Michigan is spending to fill critical worker gaps. Here’s what’s needed

The shortage carries daily impacts, from longer waits at restaurants to fewer check-out lanes open at grocery stores. In Lansing, it crimps efforts to draw new business to the state, and in the headquarters of Michigan businesses, it seeps into conversations about the ability to expand.

But some shortages hurt more than others. Bridge Michigan spent much of 2023 chronicling the impact of worker deficits, focusing on jobs that, when left vacant, have a ripple effect on communities’ safety and well-being, affecting everything from children’s mental health to highway fatalities.

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State leaders haven’t sat on their hands. In the past two years, the Michigan Legislature and the administration of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer have pushed through at least $626 million in grants and programs to help address some of those vacancies, according to a Bridge Michigan analysis. The efforts range from the bold and broad — the expansion of free or mostly free access to community college and trade schools and apprenticeship grants — to surgically targeted infusions of cash to boost recruitment in critical areas like police and ambulance services.

Another $113 million in proposals to shrink critical worker shortages have been proposed in the Legislature, and could see action in 2024.

It’s too early to tell whether those efforts will eliminate or even shrink these gaps, especially as more people continue to move out of the state than move in.

Lou Glazer, president of Michigan Future, a think tank that promotes a knowledge-based economy, isn’t sure the efforts are enough to change the tide. He suggested the state is treating the symptoms rather than the disease, which is “too many old people and not enough young people. There simply are not enough bodies.” 

Desperately seeking solutions

There’s a lot of spaghetti on the wall in Lansing, where the Democratic administration and the Democrat-controlled Legislature have passed a multitude of bills aimed at filling jobs.

The urgency of the crisis is clear. The state’s Department of Technology, Management & Budget projects zero job growth in Michigan through 2030.

One key is Michigan Reconnect, a Whitmer initiative that pays in-district tuition for students age 25 and older eager to obtain a post-high-school degree. The program essentially made community college, as well as many trade schools, free for many students.

That extra boost is important because about 75 percent of Michigan jobs require training or education beyond high school, and studies show that income generally increases with educational attainment.

Partly in response to Michigan’s worker shortage, this past summer the Legislature and Whitmer approved a temporary expansion of that program to residents as young as 21. The expansion lasts until the fall semester of 2024, and is funded with $70 million in federal COVID relief dollars.

Similarly, Michigan is investing $90 million in apprenticeship programs to make the training cheap or free for those trying to get a foot in the door of a trade. Those programs, hosted at state community colleges, can cost $5,000 or more

Earlier this month, the Department of Labor and Economic Development chipped in $1 million to help English Language Learners and those without a high school diploma get into apprenticeship programs.

The state is also stepping in to try to lessen the worker shortage in specific jobs. Here’s the challenge Michigan faces in filling some of the most critical, as reported by Bridge this year: 

Child-care workers

There is a shortage of  9,000 child-care workers in Michigan. Vacancies have an outsized impact on the economy — when child care centers lack staff they can’t accept as many children, which can force parents to stay home rather than accept income-producing jobs.

Almost seven in 10 child-care operators said they are accepting fewer children because of staff shortages, in a survey by the Michigan Labor and Regulatory Agency; 46 percent had longer wait lists, 39 percent had been forced to shorten hours of service.

Whitmer launched a $23 million program to incentivize the opening of new child-care centers last year, along with grants to pay for education costs for people hoping to earn child development certificates and degrees.

So far, since the launch of Caring for MI Future, 1,089 new child-care centers have opened, and 2,159 home-based providers across Michigan have expanded their programs. All together, these programs have added 36,783 new spots in child care facilities, according to the state, though it’s unclear how many of those new openings for children are filled or how many more workers have been found to be hired. 

Social workers

Statewide, there are about 31,000 licensed social workers. It’s hard to pin down the extent of the shortage experts say exists, but there were at least 574 open positions for social workers every month for a full year ending in July — and those are just the ones posted online, according to the Okemos-based Michigan Health Council

Long-time Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Jim Alexander told Bridge recently his dockets are full each year with children and families in crisis because of inadequate social work and mental health care. The right investments to build a worker pipeline now will pay off multiple times over in years to come, he said.

Lawmakers in 2022 set aside $5 million to provide $30,000 scholarships to at least 150 Michigan social work students who agree to pursue their master’s of social work degree as soon as they finish their bachelor’s degree. To qualify, students must agree to work at least two years in the public mental health system, substance use disorder programs, crisis care, or psychiatric emergency services.

State Rep. Felicia Brabec, D-Pittsfield Township, has introduced legislation to boost the number of social workers — crucial roles in community mental health agencies, health care offices, hospitals and school districts, among others.

And a two-bill package, introduced by Brabec and fellow Democrat Rep. Kimberly Edwards, of Eastpointe, would drop Michigan’s requirement that social workers must take a national licensing exam that has been criticized for being racially biased

In a crisis, what matters is not an expert’s grade on an exam, but their expertise in the field, Edwards told lawmakers earlier this month.

 “The reality of it is that an exam is not necessary to be a social worker … All you care is that your doctor is trained in the profession they work in. Social workers are trained to the best of their ability — even beyond their ability” because of additional, annual training.

Paramedics

Industry experts estimate there are between 500 and 1,000 vacancies for paramedics and emergency medical technicians in Michigan, creating the possibility of longer waits for those involved in accidents or suffering heart attacks.

The shortages are particularly acute in rural areas. The positions do not pay enough ($14.30 average for an EMT) to entice potential EMTs and paramedics to move across state, leaving agencies to recruit among local residents. With worker shortages in almost every field, residents often can find other jobs that pay the same or more, are less stressful, and don’t include night and weekend shifts.

To address the shortage, the state launched a grant program to train more paramedics. The program launched during the pandemic, and received more funding this year, for a total of $30 million.

So far, the grants have helped more than 400 paramedical students pay for tuition, mileage reimbursement to classes, tutoring and child care. The money also can help repay wages lost as trainees cut back hours on their current jobs to train. 

Two bills now considered in the Legislature also would address the paramedic and EMT shortage. House Bill 4613 would allow for temporary licensing and on-the-job training to get candidates into ambulances faster. The bill is awaiting action in the House.

Senate Bill 249 would create state accreditation for paramedics at an estimated cost of $3.6 million, which would eliminate a bottleneck candidates face attempting to find a nationally accredited training program. The bill was passed by the Senate and is awaiting action by the House.

Special education teachers

Michigan intermediate school districts report that special education teachers are one of their most critical shortages.

Special education supervisors say they are sometimes able to fill positions with teachers who have temporary credentials to teach in special education. But they say these teachers need more training to best serve students with disabilities.

The state tracks data on teacher employment, student records and teacher certifications. But it lacks a comprehensive real-time process to see just how pervasive the shortage is or how many more teachers schools need. 

One effort to address the special education teacher gap for now is Senate Bill 518, would extend an interim teaching certificate rule to 2027 that is currently set to expire in 2024. That rule allows teachers without special ed certification to lead special education classes. That bill passed the Senate in October and is awaiting action in the House.

Police

Police departments across Michigan are struggling to fill positions, with the number of law enforcement officers statewide shrinking more than 4,500 since 2001 (a decline of 19 percent), with about 900 leaving in just the past three years.

Those shortages mean fewer road patrols, and police say that’s one reason accident fatalities are rising. With fewer officers on the street, it can take longer to respond to 911 calls. Stress from mandated overtime prompted by police officer shortages can lead to burn out and resignations, exacerbating the problem.

Last year, Whitmer announced $30 million in grants to help departments pay for police academy recruits, and in April the Legislature passed a bill that allows departments to recoup all or some training costs from recruits if they leave for another department within four years.

Republican-sponsored legislation in the House would direct a portion of the state sales tax to a fund for police, for use in part to assist recruitment. If passed, the legislation would shift about $110 million in state funds to law enforcement.

College and career counselors

Michigan already has one of the worst student-to-counselor ratios in the nation, ranking 48th with an average of one counselor for every 615 students, according to data from the 2020-21 school year. The national average is 408 students per counselor.

Michigan is having trouble filling counselor positions, according to education leaders. That’s partly because of an industry-wide problem in education, with far fewer college students graduating with education degrees, and those with education degrees may choose to go into fields that are more lucrative.

The problem is exacerbated for school counseling, which requires the completion of a master’s degree — a program that takes more credits (and thus more money) than a master’s in education administration, which can lead students to choose the cheaper administration degree.

The shortage of licensed counselors is forcing a stretched workforce to supervise more students at some schools, with other schools turning to non-licensed replacements.

The result: At a time when the state is pulling out the stops to get more people into college and trade schools, through programs like Michigan Reconnect and the Michigan Achievement Scholarship, which provides annual scholarships to two- and four-year colleges, there are fewer people in high schools offering advice on how to get there.

The state hasn’t done much to alleviate the shortage. A bill introduced in the Michigan House would require traditional school districts and public charter schools to employ a counselor for every 250 students, to match the recommendation of the American School Counselor Association. But that bill received bipartisan skepticism, with legislators noting it does not include funding for schools to hire counselors, or a solution to find counselors when there’s already a shortage.

Health care workers

COVID drove countless health-care workers from the job, bringing into the public spotlight long-simmering shortages in Michigan hospitals, clinics, doctors offices, labs and mental health agencies.

Nearly every role in health care will face shortages through 2032, according to Michelle Wein, research director at the Michigan Health Council, which earlier this year ranked health care jobs from most to least healthy (unhealthy meaning high turnover and high need).

Many of the most critical shortages are positions that take less training, such as dental assistants and medical assistants, which tend to have low pay and high burnout and turnover. These shortages create bottlenecks in care.

In 2022, lawmakers set aside $300 million and, earlier this year, an additional $75 million, for recruitment and retention of health-care workers, by for instance boosting wages and retention bonuses. 

Specific to nursing shortages, the state last year began offering $2 million to community colleges to train students in a four-year bachelor’s of nursing program. It also expanded the tuition assistance program, Michigan Reconnect, to help pay for schooling for Michigan patient care techs to become licensed practical nurses, and licensed practical nurses to become registered nurses.

State funds also support job shadowing and apprenticeship programs, including a $7.6 million effort at the Michigan Primary Care Association that can help move workers on the brink of burnout to roles that are more satisfying and pay better, said the Michigan Health Council’s Wein.

There are limits. On-the-job training itself can’t replace the years of schooling needed to make a pharmacist or nurse, for example.

But such programs can keep existing health workers in the industry as they “make that next step,” Wein said. A dietary worker, for example, might become a pharmacy tech rather than leave for the restaurant industry or a nurse assistant may take the first steps toward a nursing degree.

The types of investments the state is making to address worker shortages “may help around the margins,” said Michigan Future’s Glazer, but he said he hopes the state doesn’t take its eye off the underlying problem of stagnating population.