Michigan can't fit college grads into job slots

If Amy Dobson is a rock and Gentex is a hard place, Gov. Rick Snyder is stuck between them.

Dobson, an effervescent 23-year-old from Okemos, finished a five-year degree program in education from Michigan State University last spring.  Despite holding a bachelor’s degree from a top-ranked education school, Dobson couldn’t find a job in her home state. Then she received three job offers in quick succession -- all in Utah.

“I would have loved to stay (near her home and family),” said Dobson, who teaches fourth grade in a suburban classroom near Salt Lake City. “I have (teacher) friends who moved to Chicago and one to South Carolina. One is working in Mexico.”

Gentex has the opposite problem. Located in a state with double-digit unemployment, the Zeeland automotive supplier has 60 job openings listed on its website, 31 for various types of engineers.

“We’ve gone from three software engineers to probably 50,” said Bruce Los, Gentex vice president for human resources. “We’d take 30 more tomorrow if we could find them.”

As Snyder prepares a special address on jobs and talent development this fall, he’d be well served to keep the young teacher and the West Michigan company in mind. Michigan workers -- and state policy-makers -- will have a slim margin of error in coming years, according to a Bridge Magazine analysis of federal data.

There are 55,000 bachelor’s degrees granted from Michigan’s public universities and private colleges annually, with about 45,000 of those degrees given to Michigan residents. Yet there are projected to be only 28,000 annual job openings in which a bachelor’s degree is the primary level of education. There are a projected 68,000 job openings per year that pay better than average wages, and those freshly minted college grads will be competing for those openings with thousands of more experienced, yet unemployed or underemployed, workers, according to a Bridge Magazine analysis of federal jobs data and college graduation statistics.

"We’re going to become an export state,” said Jack Litzenberg, senior program officer for the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation’s “Pathways out of Poverty"  initiative. “We’re going to be educating people who will go elsewhere for their employment. We’ve got good schools … but not jobs.”

Bridge found clear evidence of Litzenberg’s assertion when we combined the most recent and in-depth statewide job projections with graduation trends at the state’s public universities and private colleges.

That analysis found a troubling mismatch between degrees and jobs in many fields. For example, there are 15 percent more teachers currently produced at Michigan colleges and universities than there are annual job openings through 2018. There are twice as many communications/public relations/journalism bachelor’s degrees currently handed out as projected openings in the state; and 133 percent more new lawyers than jobs.

Meanwhile, companies face a shortage of 5,000 college grads in business, management and financial operations. Only four out of five computer and math profession jobs can be filled with the number of students graduating with a bachelor’s or master’s.  There is a 14 percent annual shortfall of doctors, nurses and other health care professionals.

The Center for Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University reached the same conclusion in a report released Tuesday. That report suggests that the challenge facing Michigan and other Midwestern states is finding ways to match education with job opportunities.

“Are we graduating too many of the wrong kind of college graduates? I wouldn’t argue with that,” said Jim Danielski, of Career Planning Specialists in Plymouth. “It’s not uncommon for people with a four-year degree to come to me and say I had no idea I would have trouble getting a job.”

Building the better worker

The solution seems deceptively simple: If students in over-supply degree programs switch to under-supplied fields, they’d get jobs and businesses would have workers. Michigan schools currently produce 1,100 more new attorneys than job openings for lawyers, while the state currently produces about 1,300 fewer degreed health care professionals than it can employ. Grab a backpack and move from the law quad to the medical school and Michigan’s job mismatch problem is solved.

Other states have tried just that. Under names such as differential funding and performance-based funding, states have offered financial incentives to colleges and universities. Such a system would shift a portion of state higher education funding to an outcome-based model, based on outcomes as defined by state priorities. (Other states tie public aid to college results)

"There’s a lot of opportunity to do things to incentivize institutions to behave in ways that help the economy,” said Keith Bird, senior policy fellow for workforce and postsecondary education at the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce in Ann Arbor. Bird was chancellor of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System when performance-based funding was introduced, and is considered an expert on state higher education funding.

“If we’re trying to recover, we ought to put a premium on creating jobs,” Bird said.  “(The colleges) have to acknowledge they are over-producing  (some degrees), … or admit they are creating an export. But it’s a negative export -- it’s bad policy.”

Some states have based a portion of funding on degree completion rates. Students who complete degrees earn significantly more than those who don’t. The average holder of a bachelor’s degree earned $27.59 per hour  in 2011, compared to $18.85 per hour for those who have “some college” but not a degree, according to the Bridge analysis of federal data.

Even in jobs that don’t require a four-year college degree, those with a diploma earn more. Nationally, secretaries with a four-year degree earn an average of 13 percent more than their less-educated co-workers, according to the Center on Education and the Workforce. Firefighters with degrees get a 25 percent bump; social workers, 36 percent; dental hygienists, 76 percent.

Some states have gone a step further and offered more money for in-demand degrees such as engineering. Bridge’s analysis projects a need for 3,820 engineers annually in Michigan, with state and private universities falling short of that figure by 3 percent.

“Give (funding) to them  in a way that modifies behavior,” Bird said. “There’s got to be a more direct connection between funding and outcomes.”

Michael Boulus -- executive director of the Presidents Council of Michigan, the unviersities' lobbying arm -- said it’s not the role of universities to push one career over another.  “We can counsel, but ... we’re not going to shut the door on a student” who wants to study in a field without great job prospects, Boulus said.

Lou Glazer, president of Michigan Future Inc., scoffs at the idea of Lansing politicians looking into a crystal ball and deciding what jobs will be in demand years from now. Even if they could, “public universities are not agencies of the state government,” he said. “Michigan’s higher education system is in the business of preparing people for life and preparing people for careers in the global economy. That may be in Michigan. It may be in Sri Lanka. That’s not U-M’s responsibility.”

That may be true when the economy is humming along, Bird said. But when the state is counting every dollar, policy-makers must make sure that taxpayers are getting a good return on their investment.

“There’s tremendous resistance to associating knowledge with finances,” Bird said. “(But) colleges have a responsibility to make wise use of public funds.”

Few prepare for their careers

One area of agreement is that students are getting inadequate information about career choices. High school counselors are overworked, and college counselors seldom talk about the job outlook and pay scales of various professions.

“(Michigan State) didn’t talk about (job prospects for teachers),” Dobson recalls.

In Dobson’s case, it didn’t matter – she knew the job market was tight for teachers in Michigan, but she chose to get an education degree anyway. “If I would have tried engineering just because that’s where the money is, I would have failed at it,” Dobson said. “You have to follow your heart.”

But for others, “the students are totally unaware of the choices they are making,” Bird said. “If they were getting career coaching, they may be making choices to make themselves more employable.”

Bird suggests the state create a career information model that is easily accessible by students and parents.  In terms Snyder uses, a “career dashboard” could include projections for new jobs and total openings by occupation, as well as average salary, the educational attainment of those in the field and how many are graduating each year with the training required for the job. The dashboard also could include up-to-date statistics on unemployment and average salary by education level.

“If we don’t work upstream, we’re going to have a huge skill mismatch,” said Amy Cell, senior vice president for talent development at the Michigan Economic Development Corp. “There needs to be a better matching of education and opportunities.   How do you communicate that to people so they can make good choices?”

Those good choices need to be made not just by students, but by universities and businesses.  As an example, Cell notes a projected shortage of chemical engineers in Michigan. “How do we create a discussion (with Michigan colleges) so we don’t end up with 20 new chemical engineering programs and create an oversupply? Universities need to work collectively on curriculum.”

Meanwhile, businesses such as Gentex aren’t waiting for applicants to come to them, even in an employer’s market.  The high-tech auto supplier has partnerships with 14 universities around the Midwest, with Gentex offering input on curriculum and the schools sending graduates to Zeeland.

“We probably do 80 percent of our recruiting in Michigan,” Los said. “We have strong relationships with professors. We see this as a competitive advantage.”

The MEDC is building a “talent map,” a database listing openings by occupation in 44 industries, in hopes of helping connect talent with jobs. “If welding skill is needed in 18 of the 44 industries, for someone who was laid off in one industry, this can help them find a position in another industry using the same skill.”

It’ll probably take all those efforts and more to create the number of jobs, and the kind of jobs, needed to turn Michigan’s economy around to the point that people like Amy Dobson can come home.

“I’d love to come back to Michigan some day,” she said, before hanging up her cell phone and walking into her job in Utah.

Michigan's biggest college mismatches

Job projections from federal data show Michigan public universities and private colleges producing surpluses and deficits when it comes to graduates' skill sets. The largest such mismatches are shown below.

Field Projected annual openings 2009-10 University degrees 2009-10 private degrees 2009-10 total degrees Deficit/surplus
Business, mgmt, & financial operations 23,200 10,691 7,262 17,953 -23%
Computer and math professionals 3,242 1,783 795 2,578 -20%
Health care professionals 9,978 6,918 1,686 8,604 -14%
Engineers 3,820 2,984 709 3,696 -3%
Elementary/secondary teachers 3,441 3,261 689 3,950 15%
Communications/journalism/PR 1,591 2,866 310 3,176 100%
Lawyers 852 538 1,446 1,984 133%

Like what you’re reading in Bridge? Please consider a donation to support our work!

We are a nonprofit Michigan news site focused on issues that impact all citizens. In an era of click bait and biased news, we focus on taking the time to learn both sides of a story before we post it. Bridge stories are always free, but our work costs money. If our journalism helps you understand and love Michigan more, please consider supporting our work. It takes just a moment to donate here.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Thu, 09/15/2011 - 9:11am
Although I see you rectify it later in the article, the headline leaves the reader with a very different impression than what this story is actually about. The headline suggests "there aren't enough jobs in MI for all our college grads" which in and of itself is not necessarily a problem, since many grads have been planning to pursue out-of-state career opportunities or to further their education in grad school, not to mention they could start their own businesses. Higher educational attainment is still better regardless of how many grads are remaining in MI, since that means fewer unskilled college-age residents fighting for low-skill jobs. What the story really seems to be about, and what I wish the headline had better conveyed, was that college students are majoring in the wrong skills and that their mentors & counselors should route them to higher-demand fields, which I agree with. At his blog, http://burghdiaspora.blogspot.com/, Jim Russell regularly posts on the top of talent migration and "brain drain." He makes a compelling and novel argument that brain drain or outmigration is not necessarily a bad thing and that we should invest in people, not places. I encourage you & your readers to check it out.
Jeffrey L. Salisbury
Thu, 09/15/2011 - 9:30am
The Center for Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University reached the same conclusion in a report released Tuesday. That report suggests that the challenge facing Michigan and other Midwestern states is finding ways to match education with job opportunities.??? My goodness, all it takes is a regular reading of the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook. The 2010-11 reporting contains data and projections from 2008-2018. The next report (2010-2020) is due out March 2012.
Thu, 09/15/2011 - 9:38am
Very interesting artical I recieve Maintenance Techonology magizine and there have been several interesting articals on this subject. I attended the Governors Conferance a few months ago and Ronald Pollina spoke about this problem. He wrote a book on the subject Selling out a superpower which I purchased and read. Maybe we are starting to realize we have a problem and want to do something about it. Dale Westrick trustee Serving the people that elected me!!
Rich Bond
Thu, 09/15/2011 - 9:54am
I have seen many children who did not succeed when "pushed" into career fields by parents or counselors. Make the data on job openings and salaries available to students, but do not ever force them into a field in which they have no interest. And this also applies to the choice to go to college vs. going into an apprentice program such as welding or masonry.
Thu, 09/15/2011 - 11:33am
Your data does not lead to a real problem. The 2010 Census shows us that our under 35 citizens are leaving in larger numbers than those Michigan residents that are 40 and over. So how is it that we are producing too many lawyers and PR people? The real issue is that we do not have a sufficient number of graduates in healthcare, business management, finance, computers and math for the number of jobs available. So that should mean we need to provide some incentive to attract them. As for dictating to Michigan schools what and who they should serve smacks of social engineering. I don't approve of that train of thought at all.
Matt Howell
Thu, 09/15/2011 - 2:26pm
To make matters even worse, what percentage of graduates with the high demand degrees are still leaving our state? In the most highly in demand degrees I'd d bet it's high! And anyone expecting our universities to care is kidding themselves . Why would they? They are no different than any other business except they pick up about $20,000 of tax payer subsidy along with the student's investment for each 4 year degree they crank out. It's all about incentives and our current system has them in all the wrong places. We have too many marginal students getting 4 year degrees in areas that offer little prospect (especially here in Michigan) while in demand technical fields (requiring 2 year degrees) go begging. High Schools dropping shop classes in mass (not so subtly implying a 4 year art education degree is a better choice!) is a big part of this problem. Not to mention the poor allocation of taxpayer resources! Likewise businesses when faced with a glut of degrees start requiring them for jobs that in no way require the skills that should be gained through a reasonable idea of a 4 year college education. With this Degree Inflation an MBA will be a requirement to be an assistant manager at Walgreens! The idea and incentives of a college education are failing many students and must be changed from the very expensive, young adult warehouse we have today. But don't expect the answer to come from the universities!
Thu, 09/15/2011 - 8:39pm
Duh! The univerisities, don't want to wallow in the theory of supply and demand that their economics departments spend so much time teaching to students that won't be able to find jobs with it. Well I guess it is the students that don't take that class that are having the problems. Where and why would kids want to go into the fields that have jobs when they never hear about those kind of degrees and what is done with them. How much time did the writers for The Bridge spend considering going in to science and math, engineering and business? Why didn't they, do they think they are different from the vast majority of other kids/people? The reality is that the majority of kids could be engineers if people didn;t keep telling them how hard it is, that many don' have the ability, and that persistence is the most important factor in getting the degree. The Counselors being over worked isn't the problem, they don't know what engineers do. The schools need to get real engineers into the classroom in middle school and high school to expose the kids to the realities, the work, the sacrifice, the rewards for engineers. Think about what the kids hear in the news out of DC and even Lansing, it is how important teachers are and we must give them what ever we can, and how business people are overpaid and under taxed. What is the message, be a teacher or be a business person? Then there is the ludicous, " As an example, Cell notes a projected shortage of chemical engineers in Michigan. “How do we create a discussion (with Michigan colleges) so we don’t end up with 20 new chemical engineering programs and create an oversupply? Universities need to work collectively on curriculum.”" Obviously that person has no clue what a chemical engineer does or how the classes they take are implied to be too hard. Ever listen to a politician talk about math or science, for that matter a reporter? Do they say how enjoyable and how they learn so much in their math and science claassesor 'I'm not a math or science persons.'? The problem is real, those trying to solve it aren't the engineers or others with the indemand degrees, they are the people who avoided those classes. What are the Governor's degrees?
Fri, 09/16/2011 - 1:48am
Why would students want to go into engineering, when at every economic downturn, that is the first place companies cut? R&D, product design, testing are all the first to go when it is time to "rightsize". Engineering and Architecture have been decimated by this latest recession. There has been very little new construction (I'm not talking about housebuilding here, but "real" construction such as infrastructure, major public and private buildings) in the last several years, and predictions for the coming years are equally grim. Compare this to ten to fifteen or so years ago, when we had 2 new sports stadiums, three casinos, a major airport expansion which in reality was practically a whole new airport, 2 new high rises (Madden & Comerica) and various other large buildings (Compuware, Millender) to name just a couple underway in southeast Michigan alone. The need may be there, but not the ability to pay for it. Likewise with healthcare-who do you think is going to pay for these people when the auto industry has scaled back their benefits? For example, the number of dentists in the state increased exponentially when after the UAW won dental care for its members in the 1970's.
Jeffrey L Salisbury
Thu, 09/22/2011 - 6:20am
Of the top 20 occupations with largest numerical growth through 2018: 13 will require only on-the-job training 2 will require Associate degree or certificate 4 will require 4 yr degree 1 will require doctoral degree SOURCE: BLS Occupational Employment Statistics and Division of Occupational Outlook http://www.bls.gov/oco/oco2003.htm ... what should be the response to these data projections? Increase graduation requirements? Increase cut scores? Increase annual high-stakes student testing? Increase college prep courses? Increase training for specific occupations in high growth areas?
Jake Green
Mon, 10/31/2011 - 3:33pm
Reading the comments below, it is apparent that nobody reading this article has any idea about the climate in Michigan universities with the slumping economy waiting to take all graduates with open arms. As a student at U-M everyone would love to go into the lucrative health care or engineering fields. Hell, any introductory organic chemistry class sequence routinely pushes 2500 students which is a third of incoming freshmen class. We are well aware of what technical degrees heavily focused in math and science can afford us, being that they are the only degrees in demand.It is not a matter of some teacher,mom, or dad prodding the "be a doctor, be an engineer" beast and everyone jumping aboard suddenly causing surges in these fields. There is a reason we have shortages and it is simple, it is HARD. Coming from our Michigan high schools that slowly cut more and more AP programs along with concentrated clubs involving math and science each incoming class is less prepared for the rigors of academically challenging subjects. Common people, when you went to college were you up to spending every waking moment in the library sacrificing sleep, exercise, and potential social gatherings to get the grades in Differential equations and the upcoming thermodynamics exam that just happens to be 60% of the final grade? Newsflash if you don't get the grades or have a connection walking you into the door, that job will be passed to the more qualified or more dedicated individual. People simply evaluate themeseles in college and realize they don't want to put forth the blood, sweat, and tears that are necessary to get these "desired" degrees. This is the climate that pervades through the pomp and hot air blown about a "Michigan Degree," I can't imagine how it is at other colleges. I myself am leaving Michigan the moment i graduate for more economically vigorous hubs such as Texas, or Northern California with my engineering degree. Michigan brain drain is a very real monster, and as a born bred michigan man, it is unfortunate that I have lost faith in my state, and I promise you i'm not the only one my age.
Sun, 12/18/2011 - 8:00pm
stinking lies and worthless rhetoric all the schools do is give jobs to existing teachers...
Thu, 01/05/2012 - 5:35am
I looked at Gentex's website. None of the engineering jobs were really entry-level positions. And a search of Glassdoor shows that Gentex's engineering salaries are very low. I know this is the reality of the manufacturing industry these days, very low salaries, but if these companies want talent, they're probably not going to find it by paying abysmally.