Monroe County Economy Strengthens But Room for Improvement

by Alex Alusheff
Bedford Now

After Petty Officer 2nd Class Joe Arrowood left active duty with the Navy in 2010, he had a hard time finding a job.

“I spent three months unemployed,” said Petty Office Arrowood, 29, of West Bloomfield, who is now in the active reserves. “The job market (in Norfolk, Va.) was just too saturated. I became a truck driver for two years making ends meet.”

He returned to Michigan in September, 2012, and decided to pursue mechanical engineering. As a nuclear machinist mate and electronics technician for six years in the Navy working on nuclear submarines, Petty Officer Arrowood was familiar with the field.

He enrolled at Lawrence Technical University, Southfield, in 2013, but switched to Monroe County Community College for nuclear engineering in 2014.

Now he’s working as a co-op student at DTE Energy’s Trenton Channel Power Plant and will be working another co-op job this summer at DTE’s Fermi 2 nuclear power plant. When he graduates in 2016, he intends on getting a job at Fermi as a reactor control operator.

“The great thing about MCCC is we’re actually learning the schematics of Fermi 2, so they are just setting me up for success when I get to the plant,” Petty Officer Arrowood said.

As a job seeker, he’s in the right field.

In 2014, professional and business services, which includes engineering, led Michigan and Monroe County in job growth, followed by manufacturing.

In the state, professional and business services grew by 18,000 jobs, or 1 percent, while manufacturing grew by 12,000, or .8 percent, according to preliminary annual averages by the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget.

In Monroe County, professional and business services increased by 600 jobs, or 6.1 percent, and manufacturing increased by 200 jobs, or 3.8 percent, according to the preliminary data.

“2014 is a banner year compared to what we’ve gone through,” said Jim Rhein, economic analyst for the DTMB.

The county’s unemployment rate dropped from 7.9 percent in January, 2014, to 4.4 percent in December — a 3.5 percent difference — according to seasonally unadjusted DTMB data.With an average of 6.5 percent for the year, the county was ranked seventh of 17 regional labor markets in the state.

“It’s a substantial improvement, but there’s still a lot of slack in the labor market,” Mr. Rhein said. “There’s a lot of room for improvement.”

Monroe County ended the year with 68,400 people employed, an increase of 4,000 jobs, while the labor market grew by 1,600 to 71,500. With an average total employment of 66,967 for the year, that’s still nearly 6,000 fewer jobs than 2002’s average of 72,800, the county’s best year.

With the baby boomers retiring and long-term unemployment still prevalent, the labor force has been crippled, Mr. Rhein said.

Long-term unemployment in the state hit a high of 46 percent in 2011 and came down to 35 percent in 2014. While this is an improvement, the labor force growth rate remains sluggish because people still do not trust the job market, he said.

“People still think there’s nothing available for them,” Mr. Rhein said.

That’s where training programs like the one at MCCC comes in.

Local businesses are looking to fill jobs in manufacturing and engineering but can’t because of the lack of qualified people, said Tim Lake, president and chief executive officer of the Monroe County Business Development Corp.

“We need to concentrate on the portion of the work force that is underemployed,” he said, describing it as people working minimum-wage jobs, who with the proper training could be getting a salary. “There are people just getting by that we need to retrain to help fill the pipeline quicker.”

Those people would help businesses grow at a faster rate, such as FEDCO of Monroe, a pump manufacturer.

FEDCO expanded its facility last year and added 10 jobs for a new oil and gas venture, Advanced Pumps International, but President Eli Oklejas said searching for employees still is challenging.

“We increased business significantly and doubled the size of our manufacturing facility,” he said. “It was a good year. It can be tough to find a qualified employee though.”

Through partnerships and training programs with MCCC, businesses such as DTE and FEDCO are able to connect with the right candidates.

On the flip side, MCCC could be seen as a paradox. While its programs are helping people find high-demand jobs and go on to four-year educational institutions, the college itself is seeing a downturn.

Last year, MCCC lost seven full-time equivalent positions because it couldn’t afford to fill vacancies created by retirements, said Suzanne Wetzel, vice president of administration.

This despite an employment upturn in the education and healthcare fields. Last year 8,000 jobs were added in those fields in Michigan, statistics show.

MCCC, which relies on tax dollars and tuition for its income, has seen declines in those areas in recent years.

Enrollment decreased 7.8 percent from fall, 2013, to fall, 2014.

Ironically, that’s a byproduct of an improving economy.

“In higher education, when the economy takes a downturn, people are out of work and seek training at colleges. That tends to be when enrollment increases,” Ms. Wetzel said. “When the economy improves, people go back to work and enrollment decreases.”

In addition, property taxes and state aid have stabilized, providing little revenue growth.

In order to save money, the college has created new job roles and switched around department members when employees retire to maintain efficiency, she said.

It’s a move made by most employers — no matter what sector — as revenue declines.

“We’ve been fortunate that to this point, through normal attrition, we’ve been able to manage that, but at some point it will catch up,” Ms. Wetzel said.

The college raised tuition last year by 3 percent. Another increase is likely, said President Dr. Kojo Quartey.

MCCC also is expected to ggo back to the voters to seek a millage increase. A 1-mill request failed in November.

“We’re stretched very thin,” Dr. Quartey said.

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