Jobs are plentiful and wages are booming in Michigan. No ... really.

Michigan’s economy is so hot that headhunters are in short supply, but experts warn that some of the fastest-growing jobs pay the least.

Perhaps there’s no better sign the Michigan economy is back than this: The number of headhunters has more than tripled since 2009.

Nearly 10,000 more people are employed whose sole job is to help companies find workers, an eye-opening barometer for state that for years suffered huge job losses and a dire economy.

“Recruiters do well when there’s a need for talent,” said Amy Cell of Ann Arbor, whose firm, Amy Cell Talent, has helped with 400 searches in the last three years alone.

Read more on Michigan jobs: 

The numbers don’t lie: Michigan is working again. Its economy exceeds pre-recession levels. The number of jobs has roared back. Tens of thousands more jobs are unfilled. And average weekly wages, adjusted for inflation, are up nearly 6 percent from 2009 to $975.

Despite the gains, jobs remain a crucial issue in the governor’s campaign, and all candidates say Michigan should do better. Democratic frontrunner Gretchen Whitmer frets that too many residents work two or three jobs rather than one good one. Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette points to median income statistics showing that Michigan still lags $5,000 below the nation.

Even Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Calley –  whose campaign brags that “while others talk of increasing job growth, (he has) actually done it” –  acknowledges a “growing talent gap in high-paying, high-demand fields.”

    So what gives? If the economy is doing so well and jobs are growing again, why do some feel so bad? Bridge Magazine spent weeks searching for answers, scouring federal data and talking to dozens of experts.

    Marketing guru Ann Hanson, who had to leave Michigan to take jobs in Wichita and Dallas during the recession, came as close to anyone at providing an answer to the disconnect between the rosy jobs numbers and a sense of malaise among some.

    2018 Michigan issue guide on jobs: 

    “We’re in a new normal,” Hanson said, acknowledging that confidence was shook by the 2009-2010 downturn.  “(The recession) was a reset.”

    After years of having to rely on her freelance work, Hanson is now working full-time as a chief marketing officer for an Ann Arbor  consumer products company.

    “There was a reason I was working in other places,” the Michigan native and Ann Arbor resident said. “I didn’t let (the economy of) Michigan pull me down.”

    She hopes this time she gets to put away her vagabond days.

    “It’s a great place to be for the long term,” she said of Michigan.

    Uneven gains

    The Federal Reserve considers 5 percent unemployment “full employment,” the lowest level before employers compete to hire workers, push up wages and cause inflation.

    In February, Michigan’s rate was 4.8 percent, down from a stratospheric 15.4 percent in the summer of 2009.

    It’s clear, then, that jobs are plentiful. But the recovery is uneven.

    Most of the state’s jobs are focused on the Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor and Detroit areas. The job prospects there are great. Saginaw, Bay City, Flint and northern Michigan? Not so much.

    Statewide, manufacturing and making things remain the backbone of Michigan’s economy –  and that sector grew by nearly 135,000 jobs since 2009 to 600,000.

      But pay and prospects depend largely on where in the factory jobs are located:

      • The number of assemblers has more than doubled since 2009 to 115,000. The job is among the lowest paid at the factory, making an average of $28,000 to $32,000 per year, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
      • Jobs that require more training or education, like machine mechanics, pay better. But there aren’t nearly as many: The field grew 84 percent to 19,000 in 2016 for a job whose pay averages $51,000.
      • Move off the factory floor and into a job that requires a college degree, and the prospects improved as well: The number of upper-level managers, who average $100,000 in annual pay, grew 68 percent to about 58,000 jobs.

      But many of the fastest-growing job fields in Michigan also pay the best.

      Computer science and math jobs rose over 25 percent since 2009 to more than 104,700 jobs whose median annual pay is $73,580. Overall, management jobs jumped 20 percent, adding 33,220 jobs that pay just over $97,000 on average.

      Cell said there’s huge opportunity in computer and software skills, with companies looking far and wide to get those people. So too for engineers and managers who work in quality control.

      Cell said she knew a man, in his 40s, who was worried about his age as he re-entered the job market in quality management after a long layoff. He needn’t worry, she said: his resume and skills made helped him land four job offers in a matter of weeks.

      “Computer skills, quality management – these skills and management are what employers are demanding,” she said.

      Lots of jobs … for low pay

      The troubling spot for the economy, though, is that the number of low-paying jobs is exploding.

      Food prep jobs, which pay less than $20,000, grew 20 percent to nearly 75,000. Factory production work with average pay of $33,500 jumped 11 percent to 38,000 jobs.

      And the really long view? There are 235,000 fewer jobs statewide than there were in 2001, even though the population is roughly the same at 9.9 million. And while weekly wages are up from 2009, they are almost identical to what they were 15 years ago ($973) when adjusted for inflation.

      Today, more than 40 percent of Michigan school students are eligible for subsidized lunch, and the ranks of the working poor has swelled.  According to Nancy Lindman, director of public policy and partnerships for the Michigan Association of United Ways, 60 percent of jobs pay less than $20 an hour.

      “We are talking about people working who aren’t able to support their family,” Lindman said.

      The organization has had to increase expenditures to provide food for families in recent years, she said.

      Where’s the job growth in Michigan?

      Below are the fastest growing occupations in the state since 2009, in terms of new jobs and fastest growth.

      Biggest increase in jobs

      from 2009
      PercentMed. pay
      1Team assemblers105,14061,400140.4$32,060
      2Food preparation and serving workers114,41043,01060.2$19,130
      3Customer service representatives89,37032,01055.8$31,870
      4Personal and home care aides37,87024,500183.2$21,380
      5General and operations managers58,04023,60068.5$98,590
      6Mechanical engineers42,08012,75043.5$86,550
      7Medical secretaries21,15012,060132.7$32,740
      8Retail salespersons147,44011,9808.8$21,270
      9Employment, recruitment, and placement specialists14,1609,830227$56,740
      10Sales representatives54,3009,18020.3$58,680

      Biggest percentage increase in jobs*

      from 2009
      PercentMed. pay
      1Job recruitment/placement specialists14,1609,830227$56,740
      2Merchandise displayers and window trimmers5,0203,410211.8$23,810
      3Electrical and electronic equipment assemblers10,0206,500184.7$28,270
      4Personal and home care aides37,87024,500183.2$21,380
      5Team assemblers105,14061,400140.4$32,060
      6Medical secretaries21,15012,060132.7$32,740
      7Packaging, filling machine operators14,7007,900116.2$27,260
      8Engine and other machine assemblers4,8502,570112.7$47,620
      9Life, physical, and social science technicians5,4802,890111.6$31,500
      10Numerical tool and process control programmers2,1301,090104.8$48,970

      * Minimum 2,000 jobs in 2016

      Geography matters too

      Nowhere is the prospect for jobs better in Michigan than the four-county Grand Rapids region, which is home to just over 1 million people and has added more than 100,000 jobs (25 percent) since 2009. That’s more than erased the 51,600 jobs lost between 2001 and 2009.

      That astonishing growth pushed unemployment levels below 3 percent for parts of 2017; it was 4 percent in January.

      RegionChange in jobsChange in wages
      Grand Rapids25.6%2.5%
      Jackson 17.5%8.2%
      Monroe 16.2%2.9%
      Midland 16.2%2.9%
      Ann Arbor 14%3.1%
      Muskegon 13.2%5.3%
      Flint 10.6%3.6%
      Saginaw 9.9%2%
      Niles-Benton Harbor 9.4%7.1%
      Battle Creek 7%3.8%
      Bay City 0.7%2.2%

      Much of the growth in the region has been in jobs that require less education: 33,000 more production and transportation/material moving jobs that pay $27,500 to $30,200 on average.

      But the region also added 5,500 management jobs (median pay: $93,650) and more than 7,100 healthcare jobs (up 28 percent) with an average income of nearly $60,000.

      Across the state, in Detroit’s six-county metro region, jobs are down overall since 2001 but up 261,000 since 2009, with strong growth in production jobs – but also in management, healthcare and computer positions and in engineering.

      In fact, the region added more than 17,000 engineers since the recession, a 40 percent increase.

      In other parts of the state, though,  job opportunities are flat.

      In the Flint-Saginaw-Bay City regions, the job market gained nearly 18,000 jobs since 2009. But that barely made a dent in the 51,000 jobs lost from 2001 to 2009.

      And more than half the jobs in Bay City pay less than $30,000 per year.

      Pay divides regions

      In some regions, like Ann Arbor, there are more higher paying jobs, where nearly 1 in 7 jobs pays, on average, more than $75,000. In Bay City, just 4 percent of jobs do; more than half of them there pay less than $30,000 in the region. Note: Pay scale isn’t available for all regions, including northern Michigan.


      Less free time

      The restructuring of the state economy has had a profound impact on wages. While all regions saw average weekly wages rise since 2009, they’re only up over 2001 levels (adjusted for inflation) in the Battle Creek, Niles-Benton Harbor, Kalamazoo, Jackson and Lansing regions.

      That doesn’t mean that individual jobs are paying less – it may mean that individuals had to downshift into lower paying work and that overtime that was once plentiful has not returned to previous levels.

      And some companies rewrote labor agreements to include second “tiers” of workers who get paid less than peers covered by older union contracts.

      “Things just aren’t the way they were,” said Paul Traub, an economist with the Detroit branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.

      But they’re certainly better than they were and Ed Vielmetti has a good barometer of how much better: At the height of the downturn, he led weekly lunch meetings in Ann Arbor where workers in software engineering and web publishing would kibitz and trade job tips.

      As many as 35 people would show up. They had the time because they weren’t just working.

      Today the meetings attract about six or seven folks, said Vielmetti, who works from home for a New York-based tech company.

      “If people are less free these days because they’re working,” Vielmetti said. “That’s a good thing.”

      Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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      david Waymire
      Thu, 03/29/2018 - 9:35am

      It's all relative. The collapse of the auto industry was so profound, we are coming out of a very deep hole so percentage increases since 2000 might be worth thinking about deeply. Other data worth considering: We rank about 32nd in the nation in per capita income, and in February, 44th in unemployment rate. At a time the national economy and, by this article's reckonning, our economy, is moving fairly briskly, we are relatively (compared to other states) poor with high unemployment. By way of comparison, even colder Minnesota has an unemployment rate of 3.2 percent (12th in the nation) with a per capita income that is $8,000 higher than Michigan -- 14th in the nation. Hard to see our current situation as rosy in that light.

      Mon, 04/02/2018 - 4:10pm

      Wouldn't it be reasonable to expect that wages and labor participation would lag as well as employment levels Michigan sees its economy re-set itself after the manufacturing (not just automotive) shock we experienced? Secondly comparing Michigan and Minnesota(or any other states for that matter) is harder than you portray. Even our agricultural sectors are very different from each other. The rest of their economy is far more diversified than ours as is the nature of their workforce. Drawing many conclusions often just amount to nothing but lessons in conformation bias.

      Charles Buck
      Thu, 03/29/2018 - 10:54am

      Nice analysis. It's hard to overlook Georgia's private sector employment grew to displace Michigan from the 8th largest perch Michigan held for decades for the first time eight months ago, and Georgia is sailing away. During the Great Recession, Michigan had to grapple with New Jersey to maintain the 8th spot, but New Jersey faltered under Chris Christie and faded away. Now North Carolina's private sector is scooting up to overtake Michigan and New Jersey is getting its second wind. Meanwhile the auto industry is battered by interest rate hikes and international trade uncertainty. How long can you rank 13th in the number of 25 to 34 year olds with bachelor's degrees and 15th with graduate and professional degrees and hope to maintain the 9th largest private sector? The structural constrains wrought by the current style of economic gardening are glaring and explain the return of desperate attempts to toss huge, MEGA 2.0 public subsidy packages to woo tech companies.

      Larry Krieg, Yp...
      Thu, 03/29/2018 - 11:01am

      "So what gives? If the economy is doing so well and jobs are growing again, why do some feel so bad? "
      Well, Michigan is accustomed to boom and bust cycles. See a boom? Expect a bust.
      (I hate to sound so cynical, but I've seen it so many times before.)

      Geoffrey Owen
      Fri, 03/30/2018 - 11:34am

      And the last boom was nearly 50 years ago.

      Geoffrey Owen
      Fri, 03/30/2018 - 11:32am

      Michigan wages are the same as they were when high school seniors were born. Since that time industries have moved in spite of the pro business - no tax environment. And now a huge federal tax cut benefits business, but nothing is passing down to the workers. Our roads are the worst in the nation inspite of a huge road tax as we celebrate the Emporer's New Pot Hole. Our schools are performing lower and lower. It is definitely time for a change in leadership. Michigan used to be pro worker, pro union. Enough of the slogan "Vote for us, we will lower your wages, destroy your work commute, your kids will be stupid (blame your spouse) and your debts will be huge, but you love to live here and we give you the right to work". Remember the old news slogan "It's 11pm, do you know where your children are"?
      Change it to "It's 11pm, do you know where your wages went? What we earn has so much to do with our quality of life. If you are working to make your company successful or are you working for your family? Vote for yourself in November.

      Mon, 03/25/2019 - 7:14pm

      Maybe in the trades, but good luck finding a job in Michigan. I have a Masters Degree in Public Administration with data analytics and human resources. Employers in Michigan are afraid to hire anyone outside of college. Maybe they aren't afraid; there's many people laid off by the Big Three that there's lots of people with experience looking for jobs. I bet the trade jobs are paying well, but many of the human services careers are low paying compared to other places.

      Kimberly Spano
      Tue, 08/13/2019 - 4:40pm

      For every job post there are over 300 people applying for these jobs. Businesses can ask for someone to have 3 to 5 years experience for every job post and there are many people to fill these jobs. Michigan is in need of more jobs! If our economy is doing well, businesses would be more willing to train rather than asking for many years experience for every career field. I went to OU and received a Bachelors of Science degree in Human Resource Development. I have not been able to get a job with my degree because businesses want someone who has many years of experience. How do you get experience if no company is willing to give you that experience. I own a lot of money for a degree I am unable to utilize.

      Sun, 09/15/2019 - 2:51pm

      When you made 30.000.00 or less 40 years ago you had a chance at a decent life. A new car was 3-4 thousand homes were 20-40 thousand, food and consumer goods were not out of reach. In today's world greed took over and look where we are,wake up people.