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Poverty in paradise: Halting the exodus of young workers from northern Michigan

Second of two parts

One lives in North Carolina, practicing social work. Another teaches in suburban Detroit. Still another enjoys life in San Francisco, as he finishes a post-doctoral program and contemplates a job in one of several national research corridors.

They are the Missing Millennials, those who reached adulthood in northern Michigan around 2000 – and fled to lives and careers far from home. They have plenty of company among former residents of Charlevoix, Emmet and Cheboygan counties, at the top of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.

“A lot of my classmates are living out of the state, or they are living in metro Grand Rapids or Detroit,” said Michael Winter, 30, a 2002 graduate of Petoskey High School. He went from there to Kalamazoo College, where he graduated in 2006. He earned a doctorate in chemistry in 2011 from the University of California at Berkeley and now resides in San Francisco, where he is conducting postdoctoral cancer research at the University of California at San Francisco.

He's leaning toward a private-sector job, citing his principal options as Boston, San Diego or the Bay Area. “There is nothing in northern Michigan I could even apply to,” Winter said.

Since 2000, there are far fewer young adults in the state’s northern counties. While the same can be said for much of Michigan, the decline was steeper in the Charlevoix-Emmet-Cheboygan region. How steep? Between 2000 and 2013, the number of residents aged 25-to-44 fell by more than 5,000, a staggering 22 percent decline.

“That's a significant drop,” said Carlin Smith, director of the Petoskey Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Its most obvious cause offers no easy solution, Smith said: The region simply lacks enough professional jobs to support the talented, ambitious people who grow up here.

“It's a real challenge. There are minimal choices in certain professions in this region. We do have some good jobs in engineering and some good programming jobs. But it’s just not as high as what you would find in a larger metropolitan area.”

As an example, Smith notes that a college graduate with a marketing degree could probably count on “two hands” the number of full-time marketing jobs in Emmet and Cheboygan counties.

Smith said the scarcity of certain professional jobs also makes business recruitment of professional couples difficult.

“There are situations where we've been recruiting somebody to work here but the person's wife can't find a job. Or we've found a job for the wife and and they can't come because the husband can't find a job."

Reluctant departures

Adam Wager, 28, graduated from Charlevoix High School in 2005, then from Grand Valley State University in 2010 with a degree in education. “Initially, I looked everywhere,” Wager said.

With no prospects for a teaching job in northern Michigan, he focused on suburban Detroit. He was hired just a few months after graduation as a kindergarten teacher for Utica Community Schools. He misses his childhood home, the water skiing, snowboarding and wakeboarding that was part of his adolescence.

“I loved growing up in Charlevoix. I miss the summers and my friends. But the jobs really aren’t there.”

Winter, the cancer researcher, is similarly torn. He figures he could move back home and see a lot of his old friends; but maybe not for several decades, when his career is over. Who wouldn’t want to come back to a region with so much to offer?

“I really did like growing up there,” Winter said. “I think it’s a place a lot of people my age might retire.”

Seasonal work, seasonal earnings

This exodus of the young extends beyond the professional class, with workers at the low end of the wage scale finding it difficult to save.

A housing study by Networks Northwest, a 10-county regional planning body, found that a minimum-wage worker would need to work 57 hours a week in Cheboygan County to afford an average rental in the county. The required workweek goes up to 60 hours in Charlevoix County and 70 hours in Emmet County.

Charlevoix, Emmet and Cheboygan counties are particularly dependent on service sector jobs linked to tourism. But those jobs often start around $9 an hour -- and may end with the close of summer tourism or the winter ski season. Some of those workers end up leaving the region to seek steadier employment and income.

“It is very much a challenge for young workers, when you are working jobs in a seasonal economy like ours,” said Sarah Lucas, regional planning manager for Networks Northwest.

“You might be piecing jobs together to make ends meet in the off-season. Even if your employment is year round, you might not have that much work.”

Elaine Wood, executive director of Networks Northwest, sees other issues for this age group. She notes that area employers struggle to find qualified welders, machinists, robotics operators and other skilled trades positions. If more local workers could fill those jobs ‒ earning upwards of $14 an hour ‒ they would be more likely to stick around.

“There are really a couple of problems. How to retain young people in the first place? The second is how to bring them back,” she said.

Keeping the young at home

One solution to keeping young workers around: Networks Northwest expects this year to launch a $3,000 scholarship program for 25 high school students, largely funded by a $65,000 grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

The program includes a customized senior year of high school, combining career and technical education with community college courses. As seniors, these students will typically begin an unpaid internship with a local firm, then transition to two years of community college and paid internship. Wood expects most to have jobs with they graduate.

“It’s really like the old-fashioned apprenticeship model,” Wood said.

“Our idea is that if a young person is tied to a two- or three-year training program and they are attached to an employer, they are not going to leave. Those are good-paying jobs.”

Wood said the agency eventually would like to expand the program to 300 scholarships.

The program doesn’t extend to Cheboygan County, which is poorer than Charlevoix and Emmet counties. Cheboygen County’s only K-12 career technical training program is at Cheboygan High School; the nearest community college is in Petoskey.

Drawing young professionals home

Convincing young adults to return to northern Michigan is another matter. After all, the cities of Cheboygan and Petoskey can’t offer expats what they enjoy in Boston or Chicago. But the reverse is also true.

Local officials said they believe part of their task is to sell outsiders what Chicago or Boston cannot ‒ breathtaking natural beauty, boundless recreational prospects and small-town ambience.

“We can’t compete with a place like Chicago on the opera or the night life or things that,” said Andy Hayes, president of Northern Lakes Economic Alliance, a nonprofit development organization serving Antrim, Charlevoix, Cheboygan and Emmet counties.

“But we have a lot of things the big city doesn’t.”

Last summer, Mathias McCauley, director of strategic initiatives for Networks Northwest, attended a jobs fair set up by MEDC at Ford Field in Detroit.

Part of his job: Market the region to prospective employees.

“It’s not only about framing business conditions but also the quality of life,” McCauley said. “If an individual has interests in the outdoors, in hunting, fishing, hiking, mountain biking, skiing, we can compete with any region in the United States and internationally. To have all those things in one region at a pretty high level is pretty important.”

Networks Northwest augments its recruiting by linking to a trail map for the region, offering clickable access to trails for everything from snowmobiling to cross-county skiing to bicycling to hiking. “Place does matter,” McCauley said.

Some young entrepreneurs are already convinced.

Jordan Breighner, 28, grew up in Harbor Springs but left for Utah, then for national politics before eventually coming home to launch Coolhouse Labs, a startup incubator for Internet ventures. He figures some young upstarts will get a taste for life Up North, and stick around.

“For us, it’s life, then jobs,” Breighner said of his ilk. “Coming out of college during the crash, we saw the old bargain (working your way up) doesn’t exist anymore. We’ve refocused on quality of life as a way of thinking about it."

But for Estelle Osment, 32, a 2000 graduate of Boyne City High School, it wasn’t about an urge to move to a thriving urban area. She loved where she grew up. It was about a job.

Osment earned a bachelor’s degree in social work from Western Michigan University in 2005, then began a job search. “Boyne City is so small ‒ I may have looked a little bit in Petoskey in human services. But I knew with a bachelor’s degree I really had to go somewhere else,” she said.

With friends in North Carolina, she decided to move there and try to find work. Before leaving, she sent out a couple of applications to prospective employers. “It was the day I was driving I got a call from the first place that hired me,” she said.

Still living in Raleigh, she now has a master’s degree and works in a local mental health crisis center. Osment said her story is common among her peers. “A lot of people from my graduating class moved out of state for better opportunities.”

She said she wouldn’t mind moving home ‒ if she could find a job as good what she holds now. “The skiing, the lakes, the camping ‒ it’s beautiful,” she said. “It’s a beautiful place.”

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