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One State Is Putting a Single Person in Charge of Its Growth Strategy

Michigan’s first-in-the-nation chief growth officer is working to refresh the state’s brand with help from partners whose survival depends on attracting more workers.

Hilary Doe, Michigan’s first chief growth officer, sitting on a stage at an event speaking.
Hilary Doe, Michigan’s first chief growth officer, speaks at an event organized by the Detroit Economic Club.
(Detroit Economic Club)
In Brief:
  • Michigan has created the nation's first position of chief growth officer. Hilary Doe is charged with attracting workers from other states by promoting its low cost of living and natural beauty.

  • Michigan has been attracting high-tech industry and is positioned to be a leader in reimagining transportation and clean technology. But the state's existing pool of workers isn't sufficient to support long-term growth of these sectors.

  • Doe believes by finding ways to keep Michigan youngsters from leaving, she can create opportunities that will draw young workers from elsewhere.

  • Michigan has a lot going for it. Telling that story has been difficult after years of decline in the auto industry, which largely defined the state for 120 years, and it now struggles to re-create itself amid international competition to the Big Three domestic automakers and electrification across the industry.

    The resource-rich state that gave rise to mass-market manufacturing has much to offer, with nearly 4 million acres of state forests, more freshwater than any state outside of Alaska and a cost of living below the national average. It’s attracting high-tech industries from clean energy to semiconductors and AI.

    Still, there is a worrying shortage of one vital resource: people. More people are leaving the state than are coming to it, including Gen Z Michiganders who are prime prospects for new jobs.

    Between 1980 and 2020, the U.S. population grew more than 46 percent, while Michigan’s grew by just under 9 percent. To help close the gap, last year Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the appointment of Hilary Doe as Michigan’s chief growth and marketing officer, the first such position in any state.

    Her efforts are informed by recommendations from a Growing Michigan Together Council that Whitmer created to set a population growth goal and advise on policies to achieve it. Doe works for the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), a public-private partnership within the state Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. MEDC works to attract and accelerate business development.

    It’s Doe’s job to make sure the state has the people it needs to move projects from opportunity to reality. “We have more jobs than we have folks to fill them,” Doe says.

    One of the statistics that keeps her up at night is that Michigan’s population has the nation’s second-smallest share of residents who weren’t born there. “I’m mentioning that because we’re going to change it,” she says.

    Michigan’s state demographer has predicted that it will see a 1.3 percent drop in population by 2050. The Council offered an alternative vision, or wish, in its final report: “By 2050, Michigan will be a top-ten state for population growth.”
    Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan at a concert celebrating the reopening of Michigan Central Station.
    Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, left, and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan at a concert celebrating the reopening of Michigan Central Station. The Ford Motor Company invested $1 billion in the rail station to transform it into a hub for reimagining the future of mobility.
    (Robin Buckson, The Detroit News/TNS)

    Attracting Younger Workers

    Doe began her work by heading out across the state, organizing more than 80 in-person events, meeting with over 3,000 Michiganders in person and gathering input from about 11,000 in all.

    The people she met underscored how important it was to include high school and college students in these listening sessions. The state needed to understand what could cause them to decide to build lives and raise families in Michigan, instead of leaving. Such insights are also important when it comes to attracting young workers from other parts of the country. “We want to make sure that we are not aging faster than our neighboring states,” Doe says.

    In her listening sessions, she found that the state’s natural beauty, including roughly 3,000 miles of freshwater coastline, topped the things that people loved. Negative perceptions weren’t hurting its brand badly but overall the state wasn’t top of mind for many.

    Building on what they learned, MEDC launched “You Can in Michigan,” which it described as “the largest state talent attraction campaign and effort in the U.S.” The campaign includes material for print, social media, radio and television and a website where visitors can look for jobs and calculate their cost of living in the state. This career portal incorporates artificial intelligence to match visitors’ skills with career paths, recommend programs to fill gaps if they exist and connect them to a comprehensive feed for Michigan-based jobs.

    The campaign was launched last October. It’s achieved millions of impressions since then, Doe says, but more significantly, it’s brought 7,000 people to the jobs portal. The top states for applicants have been Texas, California and New York. “It’s pretty interesting to see that kind of national interest from a pretty young campaign,” says Doe. In May, the campaign’s television spot won Telly awards in numerous categories.

    Michigan's growth campaign includes spots on national television.

    Ready to Make Changes

    One of the Council’s recommendations was to “build a life-long learning system focused on future-ready skills and competencies.” Angelique Power, the CEO of the Skillman Foundation, was a member of its pre-K to 12th grade education workgroup. The foundation makes upwards of $20 million a year in grants in Detroit to support community-led education change.

    “We all met Hilary and began to realize that growth doesn’t have to do with one silver bullet," Power says. “It has to do with larger, more deeply entrenched issues and opportunities.”

    Power had expected that the discussions in her work group would be built around “dug in” agendas, but the opposite happened. There was nearly unanimous agreement on what it should recommend. She’s seen the same thing happen as Doe has gone out to both rural and urban areas. “We need to sit together and have this bigger plan because there are more things that we agree upon than we disagree upon,” Power says.

    The alignment of population growth, job development and economy has added momentum and urgency to the Skillman Foundation’s long-standing work to improve the public education system. Michigan is among the leaders in attracting private investment fueled by the federal Inflation Reduction Act, with nearly $12 billion so far for manufacturing clean vehicles, batteries, R&D, energy generation and more. Semiconductor and robotic companies are expanding operations in the state.

    But here, too, there is work to do. Less than a third of Michigan students are proficient in math or reading by the fourth or eighth grade. Beyond these basics, they need programs to prepare them for these new industries.

    The state’s business leaders understand that education systems need to be adaptable, says Power. “If our curriculum and our schools are functioning in the way they did 60 years ago,” she says, “we’re not only depriving young people and families and neighborhoods and cities and small towns, but ultimately we are affecting the economics of Michigan.”
    An image from Michigan's growth campaign showing a person working in lab clothes with people dancing in a club around them.
    Michigan’s growth campaign incorporates a focus on inspiring Gen Z workers to settle in the state and build their lives in it.

    Growth With Purpose

    Over multiple terms in the Michigan House and Senate, Ken Horn focused on workforce and community development, including as chair of the Senate Economic and Small Business Development Committee. Before the formation of the Council or the creation of Doe’s position, he shared his concerns about the state’s stagnant talent pool with Gov. Whitmer. “We were spending hundreds of millions of dollars on workforce development, retraining the same people into different skills,” Horn says. “We needed to grow the population.”

    Horn was on the “Jobs, Talent and People” workgroup for the Council. He serves as executive vice president of the Great Lakes Bay Regional Alliance, focused on economic development in a four-county region. He wants to see the region grow by 40,000 residents by 2050, and the state by 1 million.

    Reversing growth trends will take years, not months, and the creation of a chief growth officer position required a long-term commitment from the state. That might be one reason no other state has done this, Doe says.

    During World War II, Michigan played a major role in standing up an “arsenal of democracy” that produced Jeeps, tanks, bombers, artillery guns and ammunition. Work with purpose is a priority for Gen Z and Michigan can play a big role in clean technology manufacturing and innovation.

    “Michigan is one of the places that can make things,” she says. “We’re a top 10 state for patents. If you pick your head up off the pillow, and you want to do purpose-driven work, come to Michigan to do it.”
    Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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