Leading the way in job growth: Diversification is paying off

It was a lonelier time for a knowledge economy company back in 1996 when Scott Foster began his business of helping other businesses improve their employees’ health.

Foster’s Royal Oak-based company Wellco develops health and wellness programs for companies and has proprietary software systems to support these programs. This is a hot area nowadays when prevention and health care cost-cutting have taken on urgency, but it was an almost unheard-of business to be in 20 years ago.

As Oakland County’s knowledge economy has grown, things have gotten less lonely, and better yet, easier when it comes time to hire. Foster said it used to be hard to find local talent with both the skills and industry expertise Wellco needs.

“We’re not alone in the room anymore. We have colleagues and even mentors and we can also mentor others,” Foster said. “We don’t have a problem hiring anymore.”

Employment figures in Oakland County’s professional and business services category, which captures a snapshot of the loosely-defined knowledge economy, shows an increase in the number of workers from 161,000 in the first quarter of 2012 to nearly 174,000 in the same period this year, the most recent quarter for which numbers were available. That places the number at well above pre-recession levels: The figure stood at about 160,000 in the first quarter of 2008.

Job growth in that category also outpaced statewide growth. Michigan at large showed a 4.9 percent increase from the first quarter of 2012 to the same quarter in 2013, while Oakland County had a 7.9 percent increase.

The county is seeing the rewards of its Emerging Sectors program launched 10 years ago to encourage economic diversification away from the automotive industry, said Matthew Gibb, deputy county executive. That has pushed job growth for engineering and research activities as well, helping the county add 25,000 knowledge economy jobs in each of the last two years, he said. Seventy percent of those jobs were in categories where workers earn more than $60,000 a year.

“Job growth is being pushed by a higher-wage economy,” Gibb said.

Wellco employs 16 people, two of which were hired in the last year. Foster expects to hire another five people in the next year and a half.

Wellco’s need for people stems from a surge in demand for wellness programs that began two years ago, Foster said.

“We were a very big fish in a very small pond, and that changed almost overnight,” Foster said.

The company avoids getting into pressure situations where it has more work than people by hiring part-time workers in advance. This lets it stay ahead of demand while training people and making sure they have the right fit for the job.

Wellco keeps its workforce lean by avoiding hiring people out of state for clients in other parts of the country. Instead, it sells its electronic systems and then refers clients to former Wellco competitors when in need of consultants to make visits to the client offices.

A younger company, Traffic Digital Agency in Royal Oak, has had to hire quickly in its short time as a business.

Jacob Zuppke founded Traffic in early 2012 with his digital marketing teacher from the University of Michigan-Dearborn, Jeremy Sutton. The Web development and marketing business already has more than 40 clients, including Cottage Inn Pizza and 18004Blinds.

The quick ramp-up came with a correlating need for talent. In late October Traffic was in the process of adding a 14th member of its staff and looking to add several more by year’s end. It also keeps contractors busy, cutting a total of 30 checks among staff and contractors every week.

The bootstrapped business — Sutton and Zuppke started Traffic without relying on outside funding — gets half of its new business from referrals, Zuppke said. That driver of growth has kept the company on its toes when it comes to hiring. Traffic has been able to source people locally so far and is only now beginning to look farther out for talent.

Craigslist and LinkedIn have proved to be more useful than recruiters.

“I’ve tried three recruiting agencies and gotten rid of all of them,” Zuppke said.

San Diego-based Search Optics took a more aggressive approach when its growing office in Oakland County saw a continuing need for people: It hired a full-time recruiter in-house.

The company tracks and measures sales directly resulting from online marketing campaigns that use such tools as Google AdWords. It opened an office in Ferndale in 2010. That office, which mainly serves the automotive manufacturers and dealers, has grown to 65 people, with 15 of the hires taking place since this past spring, as more OEMs send dealers to Search Optics for marketing work.

The office hasn’t had a hard time finding the right mix of skills and industry expertise locally, since the automotive industry is in its backyard.

“We needed that frontline understanding of what we did, so that person can convey what we do in a snippet. We can have pretty good spikes up and we need to have people ready to go and trained on Day One,” said Christian Fuller, executive vice president based at the Ferndale office.

Fuller expects to have 100 employees at his office within the next 12 months.

2014 Prosper magazine (Oakland County, Mich.)