More than Just the Mitten: The tech industry has a new home

Great Lakes State? That nickname is so 1.0. Today, Michigan is on its way to becoming the Silicon Mitten.

Tech jobs are popping up all over a state traditionally best known for its many lakes, manufacturing might and birthing of the auto industry. In 2016, Michigan ranked 10th amongst the 50 states and the District of Columbia for tech industry employment, with nearly 222,000 such jobs here.

That’s up nearly 11,000 jobs from the previous year and the ranking jumped from 15th in 2010, according to a recent Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) analysis. The 5.1 percent increase from 2015 to 2016 was the third-largest percentage jump in the nation.

Observers say that’s just the start of a flood of tech jobs that are expected to inundate the Mitten in coming years.

“The only surprise is, I thought [the numbers] might be a little better,” said Jerry Norris, business accelerator consultant for the Lansing Economic Area Partnership. “It’s only going to get better over the next 10 years … Michigan is just a great place to be. It’s got great universities. It’s got great cities. It’s really booming.”

The analysis “affirms the strength and vitality of Michigan’s tech industry, and attests to its essential standing in the economy,” said Todd Thibodeaux, president and CEO of CompTIA, in a press release. “Technology enables innovation and generates growth for companies, regardless of their size, locale or markets served.”

IT’s share of the gross state product is $30.7 billion, meaning for every dollar earned by Michigan industry, 15 cents come in through IT work.

Michigan is no stranger to being a major player in a world-changing industry.

“You go back 100 years, and Michigan was the Silicon Valley,” said Norris. “We were the innovation center of the world. We changed manufacturing. We built the automotive industry. Now, IT presents the same opportunity.”

While there are more than 11,000 tech businesses, local observers believe traditional employers figure large in the demand for IT workers here. The study said a total of nearly 272,000 people work in tech roles spread over all industries, including IT and more traditional sectors like the automotive, insurance and medical fields.

“The automotive industry, the aerospace and the medical device industries are driving things in Michigan,” Norris said.

For example, traditional industries which rely more on Internet connections, web sales and mobile applications as part of doing business, increasingly need in-house tech people to support those operations.

“The IT sector is not a stand-alone sector,” said Andrea Ragan, executive director for the Capital Area IT Council. “IT is health care. IT is manufacturing. IT is finance … All of these different types of companies need IT employees to make sure they stay relevant in their industry.”

Additionally, innovations are further fueling the need for IT workers.

“Think driverless cars, high-tech medical devices, advanced manufacturing tools, robotics, artificial intelligence, statistical analysis, big data and such,” Norris said.

Roughly one of every 19 workers in Michigan has an IT job, according to the report.

The most common IT jobs include mechanical engineers (42,610 workers), industrial engineers (25,500) and computer user support specialists (20,130), claims the study.

The average tech job also pays well. The average IT wage in Michigan was nearly $89,200 last year, about 77 percent greater than the average state wage of just over $50,400, the analysis said.

As a nexus of academia, government and private industry, Lansing is particularly well-situated to benefit from the boom.

“If we look at the region, there’s a lot of innovation happening. There’s a lot of incubators helping businesses get started,” Norris said.

Still, there are not enough workers around to fill all the needs here.

“Our supply doesn’t currently meet the demand,” Ragan said. “Even if we retain 100 percent [of local IT workers and students], it still wouldn’t meet the needs of the IT job market.”

This means local business leaders must find ways not only to keep potential IT workers here, but to attract such professionals from elsewhere while competing against more traditional IT centers like California’s Silicon Valley and Seattle, Wash.

“We really need to figure out ways to make sure people don’t leave the state too soon. What’s going to be happening over the next few years will be amazing,” Norris said. “This is going to be the next Silicon Valley. To leave now would be a huge mistake.”

This requires efforts to make greater Lansing a fun, interesting place to live, work and play so that IT workers with options choose to come here and stay here.

“I think Lansing is on the right track in terms of constant improvement to big economic developments and arts and entertainment that is attractive to IT talent,” Ragan said. “It’s just not as well-known as other parts of the state and country.”

Mid-Michigan’s lower cost of living can also act as a talent magnet.

“When you look at, should I pick a company in San Francisco or Lansing, you look at what the cost of living is … the Midwest, and Michigan, are a great deal,” Norris said. “It’s prime for people to make a shift away from the coast to a more affordable place.”

Ragan said her group is focusing on ensuring awareness of tech industry needs and opportunities, as well as access to training and education to ensure there are enough qualified candidates to cover local IT needs.

Ragan said there are a number of myths that create barriers to people finding IT careers. She said aspiring tech workers don’t necessarily need to go to college, but they could use formal training in fields such as coding, programming and web development.

And don’t understate desire.

“They’re looking for that passion for learning and passion for technology. People who are curious,” Ragan said. “That can outweigh a technological degree or certificate.”

Ragan said while the IT industry is “changing all the time. It’s changing fast,” workers with IT skills will always be in demand: “Technology is here to stay … these are sustainable careers.”

It’s something the state is certainly interested in fostering. In a prepared statement, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder said “we hope to build on these efforts to continue to grow a talented workforce and high-tech industry within Michigan.”

One area where Michigan did not fare well in the analysis was in workforce diversity by gender, which is a wider industry issue as well. Michigan ranked 46th for gender ratios among IT workers, with women representing only 19.2 percent of such employees. The national average was 21.8 percent.

Omar Sofradzija

Omar Sofradzija

Omar Sofradzija is an adjunct journalism instructor at Michigan State University. Prior to that, he was a columnist and reporter at the Las Vegas (Nev.) Review-Journal, where he covered the development and launch of that city's Metropolitan Area Express (MAX) bus rapid transit system and the Las Vegas Monorail.

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