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in the case of unemployment rates in the Great Lakes states, headlines do not tell the full story. 

This week, we heard that Michigan’s unemployment rate dropped to 8.8 percent, within shouting distance of the national unemployment rate, and way down from the 14 percent territory it reached during the worst of the recession.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s rate held steady at 6.9 percent for the second straight month, and it’s down from 9.2 percent in June 2009.

But behind the Michigan numbers lies a paradox: the state has 409,000 people out of work, but there are 76,000 job openings that can’t be filled. Gov. Rick Snyder talked about this on Wednesday at a town hall in Detroit, urging job seekers to register with the state’s talent bank.

And in Wisconsin, the unemployment rate actually rose in 27 cities whose population was more than 25,000, and in 66 counties.

The highest unemployment rate in Wisconsin is in Beloit, where 12.5 percent of working adults did not have jobs. Unemployment also is high in Door County, a vacation region, where 13.8 percent are out of work.

So, unemployment continues to be an issue in our region. Changing Gears has been looking at retraining and how to measure its success.

Have you gone through a retraining program, or gone back to school so that you can start a new career? Was it what you needed? Take our survey and help us cover the story.

chicagomayorsoffice on livestream.com. Broadcast Live Free

Big news out of Chicago this morning: mayor Rahm Emanuel is announcing a three-year, $7 billion plan to rebuild the city’s infrastructure. The Mayor’s office says the plan will create 30,000 jobs, and it won’t require a tax hike.

The mayor will deliver a speech to announce the plan coming up at 11 a.m. Central time. You can watch the speech live right here.

By now, you know that Earvin “Magic” Johnson is one of the new owners of the Los Angeles Dodgers. But there’s also a Chicago connection in the deal.

Magic Johnson in his MSU playing days

Johnson, the Lansing, Mich., native, Michigan State and NBA star, led a group of investors who paid $2 billion for the Dodgers, a record for a baseball franchise.

Speaking with ESPN2′s Baseball Tonight on Wednesday, Johnson said he’ll be actively involved in running the club, and has loved baseball since growing up as a fan of the Detroit Tigers.

He admitted the price was high, but said marquee clubs do not come on the market often, so he thought the team was work it.

One of the people who’ll be making sure the deal pays off is Mark R. Walter, the chief executive of Guggenheim Partners, which has its headquarters in Chicago and New York. According to ABC News, he’ll be considered the team’s controlling owner, meaning he’ll represent the team in Major League Baseball activities.

Guggenheim is a private equity firm that manages more than $125 billion in assets. It has more than 7,000 employees worldwide, with 125 offices in 10 countries. The company is an active philanthropist in Chicago, supporting organizations like the Art Institute and the Lincoln Park Zoo.

Of course, Johnson will get the lion’s share of attention. We couldn’t find any of his commercials for the Quality Dairy, but here he is explaining how he got his nickname.

 

 

Watch live streaming video from snyderlive at livestream.com

On Monday, the state appointed financial review team for Detroit held its final meeting, and members got an earful from Detroiters who are worried that their city could face a takeover. Today, governor Rick Snyder is speaking in the city, and he’s expected to take questions. The governor has until April 5th to reach a consent agreement with Detroit leaders. If that doesn’t happen, he’ll likely appoint an emergency manager to run the city.

The event will stream live at 11 a.m.

Sarah Alvarez contributed to this story.

Unemployment numbers in the Midwest are bad. Not as bad as when the recession was at its worst, but there are still a lot of people looking for jobs. Even so, we keep hearing that some employers can’t find enough skilled workers. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder says in his state alone, there are more than 77,000 job openings that can’t be filled.

Wendy Whitmore. Credit: Preeti Upadhyaya

There is really only one way to bridge that gap. People need training. And the way people are getting that training is changing.

Wendy Whitmore is the CEO of EMR Approved, a company in Chicago that works with doctors and hospitals that are making the switch to electronic medical records.

Four years ago, EMR Approved didn’t exist. Back then, Wendy Whitmore was running SSG Consulting, an IT consulting firm that wasn’t doing so well.

So she decided to try something new, and she took 12 of her employees with her.

Whitmore still runs SSG Consulting, and some of her employees straddle both businesses, but what they’re doing now is totally new.

According to Whitmore, they didn’t have many other options. “At that point, what are you going to do? Do you want to continue to have a job and do something a little different or do we need to work toward shutting it down?”

That transition wasn’t easy. It took about two years for EMR Approved to get on track, and those years were filled with a lot of uncertainty.

Penny Smith had been working for Whitmore since 2002, and she decided to stay when Whitmore turned her old IT company into the new IT company it is today.

“Was I taking a risk? Yeah, but I knew it was somewhat calculated as well,” says Smith.

Penny Smith. Credit: Preeti Upadhyaya

Now Smith works in business development at EMR Approved, but she had to go through six months of training and certification to get there. Training like that is a lot of work, and it’s not cheap. Whitmore spent more than $100,000 to retrain her 12 employees.

But she accomplished something that a lot of people are trying to do: Break in to growing industries, like health care, by learning new things, like how to work with electronic medical records.

In 2009, the US government spent $18 billion on retraining programs. That money is distributed by state agencies.

They are trying to do the same thing that Whitmore did, which is basically like trying to predict the future.

Retraining takes time, and those agencies want to make sure that there are jobs waiting at the other end of those programs, six months or even a year from now.

Whitmore explains that there is an element of guesswork involved, “But we do know that the baby boomer generation is aging, and we do know that health care is getting a lot of attention,” she says. “We’ve got to stick our pin in the map somewhere.”

Jeff Smith is an economist at the University of Michigan. He says it’s a lot harder for government agencies to make strategic decisions like that on a big scale. That’s because it’s not easy to make predictions.

It comes down to this: How can you use information about labor market demand to plan a retraining strategy?

Smith says, “It’s a hard task, I think harder than you might think at first blush to try to figure out what there is actually demand for, in some sort of quantitative way, and then apply that information to your training program or community college course offerings.”

So to help figure out where that demand is, Michigan is trying something new, a business driven model. That model is being used by Michigan Works, the state agency that hands out federal funding for retraining programs.

Tyne Lucas is the Career Transition Coordinator at the Michigan Works drop-in center in Washtenaw County.

“Our new customer is the business,” says Lucas, “and that doesn’t change what we do for job seekers, because if we’re making sure that we’re providing the businesses and the employers what they’re looking for, we’re doing a good job for the job seekers as well.”

Michigan Works is trying to build the workforce that employers need by asking them exactly what they want.

“We try to make a perfect match. We’re a match making agency for employers and job seekers,” says Lucas.

And when you can match job seeker skills to employer needs, everybody wins.

This story was informed by the Public Insight Network. If you want to learn how to be a part of our network, click here.

Chicago suburbs, by flikr user Scorpions and Centaurs

New numbers on house prices in the U.S. are out today, and they’re not great. Prices are still falling in most of the 20 cities included in the S&P/Case-Shiller Home Price Indeces. Detroit was one of only three cities where prices increased from January 2011 to January 2012. The other two were Denver and Phoenix.

Prices in Chicago, Cleveland and Minneapolis continue to fall. Chicago is down 36 percent compared to its peak in 2006. Cleveland is down 28 percent. Minneapolis is down 35 percent.

Detroit’s numbers may have been a bit brighter over the past year, compared to other Midwest cities in the index, but house prices in Detroit are still far below all other cities in the index. Detroit’s house prices have dropped 46 percent since the peak.

The average decline for the index as a whole is 34 percent.

What do you see where you live? Are prices bottoming out?

We don’t often send birthday wishes to architects, but Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe is special to the Midwest. On what would have been his 126th birthday, he’s being honored with a Google Doodle that brings to mind his famous saying, “less is more.”

Chicago sunrise over two of Mies' Black Boxes/photo by Micki Maynard

Much of his best-known work was built in the 1950s and 1960s, when urban identities were an active topic. Mies was instrumental in designing the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology, which includes some of the best examples of his Chicago portfolio.

I lived in a Mies designed apartment building in Chicago, one of the Four Black Boxes that sit at the bend on Lake Shore Drive. Even more than 50 years after it was built, it is a modern marvel.

Mies also played a big role in Detroit, too, helping create what is now known as Lafayette Park.

Here’s a video from WDET on Mies’ contribution in the Motor City.

WDET Presents: Mies van der Rohe (The Detroit – Berlin Connection) from WDET on Vimeo.

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Detroit's financial review team listened to impassioned arguments during public comment at yesterday's meeting. Credit: screen shot of streaming coverage from wdiv.com.

We told you yesterday would probably be a historic day for the city of Detroit. Well, not so much.

The state-appointed financial review team for the city did hold a meeting, as expected. It was a pretty raucous meeting, as our partner station Michigan Radio reported. The reviewteam was required by law to make a recommendation to the governor about how to handle Detroit’s “fiscal crisis.”

There were basically two options: Recommend a consent agreement with the city, or recommend appointing an emergency manager who has the power to toss out union contracts, sell assets and balance the books. At the time of the meeting, no consent agreement had been reached with the city, so the emergency manager option – an option no one really wants – was starting to look more likely. But instead of taking option 1 or 2, the review team took option 3: Restate that there is a fiscal crisis in the city, restate that the team prefers a consent agreement and restate the obvious fact that there is currently no consent agreement. Not exactly a historic decree.

Essentially, the team kicked the can.

Now, according to state law, the governor has 10 days to make a decision. For those keeping track at home, that means the new deadline for a decision on Detroit’s future is at 11:59 p.m. on April 5th.
But there’s another wrinkle to all of this. The Michigan Supreme Court is set to decide whether a consent agreement will even be allowed in the city of Detroit. Opponents of the process say the financial review team violated open meetings laws when it drafted the agreement. If the agreement is struck down, it’s unclear what will happen.

But it will probably happen fast. So stay tuned.

Kalamazoo-based Bell's Brewery has managed to turn its Oberon into more than just a beer - it's a symbol of Spring's arrival in Michigan. Credit: flickr user edwin.bautista

You won’t find it marked on any official calendars, but today is a special day for many Michiganders. It’s Oberon day.

If that doesn’t mean anything to you, then you are probably not a follower of MIchigan’s beer scene. But these are boom times for craft brewers in Michigan. The Kalamazoo Gazette reported last year that the state’s breweries invested more than $70 million in facilities upgrades. They hired workers. And the number of craft breweries in Michigan continues to grow (there’s even a fight song for Michigan craft beer).

Larry Bell was one of the early leaders of this new industry, and Bell’s Brewery has become one of the biggest players among the state’s small beer makers. Oberon, the golden-hued Summer brew from Bell’s, is distributed in 18 states. But in Michigan, Oberon has become more than just a beer. It’s an official symbol of the end of winter.

In northern states, Oberon is only available in Spring and Summer. Keeping Oberon off the shelves during the cold winter seems to make people love it more. When Oberon comes back, people in Michigan go nuts.

Every year, Bell’s hosts a big party to celebrate Oberon’s release. This year, the Bell’s Eccentric Cafe opened at 9 a.m. for the Oberon release. The party will go on well into the night. Bell’s also lists more than 60 other bars across Michigan that are hosting Oberon parties. There are also Oberon parties in other states, but no one else seems to celebrate the beer as much as Michiganders.

If you doubt that people in Michigan really care that much about a beer, all you have to do is search for “Oberon” on Twitter today. A new post has been coming just about every 30 seconds. Most people are just passing along the simple message, “Happy Oberon day.”

Or, as Twitter user Rachel Prior put it: “Happy Oberon Day! Spring has finally arrived for us MIchiganders.”

Of course, not everyone celebrates Oberon day in Michigan. Even plenty of people who love Michigan craft beer aren’t all that excited about it.

But for many Michiganders, Oberon day isn’t even really that much about the beer anymore. It’s about celebrating the arrival of Spring, with a Michigan-made product.

So, whatever your drink of choice, raise your glass today.

Downtown Detroit. Credit: David Tansey.

One way or the other, today is likely to go down as a historic – and possibly transformative – day for the city of Detroit. The city is burning through its cash, and fast approaching bankruptcy. By the end of the day, we could know more about what approach the state will take to help avoid that bankrupcty.

But the negotiations over Detroit’s future have taken a lot of confusing turns in the past couple of weeks, so we’ve tried to put together some answers to the city’s most pressing questions.

What’s happening today? Today is the deadline for the city to sign off on a proposed consent agreement with the state. The agreement would lead to the creation of a new panel to restructure Detroit’s finances.

What’s actually in the consent agreement? A lot. Sarah Cwiek at partner station Michigan Radio has an explainer.

What happens if the consent agreement isn’t signed today? Some say the state’s financial review team will be forced to recommend that Gov. Snyder appoint an emergency manager. Then, the governor will have 10 days to do so. But the Detroit Free Press says some of the details are still up for debate.

Why isn’t Detroit’s mayor leading today’s negotiations? Mayor Dave Bing went in for emergency surgery on Saturday to repair a perforated intestine. Reports say he’s getting updates on the negotiations from his hospital bed.

Is anything being done to actually cut the city’s costs right now? Over the weekend, 30 of the city’s unions ratified new agreements to cut costs. Michigan Radio reports it’s unclear whether those deals are really enough to fix Detroit’s problems.

What is Michigan’s emergency manager law? In short, Michigan’s Public Act 4 is meant to be an alternative to bankruptcy for cities that are running out of money. Michigan has long had a law that allows the governor to appoint emergency financial managers, but in 2010, the law was expanded. Now, emergency managers have the power to sell city assets, toss out union contracts and override any decision made by the city council or mayor. Our partner station, Michigan Radio, has had extensive, ongoing coverage of the emergency manager law. Here’s a nice summary: “7 things to know about Michigan’s emergency manager law.”

What happens if the consent agreement fails, and an emergency manager is appointed in Detroit? Detroit will go through what’s happening in Flint, Pontiac, Benton Harbor and Ecorse. The trash will still get picked up, water service will continue. But elected leaders in Detroit will lose pretty much all of their power. The Detroit Free Press runs through some of the specifics.

What’s going on in court? Michigan’s Public Act 4 is facing a number of court challenges. Last week, a judge in Ingham County ruled that the state could not go forward with the consent agreement until he determined whether the state had followed open meetings laws. Over the weekend, the Michigan Court of Appeals overturned that ruling, which opened the door for the consent agreement. But Michigan’s emergency manager law still faces broader challenges in the court, so the issue is far from settled.

How did Detroit get to this point? You could write a book on that question, and still not come up with a sufficient answer. But the shortest, simplest thing to say is that Detroit is running out of money. Some say the city will run out of money next month. Pretty much everyone agrees that it will happen before the end of June.

What other questions do you have about the situation in Detroit?