By Rick Haglund/Bridge Magazine correspondent
When politicians talk about Michigan’s “lost decade” of the 2000s, they usually focus on the huge number of jobs shed by the state.
Michigan lost 863,300 payroll jobs between April 2000 and July 2009, at the bottom of the state’s downturn, or nearly one out of every five jobs.
But a less-discussed element of that bleak era is how that job loss translated into smaller paychecks for Michigan residents still employed, compared to those of wage earners in other states.
“With respect to wages, Michigan has lost significant ground to the nation over the past 11 years,” said University of Michigan economist George Fulton in a late 2012 state economic forecast that contained the wage data.
Fulton and fellow U-M economist Don Grimes found that, in the first quarter of 2001, the average annualized private-sector wage in Michigan was $38,532 – almost $1,100 above the national average wage ($37,436).
By the first quarter of 2012, however, the state’s average annualized wage of $47,465 had fallen $4,076 below the national average private-sector wage ($51,541).
Adjusted for inflation, annual private sector wages fell $2,488 in Michigan during the period, but rose $3,008 for all U.S. workers.
“It’s been a hard time for the people of Michigan who haven’t done as well as those in other regions of the country,” said Charles Ballard, a Michigan State University economist.
Fulton and Grimes also found that the average wage paid by every size of business establishment in Michigan between the first quarter of 2001 and the first quarter of 2012 was lower than the national average.
The Great Michigan
Separate data compiled by state labor market analysts on 22 occupational groups found the average wage in Michigan was lower than the national average wage in 16 of those groups in 2010.
Economists say the near collapse and restructuring of the Michigan’s signature auto industry during the 2000s have dragged down the wages paid by businesses in much of the rest of the state.
Plus, Michigan now has poorer mix of industries compared to the nation than it did a decade ago.
“We have a disproportionately large share of relatively low-wage industries, probably mostly reflecting a relatively small share of the knowledge-economy industries,” Grimes said.
Auto shift led inexorably to wage shift
For decades, the high wages and sterling benefits of the auto industry forced other businesses in Michigan to boost compensation in order to compete for talent with auto companies and their major suppliers.
Labor unions were able to negotiate high wages for low-education-attainment workers. But global free trade policies and the rise of low-wage manufacturers, including those in China, Mexico and South Korea, zapped the power of organized labor.
“Wages in Michigan have been artificially held up by the heavy unionization of the auto industry,” Grimes said. “That was going to end, and it did.”
In 2007, the United Auto Workers agreed to a once unthinkable two-tier wage system that created a starting wage in the auto industry that is half of what current workers earn.
Per capita income in Michigan rose 5.2 percent in 2011, the fifth-fastest rate in the country. But that figure includes a variety of nonwage income, including interest, dividends, welfare payments, pensions and Social Security payments.
The share of personal income being earned in Michigan through private-sector wages has been falling, which some say is an ominous sign for the health of the state economy.
A 2011 study by Michigan Future Inc. found that per capita earnings from private sector wages in the state, adjusted for inflation, were flat at about $20,000 between 1990 and 2010.
Virtually all of the state’s income growth in that period came from public sector wages and government transfer payments.
“We have become increasingly poor and more dependent upon transfer income — not a good start to the 21st century,” Michigan Future President Lou Glazer said.
Supporters of Michigan’s new right-to-work law say the measure could attract more union-wary employers to Michigan, giving a lift to the private sector. But there is conflicting data on whether right to work boosts jobs and living standards.
Ballard said Michigan must improve the education of its work force if it wants higher wages. The state ranks 34th among the states in the percentage of adults with a college degree.
Recent support for more spending on early childhood education is a good start, he said, in a long-term effort to revitalize Michigan’s economy.
“If we had understood that 30 years ago, we might have taken some steps that would have made us better off than we are today,” Ballard said.
Rick Haglund has had a distinguished career covering Michigan business, economics and government at newspapers throughout the state. Most recently, at Booth Newspapers he wrote a statewide business column and was one of only three such columnists in Michigan. He also covered the auto industry and Michigan’s economy extensively.