talent for our businesses.

As a community, we are well aware of some of the underlying issues at play here; the cost of housing, childcare availability, and the perception that we only have seasonal positions.  We need to address these issues in order to maximize the attractiveness of our region. Still, there is a further important aspect to talent attraction and retention – we need to be a welcoming community to people of diverse backgrounds.

Some may ask, what does diversity have to do with business and economic development? The answer is everything! The business case for diversity in the workplace is now overwhelming. It is why many of our key companies and organizations are taking a lead role in local efforts to address diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

According to a W. K. Kellogg Foundation study, “The Business Case for Racial Equity Michigan: A Strategy for Growth,” Michigan stands to benefit from significant economic gains if we can address and eliminate the barriers to equitable communities. The study noted that improving equity and supporting a diverse workforce is key to our growth and prosperity because it can foster entrepreneurism, innovation, and creativity in ways that less diverse regions can’t match.

Research shows that diversity has significant advantages within organizations, leading to increased profitability, better problem-solving abilities, and creating more resilient companies (they also tend to outperform firms that do not support diversity). There is further evidence that these efforts can improve tourism and consumer spending, as well as the follow-on effects of increased state and local tax revenues. The moral argument for equity is painfully apparent, but when combined with the clear business case, it is a no-brainer for our companies and community.

Put simply, there is a direct link between a welcoming environment and positive economic development outcomes. In the Grand Traverse region, talent attraction is the top economic development priority for existing businesses and among the top considerations for companies making relocation or expansion decisions. Companies will not relocate or expand where their employees do not feel welcome.  It is therefore critical that we embrace diversity and promote inclusive policies.

The Traverse Area Human Resource Association (TAHRA) professionals are on the front lines of our area’s talent attraction issues. Deidra Charnes, TAHRA’s DEI chair and Honor Bank’s Associate Vice President of Human Resources, explained the linkage between talent attraction and the need for diversity and inclusion training.

“Without appropriate community education and efforts in regard to DEI, our region will continue to struggle with attracting a diverse talent pool. Our communities, businesses, and human resources professionals must work hand in hand to build initiatives that welcome diverse candidates to our area, and embrace the diversity that we are already blessed with.”

Local leaders had previously identified the need to be more open and welcoming well before the racial and social unrest of 2020. During Traverse Connect’s strategic planning efforts in 2019, workgroups of business, nonprofit, and public sector leaders identified diversity and inclusion training as a key need going forward. Since then, many community partners have come together to address these issues and will participate in an upcoming regional summit, “Opening the Conversation,” taking place on March 11.

The summit is intended to offer a forum for learning and open conversation, but it is only a first step. This is hard work, and we don’t have all the answers, but we can all be intentional in our efforts to improve our community. Openness to cultural diversity and promoting an inclusive environment translates into tangible benefits, spurring economic growth and community resiliency.

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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