The University could be providing the Teflon coating that’s protecting Ann Arbor from an otherwise crumbling statewide economy, local business experts say.
Although the state of Michigan has the highest unemployment rate in the nation, the city has been an exception to the statewide trend of economic recession.
According to the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth, the state’s unemployment rate has steadily climbed from 6.5 percent in March to 7.6 percent in December. But over that same period, Washtenaw County’s unemployment rate has hovered around just 5 percent – the lowest in the state.
Jesse Bernstein, president of the Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce, said the University deserves much of the credit for the city’s relatively low unemployment rate, having created a wealth of job opportunities in the area.
Between Jan. 2006 and Jan. 2007, the University and the University Hospital system created 427 new full-time jobs, according to Crain’s Detroit Book of Lists.
Bernstein said the real number is even larger, because Crains’s numbers don’t include part-time positions like residence hall staff positions or jobs created by the University’s construction projects.
Elizabeth Parkinson, the director of public relations at Ann Arbor Spark, a local economic development organization, said the draw of the University community partly explains why Ann Arbor hasn’t suffered as much as other Michigan cities that are more dependent on the manufacturing or automotive industries.
In addition to the jobs created directly by the University, Parkinson said the presence of a prestigious research institution and high-tech industries like biotechnology help bring new companies to Ann Arbor.
Even though drug giant Pfizer relocated out of the city last year – a move that affected 2,100 workers – Parkinson said she thinks the Ann Arbor job market will continue to grow. She said high-tech companies are attracted to Ann Arbor because the city has many employable college graduates and because companies can partner with the University on research projects.
Last year, Spanish aeronautics firm Grupo Aernnova chose nearby Pittsfield Township as its North American headquarters. The firm will bring more than 400 jobs to the city, Parkinson said.
Ann Arbor’s Google office, which is located on South Division Street and opened last year, is expected to employ more than 1,000 workers by 2012.
Near campus, though, many campus businesses still display “Help Wanted” signs in their windows. It could be because most students are only able to work part-time.
At the Red Hawk Bar & Grill on State Street, manager Matt Pietryga said employing many students on a part-time basis means the restaurant is frequently looking for more help.
As students’s schedules and availability change with each semester, Pietryga said, he usually has to hire more staff.
He said about half of Red Hawk employees are University students.
Pietryga said that while he hasn’t seen a drastic difference in job applications, high unemployment rates haven’t created the stream of applicants that might be expected.
“We don’t have people flying in the door either,” Pietryga said.
The University helps local small businesses by attracting people to Ann Arbor, Bernstein said.
He said the families of University employees add to Ann Arbor’s workforce for retail and restaurant jobs.
“There’s probably a larger pool of people to fill those jobs,” Bernstein said.
Bernstein said he’s confident Ann Arbor’s mix of a research University and high-tech companies will keep the city out of economic trouble.
“I’m pretty sure that we’re going to stay strong,” he said.