Michigan: Ready For The ‘New Normal’

With its rich manufacturing heritage, highly skilled workforce and natural beauty, the Great Lakes State offers businesses an ideal balance.

Michigan’s workforce training programs have been a boon for mobility supplier DENSO’s R&D.

Michigan companies are leaning into the recovery by leveraging the state’s advantages as a talent repository and destination, as a major world locus of legacy manufacturing enhanced by digital transformation and as home to great cities, suburbs, exurbs, small towns and wide-open spaces that are ideal for the “new normal” in how people will work, play and live in post-pandemic America.

“We were one of the states hit hardest by Covid at the beginning,” says Josh Hundt, chief business development officer and executive vice president of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. “Not only did we rise to the challenge, but we’ve also built the base for a stronger recovery with our deep pool of highly skilled talent, our connected location, our affordable cost of living and our strong business climate.”

In fact, in a nation where “blended” is coming to describe many aspects of the economy, Michigan presents a nearly ideal balance of business models, company types, industry verticals, centers of business activity, work locales and human-capital capabilities. The state has the nation’s highest concentration of engineers and ranks in the top 10 for the number of skilled-trade workers, for instance, while also ranking in the top 10 for net technology employment. At the same time, Hundt says, Michigan is the fourth most affordable state.

For such reasons, veteran entrepreneur David Ollila sees Michigan as the best-positioned state for attracting companies and workers that will now be executing hybrid teams who can work remotely and maybe occasionally duck into an office somewhere. 

“We’re seeing liquification of your ability to move and work and live all at the same time, and Michigan is the best-positioned state because of our geographic diversity and the diversity of our places to live,” says Ollila, who is co-founder of 100K ideas, a Flint, Michigan–based nonprofit that helps startups. 

Ollila also believes Michigan can become the buckle of a growing “outdoor-recreation” belt that features everything from manufacturers of recreational-vehicle frames to makers of grills, chairs and bicycles, as well as providers of connectivity services and others—all helping consumers take advantage of a “Pure Michigan” landscape that sweeps from the vast forested expanses of the Upper Peninsula to the sand dunes of Lake Michigan and the island enclaves in the Detroit River.

“We have the extreme rural advantage of towns like Marquette and Houghton and Sault Ste. Marie and the rest of the UP, which is sophisticated but very much blended with nature,” he says. “And we have fantastic urban settings at the other end. The true Michigan advantage will come as we create symbiotic relationships among these rural and urban centers and economic opportunities.”

All of this is being underscored by a Pure Michigan marketing campaign that celebrates not only the wonders of Michigan for tourists, but also its quality of life for residents to highlight the state as a business destination. “It shows how Michigan is a phenomenal place to live, work and play,” Hundt says.

Greg Williams has leveraged Michigan’s advantages to grow Acrisure from $38 million to $2.2 billion in annual revenues in just eight years. The Grand Rapids, Michigan-based insurance-brokerage platform has supercharged expansion by making about 100 acquisitions a year of independent insurance agencies around the U.S. and the world.

Lake Huron’s Turnip Rock is just one of many special vistas in Michigan.

“But Michigan is our home base,” says CEO Williams. “We’ve got what we need here in terms of the quality of people and the quality of life. We can get all we need from a talent standpoint, and they’re high-quality people whose work ethic is second to none. And we’ve got an affordable standard of living in very vibrant communities.”

Acrisure investigated moving its headquarters a few years ago “to a large city like Chicago,” Williams says. “We had options. But we’ve been able to recruit talent from all over the country, and when they come to Michigan, they say it’s a pretty cool place to live.” MEDC and the city of Grand Rapids also have helped with partnerships that “ensured we knew it was important to them for us to stay here,” he adds. “If you have all of those things, why would you go anywhere else?”

DENSO, a leading mobility supplier, also credits MEDC for nurturing the company’s vital relationship with Michigan. With a dynamic workforce spread between its North American headquarters in Southfield, a thermal manufacturing facility in Battle Creek and locations in Belleville and Grand Rapids, DENSO has benefitted from the state’s creation of a fund to train new skilled employees and, recently, from the launch of the Going Pro Talent Fund for training incumbent workers. 

DENSO tapped into Going Pro for helping train its engineers in quality-process improvements, which “is critical as we transition to address new technologies,” says John Kerr, senior manager of government affairs for DENSO. “And Michigan understands that retraining and retaining the talent we have is just as important as attracting new workers.”