Making it in the Mitten
MSU graduates are calling Michigan home — even in a shifting economy
The shimmering lights of Las Vegas don’t attract Robby Zahm. While many of the hospitality business senior’s classmates escape the Midwest after graduation — opting for hotel positions in glamorous, job-abundant vacation cities such as Las Vegas and others — Zahm has no intention of leaving his home mitten.
Instead, Zahm’s career goal is to one day become the general manager of a hotel in Michigan. He wants to land in the thick of downtown Grand Rapids at the crossroads of west Michigan’s industrial business and shoreline tourist industries.
“You can go to Vegas; there are a ton of jobs there,” Zahm said. “(But) I’m proud of where I come from.”
Zahm isn’t the only one sticking it out.
Even with a persistently gloomy economy in Michigan and recurring talk from state politicians echoing the state’s high unemployment rate and depressing job prospects, more than half of MSU graduates have chosen to stay in Michigan in recent years. And although students note a negative stigma across campus toward the prospect of staying in state, some are determined to stay rooted here out of pride or practicality, weathering the uncertainty.
For Zahm, that has meant taking every step he can to mold his skills into marketable ones so he can land a job in state after he graduates in December. The School of Hospitality Business has the lowest Michigan retention rate of any college at MSU with 31 percent of students finding employment in state following graduation.
“If there’s no job for me, unfortunately, I’d have to go out of state because I have to pay for school somehow,” Zahm said.
He recently completed an internship at a Disney World resort in Orlando, Fla., a place which Zahm views as one of the most successful vacation spots, to gain fresh ideas that can be applied here.
“I think I can bring that (experience) back to Michigan,” he said.
In addition to working at Kellogg Center, Zahm also is enrolled in a hospitality business course that is helping design the hotel in the City Center II site — the planned multimillion-dollar complex near the corner of Grand River, Michigan and Evergreen avenues in downtown East Lansing — a project that’s exciting and a good résumé builder, he said.
It’s been somewhat of a roller coaster for MSU’s state-based retention rates during the past few years.
The numbers held fast in 2006 and 2007 with 51 percent of graduates in those classes finding in-state employment during their first few months with a degree in hand, according to a report from MSU’s Career Network.
Then 2008 happened.
In September of that year, the stock market crashed, leading to the Great Recession Michigan — and the rest of the country — still is trying to claw its way out of. The number of students who found in-state employment that year fell under half to 46 percent, only to surge to 59 percent in 2009. The numbers then stabilized at 55 percent for the class of 2010.
The fluctuation wasn’t much considering how far the economy fell, said Kelley Bishop, MSU’s vice president for strategic initiatives.
Although Michigan’s economy started out poor, ahead of the national slump, the rest of the state’s hiring rates then fell as well. This set the rest of the nation on an equally low playing field when the class of 2009 entered the work force, Bishop said. Job prospects were bad everywhere — the majority of graduates stayed in state once again as they didn’t have better luck in other states.
“It’s like the rest of the country caught up to us,” Bishop said.
The difference shows throughout time.
Twenty-six years after founding MSU’s Collegiate Employment Research Institute, Director of Research Phil Gardner has witnessed the numbers deteriorate. From the 1970s through the 1990s, even through brief spouts of economic downturn, about 75-80 percent of MSU students always remained Michigan, he said. But those numbers have dissolved, especially within the last decade, and now sit in the 50 percent range.
These lows are a result of a systemic problem in the way the state’s graduates view employment, and the way businesses themselves have been structured in the past, Gardner said. No longer are there large corporations mass-hiring hundreds of students upon graduation. Now, Michigan is struggling to restructure itself to be conducive to small and medium-sized businesses who are ready to hire.
“We’re still going through a redefinition of the economy,” Gardner said.
Three big problems
Craig Somerton has noticed a change where his engineering graduates have been getting jobs in recent years. In the past, it was easy.
“You came to MSU if you wanted to work for Ford, GM, Chrysler,” said Somerton, a mechanical engineering professor.
Now, it’s hard for them to even find a job in state. Forty-seven percent of engineering graduates in the class of 2010 stayed in Michigan for employment, 8 percent less than the class as a whole.
Some students, even those not aiming for a mechanical engineering job, already anticipate having to leave.
“I’d prefer to stay in Michigan if I could, but I probably won’t be able to,” chemical engineering senior Adam Rice said.
These students especially have to adjust to a shifting industry, where there are no longer big companies who mass-hire fresh graduates. And because many are second-generation engineers, Somerton said — their parents and sometimes even grandparents worked for one of the Big Three — the culture is the same as it was 20 years ago.
“It’s almost a cultural thing,” Somerton said. “They’ve already got the same mindset their relatives have had.”
Ariadna Ginez didn’t have a very positive perception of Detroit before she moved there this fall.
While at MSU, Ginez thought she would move to a big city — ideally Chicago or New York City, cities with a sense of cultural vibrance, she said — but never thought Detroit was one of them. All her friends wanted out too.
When talking to friends last spring about their post graduation plans, “everyone wanted to leave.”
After graduating in May and being accepted to Teach For America, Detroit wasn’t her top choice. But in hindsight, Ginez said, it would have been. In Detroit, she found a whole subculture of young professionals like herself, helping reshape the city’s previously despairing culture.
She saw other recent graduates living in large downtown apartments with rent for dirt cheap compared to other cities. New people move into her neighborhood often; more coffee shops have begun springing up on the corners.
“That spirit of revitalizing Detroit is really exciting to me,” Ginez said. “I think there’s a lot of opportunity.”
In the face of poor hiring trends, Bishop said more students are taking post graduate internships or using stepping-stone programs — such as Teach for America — which could lead to a permanent job.
The latest information shows 18 percent of students take positions in stepping-stone programs after graduation. In James Madison College , where Ginez graduated from, the numbers are stand considerably higher at 37 percent.
Teach For America, a highly selective program that places students in a low-income school to teach for two years, has risen to become the highest single employer of fresh MSU graduates.
Ginez’s initial negative perception toward staying in Michigan is a common one among MSU students, especially for this generation of college students.
The state’s prolonged period of economic depression has lead to a bad psychology among today’s students, Gardner said. All the talk surrounding the state’s bad economy, from the time today’s students were in middle school until now, has left an impression that it is nearly impossible to get a job.
“It’s just been a constant barrage of messages that this is not a great place to be,” Gardner said.
A backwards culture
When Mike Berkowitz graduated from MSU in 2010, he was willing to go anywhere he could get a job. He wanted to stay in Michigan but figured the job market likely would force him out of the state.
“MSU students are rooted in Michigan,” Berkowitz said. “(But) a lot of them don’t feel like they can get a job here.”
As it turned out, the 2010 gubernatorial race — which centered almost entirely around improving the economy and creating more jobs — started his career.
What started as volunteer work at a few events for the Virg Bernero campaign quickly turned into a paid job for Berkowitz. And although his candidate was crushed in landslide loss last November, Berkowitz’s career was not. He quickly rose to become the organizer of Sierra Club’s Michigan chapter, lobbying for “environmentally friendly” legislation and advocating for candidates.
“I was really invested in Michigan,” Berkowitz said. “It would have been tough to leave all of these relationships behind and go to another state.”
Seth Anderson, a 2011 graduate, dreamed of moving out of state at first. But after helping pilot the first cycle of the MSU College Advising Corps, a new program where recent graduates work as a college adviser at a Michigan high school with low college attendance rates, his passion for the state has been stirred. Anderson is working at a 650-student high school in Belding, Mich., a small rural town east of Grand Rapids.
“It’s been a developing Michigan love that has not made me want to leave immediately,” Anderson said.
While Ginez also wasn’t optimistic upon graduation, she quickly grew to find purpose in trying to better the state. After her two years are up, Ginez plans to pursue improving education policy in Michigan, in some capacity. Through Teach For America, Ginez wants to experience the ground zero of Michigan’s education woes.
“Education for me has been the thing that has basically allowed me to have freedom in my life,” Ginez said. “That’s definitely not a choice that all of our kids (in Michigan) get.”
Anderson isn’t worried, even though his education field is struggling as well.
Although his job only is for three years, he’s optimistic the economy will improve some by the time he has to find a permanent job.
“I think there are niches in Michigan we’ll be able to find,” Anderson said. “Michigan’s got a good chance.”