State Works at Cross Purposes

"Michigan Works!" is a quasi-governmental entity funded by state and federal tax dollars whose function is essentially to compete with private employment agencies. The agency's backers justify this by pointing to its mission of serving Michigan's "workforce development system," helping "local employers" and presumably fostering job growth in Michigan.

However, today (Oct. 8) the Traverse City Michigan Works! office will play host to a particular employer whose identity calls all that into question. You see, this employer is a consortium of business interests called the Drive for Five that operates under the direction of the Columbus, Neb., Chamber of Commerce. Backed by that state's workforce development apparatus, its mission is to recruit workers to fill jobs created by economic growth in Nebraska - not Michigan.

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They're likely to do it, too. In fact, they're so confident that some in the group even brought portable drug testing kits to get that hiring step out of the way, according to a spokesperson for the group.

This is not the first time the Drive for Five team has been in Michigan. In May they occupied the Michigan Works! office in Cadillac for a day to recruit skilled tradesmen including electricians, machine operators "and many more," and even posted fliers at Michigan Works! advertising as much. Reportedly 35 prospects were interviewed then, and 21 of these had relocated to Nebraska by July.

What's going on here? The various economic development programs run by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation are supposedly trying to grow Michigan's economy. However, the state-funded Michigan Works! offices are providing resources to help our workers find jobs in another state. At the very least these agencies are working at cross purposes.

Indeed, one of the refrains of the current administration has been that Michigan needs to spend more on government-funded job training programs because a shortage of "skilled workers" is handicapping our future growth. Gov. Jennifer Granholm has lobbied to earmark $40 million in state tax dollars to a "No Worker Left Behind" jobs training program. The entire "workforce development," line item in last year's Department of Labor and Economic Growth budget authorized spending $161.2 million, mostly in federal money.

Legislators asked to provide further funds to this expensive program might question whether these tax dollars are actually helping to undermine economic growth in this state rather than enhance it.

The questions shouldn't stop there, however. Michigan Works! agencies provide many of the same job recruitment and placement services as private job service/staffing firms, and so directly compete with tax-paying businesses here. They make no bones about it, either: In 2002 the Mackinac Center chronicled how Douglas Stites of the Michigan Works! agency in Lansing met with local staffing services companies to tell them that this government-funded entity would be doing direct outreach to these firms' existing customers. Other organs of the state's economic development apparatus have repeated the pattern by recruiting out-of-state firms to come in and compete with longstanding Michigan firms like Jay's Sporting Goods and Koegel Meats.

The state has even "competed" with itself in the job service area, or at least provided duplicative and overlapping programs. A few years ago MEDC ran an Internet jobs board called "Career Site" similar to the private At the same time the Michigan Department of Career Development, now subsumed in DLEG, ran its own Internet jobs board called "Michigan Talent Bank." MEDC even bragged that it would "grab" jobs from the Talent Bank site for its own.

We all certainly wish the best for individuals struggling in Michigan's declining economy, even if they have to go elsewhere to find a good job. The pain of their leaving is made worse by the knowledge that if the state had been working to improve the business climate here instead of making it worse, these emigrants could probably find good jobs right at home. Seeing a Michigan state agency supporting the effort to relocate our residents just rubs salt in the wound. Somehow we never imagined that "leave no worker behind" meant in Michigan.


Michael D. LaFaive is director of the Morey Fiscal Policy Initiative at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.



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