BENTON HARBOR — A report on state and regional employment data confirms what employers are feeling in Southwest Michigan.

At the end of 2010, the tri-county area – which encompasses Berrien, Cass and Van Buren counties – had a workforce of 143,000 people. That number has since dropped to 129,000, as of August 2021, a Kinexus Group report stated this month.

“The long term is what we’re really concerned about,” said Al Pscholka, vice president of public relations and government affairs at the Kinexus.

Kinexus has been looking at the issues of a smaller workforce, an aging workforce and lower education attainment for some time, Pscholka said.

The workforce is still 3,500-5,000 below where it was pre-pandemic, he said.

Within the tri-county area, labor force participation decreased by 1.1 percent from July to August, greater than 2017-19 average seasonal drop of 1 percent. This amounts to more than 100 fewer workers.

The labor force participation has improved since the spring, when the region saw a 4.3 percent decrease compared to September 2019. Now, the decrease is only 2.7 percent. That being said, the recovery rate is slower now than it was in May, the report stated.

The unemployment rate for the three counties decreased from July to August and was lower than the year prior.

At 4.7 percent, the tri-county unemployment rate is slightly higher than the state rate of 4.4 percent in August. The report stated this is largely because of the greater labor force participation in the region.

Employers are fighting a “war for talent,” Pscholka said. To assist employers, workers and students, the agency is trying to build a “talent pipeline.”

Job openings are up 91 percent from pre-COVID to today, the report stated.

Lily Brewer, executive director of Michigan Works Berrien, Cass, Van Buren, said now is the best time for workers and employers to train.

“There are a tremendous amount of training funds available,” Brewer said. “We are one click away from individuals being able to access those funds.” Unemployment agencies will require registration with local Michigan Works offices, starting Nov. 1, Brewer said.

Michigan Works can help job seekers or those looking to switch careers with child care, expungements, vocational training and transportation assistance. The agency served more than 70,000 people during the pandemic.

Employers can even apply for grants to train or re-train staff, Pscholka said.

State and regional data

Terminating the extended COVID-19 unemployment benefit resulted in some slight labor force growth, but did not deliver on the boost needed to solve the labor shortage statewide.

“We did not see statewide a huge influx of workers after the extended unemployment benefits ended,” Pscholka said.

Regional labor force participation data only goes through August, prior to the end of the additional benefit.

Pre-pandemic, the state labor force was more than 4.9 million people. Since the spring, it’s been around 4.7 million people.

In September 2021, Michigan saw some labor force growth, the report stated. Two-thirds of that was driven by the Detroit metropolitan statistical area (MSA).

The report stated from July to December 2020, non-Detroit and the Detroit MSA had nearly the exact same labor force participation. After the additional unemployment benefits were extended, the Detroit MSA’s labor force levels dropped 5.6 index points in two months.

The report also looks at four economic sectors within the tri-county area: manufacturing, health care, leisure and hospitality and agribusiness.

“If we look at manufacturing regionally, there’s actually a little bit of good news here,” Pscholka said.

Despite supply chain issues, the manufacturing industry is growing, and there’s been some return to manufacturing jobs. However, many opportunities are still open, Pscholka said.

The number of those employed in health care in the region continues to be 6-7 percent below pre-pandemic numbers, a trend since the onset of the pandemic.

Leisure and hospitality is still struggling with employees leaving the industry. Some 2,500 fewer employees are working in the sector now compared to 2019.