Nathan Skid| Crain’s Detroit Business

Every day, at exactly 7:43 a.m., Michael Hall, 27, pulls out of his driveway to put in his eight hours driving a forklift, watering plants and working as a cashier at Panetta’s Landscape Supply in Taylor.

It’s only a 10-minute drive from his 850-square-foot house in Lincoln Park, but it provides Hall enough time to reflect on how his life is different than he expected.

Hall says he formed a lawn-cutting service at age 15, graduated third in his class in high school, earned his real-estate license at age 18 and owned three rental properties before he could legally drink a beer, and graduated from Wayne State University in 2008 with a 3.6 grade-point average and a degree in business management.

But his degree was almost an aside; at the time, he had a thriving lawn-care business with 80 yards to maintain and three rental properties to help pay the bills.

But in 2008, Hall’s rental properties became unsustainable; they were in the wrong part of town and drew unreliable tenants. His biggest lawn-care client stopped paying, and he couldn’t make up the loss.

“It came to a point where I was just trying to get by,” Hall said. “It was tough because I knew I had these years ahead of me trying to get out of debt — just trying to survive.”

In 2009, Hall, with a young bride and a 2-year-old in tow, took his current job to put food on the table, to support a family, to hold on while he looked for a job to put his degree to good use.

Now Hall says he is taking classes if for no other reason than to be able to check the box on job searching sites that says “recent grad.”

“I am afraid that I am too far removed from school,” Hall said. “When you go to the websites like to apply for positions, they usually have a section for people switching careers or just out of college. Where do I fall?”

But there are signs of hope for Hall and other millennials like him who entered the labor market during the recession and have since remained underemployed.

Rebecca Cohen, director of research and policy for Detroit-based Workforce Intelligence Network, said employment for millennials in Southeast Michigan, across all demographics and education levels, has risen by 6.8 percent from January 2010 through the first quarter of 2012.

The data does not reveal what type of jobs, but it does show that a major portion of job postings are for high-skilled, well-paying positions like accountants, mechanical engineers, computer programmers and software developers.

Cohen says the problem is 96 percent of those high-skilled job postings require more than one year of experience.

“Employers are trying to figure out how to open up positions for entry-level workers,” Cohen said. “If you have experience, you’re fine. The challenge is getting that experience.”

Damian Zikakis, director of career services at Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, says millennials like Hall can use their experiences to their benefit.

“A frustrating thing for students that graduated in 2008, 2009 and 2010 is they had to take whatever work they could find, and then they got accustomed to a paycheck,” Zikakis said. “The problem is they don’t know how to describe their work experience in a way that demonstrates that they have gained certain skills.”

Shades of gray

It’s difficult to put a finger on the pulse of the millennial generation, mainly because experiences vary so greatly due to differences in education and when they entered the job market.

Kristina Rembisz

Kristina Rembisz

For every Hall, there is a Kristina Rembisz, 26.

Rembisz graduated from the University of Michigan-Dearborn in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in industrial and systems manufacturing and accepted a position at Novi-based Tata Technologies Inc., where she is a trainer on CATIA, a three-dimensional computer-aided design program used by engineers and designers in myriad industries.

And for every Rembisz, there is a Matthew Debuel, 28.

Debuel earned a bachelor’s degree in fine art from the College for Creative Studies in 2009 then worked a couple of odd jobs in metro Detroit but was unimpressed with the types of career opportunities for him in Southeast Michigan.

“It just didn’t seem like there was much of an opportunity for creatives,” Debuel said. “I wasn’t interested in doing anything with cars, and that was kind of the main thing around there.”

In 2011, Debuel moved to Boston, where he is working two part-time jobs, one as a deliveryman for an art museum and the other as a freelance photo editor and location scout for shoe maker Converse Inc.

Hall, Rembisz and Debuel entered the labor pool within a few years of each other, so what makes their stories different? Are their collective experiences that dissimilar from previous generations?

There is little question that over the past five years the millennial generation, those born from 1982 to 2000, even those with college degrees, have sometimes had a difficult time finding meaningful employment in Southeast Michigan. But are things as bad for as they seem for college graduates entering today’s workforce?

Lou Glazer, president of Ann Arbor-based think-tank Michigan Future Inc., says the labor market, even during boom times, was never as good as it seemed.

“Everyone assumes before the recession that everyone was getting a job in their chosen field. That wasn’t true,” Glazer said. “To some degree we are exaggerating how bad young graduates have it.”

The good news, he said, is today’s job market will not be an indicator of their entire career.

“We tend to view the experience of young people entering the labor market over the last five years as if it’s going to be indicative of their entire 40-year career,” Glazer said. “Those who have the talent and the skills do better as the economy does.”

Placement data compiled from area universities show an increase in hiring of recent graduates.

According to Michigan State University‘s 2012 Destination Survey Report, which surveyed 2,794 graduates across all disciplines, shows 57 percent of graduates were hired right out of college, up from 53 percent in 2011 and 46 percent in 2010.

Of the 547 business school graduates at Michigan State who graduated during the spring semester 2012, 71 percent found meaningful employment while just 21 percent returned for graduate school.

Compare that to MSU’s graduating business class of 2009, from which 50 percent of grads entered a graduate program and only 30 percent found full-time employment.

Phil Gardner, director of MSU’s Collegiate Employment Research Institute, said graduate school enrollment is a good indicator of the state of the job market.

“When the labor market is really good, about 20 percent of our students go to graduate school, meaning about 75 percent are going into the workforce,” Gardner said. “Today, the number of kids going to graduate school is going down — meaning they feel more confident about finding a job.”

Gardner said he expects the hiring rate of all graduates to stay around 57 percent in 2013, while he said the business school graduate hiring rate could increase by up to 12 percent.

Flexibility is key

At the height of the recession during the summer of 2008, Detroit-based Quicken Loans Inc., the company known locally as much for its expansive internship program as for its mortgage-banking business, went on a months-long hiring freeze.

Michelle Salvatore

Michelle Salvatore

“It was devastating,” said Michelle Salvatore, director of recruiting for Quicken Loans. “We went through four months in the summer of 2008 where we just simply stopped hiring. We finally added a total of five team members in September of 2008.”

But as the economy recovered, so too did Quicken’s hiring practices.

The only problem for millennials was the talent pool was stocked with experienced workers, making it difficult for them to get noticed.

But Salvatore said the tide turned in late 2009, shortly after the company moved its headquarters from Livonia to the heart of downtown Detroit.

“This whole internship program really kind of developed when we decided to move downtown,” Salvatore said. “Everyone was talking about brain drain. We wanted to change that through an internship program.”

In 2008, Quicken, still based in Livonia at the time, did not have an internship program. In 2009, it had 40 interns throughout the company.

But as of March 30 this year, Salvatore said she had 11,239 applications for 1,000 internship positions.

Salvatore said Quicken hired 83 percent of last year’s intern class that was eligible for full-time work.

One of those hires was Jordan Fylonenko.

Fylonenko, public relations associate at Quicken Loans, said his friends with finance degrees laughed at him when he graduated from Western Michigan University in 2009 with a communications degree. Fylonenko said he knew he was facing an uphill battle after graduation, which is why he began laying the groundwork for an internship before he walked across the stage.

“I didn’t have preconceived notions that someone had a briefcase full of money for me when I graduated,” he said.

Fylonenko said he sent a tweet to the social media manager at Quicken, which landed him his internship and ultimately a full-time position.

“You have to lay the groundwork for your network before you need the job,” Fylonenko warned. “Do the internships, network and reach out to people in order to build up a repertoire and contacts.”

But Salvatore said recent grads need to be realistic.

“One of the major points millennials miss is they look at it like, ‘I have a degree now, this is exactly what I’m going to do,’ ” Salvatore said. “You have to be willing to expand, be flexible.”

David Carroll, vice president of miscellaneous stuff at Quicken, says flexibility is an imperative for job seekers, young and old.

“Don’t be so dogmatic and so set in your ways that you can’t deviate,” Carroll said. “I got my start working in Chicago and living in a high-rise, but I left to take a pay cut and work for Dan Gilbert because I could see the opportunity to work for someone with huge ambition.”

But flexibility can only take you so far.


Giulio Desando, talent acquisition manager at Tata, said there are plenty of well-paying job opportunities in Southeast Michigan, there just aren’t enough graduates entering those fields.

“There were 500 grads in mechanical engineering programs in universities across the region in 2007,” Desando said. “In 2011, there were only 358. So there are fewer and fewer people going into mechanical engineering or any of the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) programs, but there is more and more work in those areas.”

Desando says it is up to corporations to make sure college-bound millennials consider an education in one of the STEM disciplines.

“I think as employers, we have an obligation to help steer some of these kids, as early as high school, into the STEM programs, because, as you can see, the population is decreasing in those areas,” Desando said. “We need to make sure that we are also training and developing them to give careers to some of these millennial employees.”

Debra Lawson, founder of the Farmington Hills arm of Philadelphia-based Management Recruiters International Inc., a management recruiting firm, said the dynamic of the labor market in Southeast Michigan is changing into a candidate-driven market rather than a company-driven one, meaning there are fewer qualified job candidates than available positions.

“Companies realized they needed to have mechanisms to start growing their own people instead of always drawing experienced people. I’ve seen a number of companies recognize this.”

According to data compiled by Boston-based Burning Glass International Inc., an online job posting aggregator, demand for skilled workers in Southeast Michigan has grown dramatically since the beginning of the recession.

Since 2008, demand for engineers in Southeast Michigan rose by 103 percent, IT postings rose by 55 percent, and demand for software developers rose by 114 percent. In fact, Southeast Michigan outpaced Silicon Valley in terms of increased demand for software developers during the same time period.

At the end of the first quarter of 2013, there were 2,434 mechanical engineer job postings, 2,121 computer programmers, 2,101 software developers and 2,060 nursing positions in Southeast Michigan.

So, it’s not a matter of if the jobs exist, it’s more a question of college graduates earning the types of degrees necessary to secure those positions.

A look ahead

Gardner and Cohen say one of the biggest opportunities for millennials will come as the boomer generation exits the workforce. The only problem is, no one knows when that will be.

“Boomers like to work. That is the oddity no one admits,” Gardner said. “Boomers so identify with work that they feel lost once they leave.”

Boomers are just beginning to enter retirement age — the oldest boomers turn 67 this year. But Michigan is an aging state.

According to the Workforce Intelligence Network’s first-quarter survey of Southeast Michigan’s labor pool, about a quarter of the workforce is over the age of 55.

In fact, according to the survey, workers over 55 were the only age group that actually increased employment between 2002 and 2012.

The study also found that 20 percent of skilled trades and technician jobs, from operating room nurses to computerized numerical control welders, are currently filled by workers over 55.

Gardner said the only downside to the boomers’ eventual mass exit from the labor pool will be that companies are expected to fill only 60 percent of the vacant positions due to retirement.

“Employers have looked at all these retirees and said they don’t need to replace them,” Gardner said. “We shifted the economy from a production-based economy where people are plugged in on the line to a network, service-based, technology-based economy, and we simply don’t need as many workers.”

But Cohen says that as people age out of the workforce, opportunities for younger employees to fill highly skilled positions will rise.

“Employers are trying to figure out how to open up positions for entry-level workers in order to get younger employees the experience they need to fill the positions left by retirees,” Cohen said. “The challenge is getting them the experience they need.”

Nathan Skid: (313) 446-1654, Twitter: @NateSkid

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