We all witnessed how the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) halted the global economy in a largely unprecedented manner. Yet, while many economic sectors were put on pause, others continued operating throughout the pandemic. These sectors were classified as ‘essential’ industries, and consequently were operated by workers who were also classified as essential.

Who are these essential workers, and what jobs do they hold in our community? They range from grocery store clerks and healthcare workers who continued reporting to their places of work, to teachers who continued delivering education in a remote environment. In this segment of our West Michigan Dataconomy blog series, we will examine essential workers in West Michigan and the impact COVID-19 has had on the labor market.

Michigan’s total employment is roughly 4,300,000 and, according to our analysis of EMSI’s data, about 2,400,000 of those – roughly 55% of all occupations – are considered essential. In West Michigan we estimate total employment in 2019 to be 807,000, and about 464,000 of those occupations would be classified as essential. Our share of essential workers is slightly higher than the rest of the state, coming in at 58%.

The breakdown of essential workers by county is shown in Figure 1.

If we look further into the data by sectors that were considered essential (Figure 2), it comes at no surprise to find that Healthcare / Public Health (18.3%) and Food and Agriculture (10.8%) had the highest concentration of essential workers. However, it is important to note that despite those sectors containing the highest concentration of essential workers, there were still thousands of people in the Water and Wastewater sector going to work every day. Water and Wastewater only accounted for 1.3%, yet that still accounted for 10,000 people working throughout the pandemic to ensure essential amenities of modern civilization were maintained.

There are over 360 different occupations classified as essential (Figures 3 and 4) show the 20 occupations that have the most jobs in West Michigan. As you can see, the majority of workers in these occupations do not need more education than a high school diploma and have median hourly earnings between $14.00 - $15.00.

Essential workers’ age in West Michigan closely resembles the age breakdown of Michigan’s labor force at large with the bulk of work being done by people of prime working age (25-55 years) as seen in Figure 5. Analyzing the age demographics are critical to help identify if the sector or occupation has many workers approaching retirement and whether there are enough workers in the younger cohorts to avoid a talent shortage. Sectors with larger amounts of workers in retirement age, such as Healthcare, have a twofold problem. First, there will be a vacuum of workers left behind once those close to retirement decide to retire. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that this sector requires more formal education. This potential shortage of workers is not an ideal situation to contend with when a vaccine/treatment has not been developed yet. Second, this age group (55-64), is considered a high-risk population for severe cases of COVID-19 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If we look at Kent County’s COVID-19 Dashboard, those ages 50 and above comprise 30% of all cases but, on average, consists of 20% of the workforce.

In Michigan, US minorities make up roughly 19% of the population. Again, West Michigan’s essential workers closely mirrors Michigan’s demographic spread (Figure 6), with only the Food and Agriculture sector being an outlier. Indeed, the Food and Agriculture sector is comprised of 26% U.S. minorities.

COVID-19 has been an unprecedented event that has tested the creativity, resilience, and strength of our community. While many stayed home to slow the spread of the virus, many more ventured out to ensure the basic systems and infrastructures of our society continued to function. The data on these workers is readily available for analysis, and no doubt will be the subject of more in-depth studies for quite some time to come.

While data is broken down into facts, figures, and bar charts, it is important that we do not forget the most critical component to this information. This data represents people. It represents mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, and grandparents who took on considerable risk in order to maintain a system that many of us continued to benefit from in the safety of our homes.

The Right Place team would like to sincerely thank the essential workers that continued to serve our West Michigan community during this challenging time.

We used the 2018 Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) system to identify essential occupations. We also defined essential workers by the SOC codes The Council for Community and Economic Research (C2ER) and The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) have compiled. We analyzed this based on EMSI’s data.