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Kalamazoo’s a good place to be

KALAMAZOO — Kalamazoo symbolizes the type of community people would like to live in, and technological advances are making it more of a reality, said Joel Kotkin, author and nationally-recognized authority on global, economic, political and social trends.

Kotkin, a Distinguished Presidential Fellow at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., was one of several speakers at Southwest Michigan First’s second annual Catalyst University held Thursday at the Radisson Plaza Hotel and Suites in downtown Kalamazoo. More than 400 leaders representing the area’s business, education, and non-profit sectors attended the two-day event which began Wednesday.

“People would like to live in smaller communities if they could. The real growth will be in communities with populations between 100,000 and 500,000,” Kotkin said.  “This is one of the key opportunities for this community.”

Younger people in particular want to locate in an area of the country where they can enjoy an affordable lifestyle and have access to the types of technology that tie Southwest Michigan to U.S. and global markets, Kotkin said.

“Young people motivate us. If you take that away, you’re not a good leader,” he said. “Young people are like the yeast in the economy.”

However, Kotkin predicted there will be extreme regional and state competition for these individuals. Rather than trying to become the next Austin, Texas, or Madison, Wis., Kotkin suggested that community leaders capitalize on the qualities and characteristics which make their communities unique.

He said a good question to ask is, “Is this city a place where someone could come to transform themselves and their lives?”

“Just being in the Cool Cities program is not going to grow your cities,” Kotkin said. “You need to understand who you are and why you’re here.”

The title of Kotkin’s presentation — “The Next Hundred Million” — was taken from the title of his new book, “The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050,” which explores how the nation will evolve in the next four decades. He said the United States is in a good position to take advantage of future growth in Africa and Asia.

Residents of these continents increasingly desire a middle class lifestyle which will enable them to live more comfortably. To get there they will need access to the types of products and services which will help them achieve a better standard of living.

Kotkin said leadership at all levels in the United States need to figure out how to sell products in those parts of the world which are growing.

“We are the only advanced country in the world with a growing population and tremendous resources,” Kotkin said. “We are in a relatively good position. We have to believe in ourselves and know that we’ve got to compete in a global marketplace.”

Countries such as Australia, Canada and Germany were better able to weather the global economic meltdown because they manufacture and sell “stuff,” Kotkin said.

That “stuff” can be any number of things. As an example, Kotkin talked about the increased demand from China and India for fresh fruits and vegetables and protein-packed foods.

“The U.S. and Canada together are agricultural superpowers,” Kotkin said. “Water is important and you’re sitting among the largest freshwater reserve in the world.”

Michigan, he said, has the resources, in addition to an enormous amount of skill and technical talent to be part of any national effort to sell globally.  Even though the state has a long way to go, Kotkin said he thinks it has the types of communities many people would like to call home and do business.


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Things Are Looking Up

As economy improves, more temp workers are being converted to permanent employees

PORTAGE — Barb Miner wasn’t looking for another career. She was searching for a job which would supplement an early retirement package she received when she left the former Pharmacia Corp., now Pfizer Corp., after 27 years there.

But after spending a year as a temporary employee with a Portage manufacturing company, Miner was hired as a permanent human resources administrator and receptionist.

More temporary workers are being given permanent positions, area staffing agencies representatives say. It’s a trend that may show that companies are feeling more secure about their future because they’re willing to ramp up hiring rather than relying solely on temporary workers.

“What we’ve seen for the last three quarters is significant growth in terms of hiring activity with our customers,” said Steve Beebe, vice president of WSI, the Kalamazoo staffing company that placed Miner with the Portage company.

“Within the last 45 to 60 days we’ve seen an actual increase in permanent hiring. I relate that to companies seeing work that is more sustainable and bringing on the work force to handle that work which is quite common.”

In 2008, WSI placed Miner with W.L. Molding in Portage as a temporary employee. One year later that company hired her in full time as their human resources administrator/receptionist.

Beebe said WSI’s business for contract hiring is up 200 percent this year compared to 2009. He said national projections indicate that most companies are planning to expand employment during the first quarter of 2011.

Miner said she thinks starting out as a temporary hire makes sense for people like herself who have experience, but lack the education so many employers require.

“I had worked my way up to a managerial job with Pharmacia, but I didn’t have the education so I knew it would be difficult for me when I looked for another job,” Miner said. “They (W.L. Molding) started recognizing and utilizing my talents and they offered me a full-time job.”

The majority of jobs which shift from temporary to full time employment are still in manufacturing, Beebe said.

Melissa Johnson, sales director for Advance Employment’s Kalamazoo office, said her agency has had an almost 60 percent increase from 2009 in terms of the number of individuals they have put to work. She said some of these jobs were trial hires, as opposed to temporary positions.

Last month, she filled a request for 80 positions, which came from a Lansing-based company that focuses on energy-efficient products and services.

“The outlook for 2011 is that we’re actually going to have sustainable jobs in Michigan for the first time since 2001,” Johnson said. “We were in a general decline beginning in 2001. Our best year since then is this year.”

Mark Lancaster, president and chief executive officer of Battle Creek-based Employment Group, said he noticed an improvement in his business midway through 2009. He said his customers’ hiring forecasts have gone from three days to three months and in some cases six months — an indication of increased confidence in the economy.

“Our customers are actually hiring in 2010 and willing to bring people onto their payroll,” Lancaster said. “My most recent numbers are that 811 of our temporary workers have been hired onto customer payrolls.”

Lancaster said sectors of the economy in Michigan which are hiring include aerospace, electronics, food, furniture, distribution, energy and the automobile industry.

“All in all it’s broad-based hiring,” Lancaster said. “The auto industry and auto suppliers are still driving employment in Michigan.”

General assembly jobs often lead to the creation of other positions necessary to support an increasing workload, such as clerical or administrative jobs, Johnson said, particularly for those companies that were able to weather tough economic conditions.

Companies that survived while watching their competitors go out of business now have a bigger share of the market, Johnson said, and the majority of them need to expand their work force to meet anticipated demand for their products and services.

“Certain companies that haven’t utilized us for two or three years are calling us,” Johnson said.

Many of WSI’s clients are telling Beebe that their hiring will be sustainable and continuous.

Beebe said he thinks now is a “great time” to be a contract or temporary employee because, “you can get in the ground floor in entry-level manufacturing.”

For those individuals in the hunt for a clerical, administrative or professional-level job, Beebe discourages waiting out the recession and said these individuals need to start applying and getting their resumes out.

“You don’t want to miss the boat,” Lancaster said. “Starting out as a temporary or contract worker allows you to see what the company’s workplace culture is like to make sure there’s a good foot and it’s a great way to get your foot in the door.”


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