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For career success, higher degree means higher earnings

The charts don’t lie: If you want to have a decent shot at a decent living in Michigan, you must be prepared to sit in a classroom – virtual or otherwise – the rest of your life.

Standing still means falling behind – or just plain falling.

“All of my kids realize they have to be lifelong learners,” said Allen Park High School counselor Stephanie Wollard.

The truth of that statement is in the numbers: The average pay for the most common jobs available to a Michigan high school graduate over the next decade is just $23,367. That’s below the poverty line for a family of four.

But get a little more education and the picture improves markedly: a post-high school training certificate, like those given to welders and hairdressers, bumps pay to $31,212; for a two-year associate’s degree, average pay in Michigan nearly doubles to $59,391. And if you have what it takes for a four-year degree, pay can zoom past $80,000.

It’s not just about money: the risk of unemployment falls by nearly half for the college graduate compared with a high school graduate.

“The single most important thing is to get more educated,” said Lou Glazer, President of Michigan Future Inc., an Ann Arbor-based nonprofit working to improve the state’s economy.

Glazer is talking about what needs to happen in the state overall – increasing its college-educated talent supply. But he said it applies to the individual as well: Learn a skill, then learn some more. And be prepared to keep on learning.

“Either we get younger and better-educated or we get poorer,” Glazer said. “That’s the debate the state should be having.”

Michigan falling short

But trouble looms, according to jobs projection data analyzed for Bridge. For every computer-related job in 2023, there will be seven others at the mall and the local diner. The state will remain dominated, numbers-wise, by low-paying retail and restaurant work.

Like Michigan, low-wage jobs in Minnesota are growing, said Glazer, who recently compared the two states and found Michigan trailing badly in important economic areas.

“But they’re getting the high-wage job growth too and that’s what Michigan needs,” he said.

That’s not to say there aren’t good Michigan-based jobs: There will be an estimated 1,500 annual openings in computer fields through 2023. Yet Michigan’s 15 public universities are producing just over 800 degree-holding computer nerds a year, though two-year programs help fill that gap.

In other fields, it’s worse: There are, for instance, thousands of would-be journalists produced by state universities a year fighting for an estimated 350 jobs annually.

But if you want to become a personal financial manager, you’re in luck: It’s expected the state will need 2,400 of those every year yet only 1,500 are graduating from Michigan’s public universities each spring.

“There are a number of mismatches,” said James Jacobs, president of Macomb Community College and a national authority on tackling the jobs-education gap.

Macomb is working with the federal government and other community colleges to better prepare students for the world that exists, not the world they want to live in. It has meant working closely with employers and teaching the “foundational” skills that employers crave: An ability to communicate and work together, the talent to solve problems – equally important for the engineer and the electrician.

For a state with one of the lowest levels of educational attainment (translation: 35 other states have a greater percentage of people with a college degree), Michigan faces an uphill battle to alter the narrative that has seen the state’s per-capita income ranking plummet from 18th in 2000 to 35th in 2012 (it fell a staggering 17 places – from 20th to 37th – in the six years before the recession officially began in 2007).

Those economic hard times forever altered the composition of the state’s economy and Glazer and others have said the manufacturing jobs aren’t coming back. The state has to find more diverse, knowledge-based industries to replace the one that had served the state so well for so long.

To do so will affect not only the 18-year-old who once never considered advance learning. Even those who choose college will have to change.

It’s not enough to spend four years reading Fitzgerald and Chaucer and think some company will want your cultured brain. Now you have to buttress your Mensa membership with a few real-world skills.

Pushback on liberal arts

“In the ’90s, in Michigan, if you had a smile and a degree, you had a job,” said Troy Farley, director of career counseling at Grand Valley State University. “We kind of got spoiled.”

Most employers no longer have time to turn the well-rounded student into a skill-based employee. And so the history major may have to trade that Early Colonial America class for Accounting 101, Farley said. Or the prospective finance whiz will have to do a stint as a bank teller rather than tend bar at the campus watering hole.

“Now they expect you to have skills by the time you start,” Farley said.

That’s forced university and college career centers to begin having what Farley calls “tough conversations” earlier in a student’s academic career: They have to begin focusing on what will make them employable longer, far earlier. They cannot wait until the January before they graduate.

“It’s changed the landscape of employment overnight,” Farley said.

High school diploma won’t cut it

That attitude has even pervaded high schools. After watching their parents and friends suffer through the recession, almost all Allen Park High School students now acknowledge, perhaps some grudgingly, that graduation day won’t mark the last time they step foot in a classroom, said Wollard.

Just 10 years ago, some students talked openly about taking their diploma and heading off to Ford or U.S. Steel to “work the line.”

“I don’t ever hear that anymore,” Wollard said.

Perhaps that attitude change is rooted in what teachers and counselors have long been saying. But it could also be a reflection of the world they’ve endured: The district has seen its free-and-reduced lunch population quadruple from 2002 to 2012 as families that once relied on steady manufacturing jobs have had to find other work.

On a field trip to the Ford truck plant, Wollard said students noticed that even the line workers are quasi-nerds, using computers, not just hydraulic wrenches.

“The way jobs get cut, who gets the jobs that are left on the line?” Wollard asked. Then she answered her own question: “The guys who got more training.”

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