The future of work in Michigan

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder sparked a conversation recently with his Marshall Plan for Talent. The goal of this initiative is to transform how we prepare our talent for the careers of tomorrow. It calls for investing $100 million in new funding dedicated to innovative talent development programs.

It is a good start. But it will hardly address the talent hole Michigan is in today.

What happens when your means of earning a living has changed so radically that you don’t have the skills necessary to adjust to a new world order? This is a question that more and more people and policymakers need to be contemplating and planning for.

Tom Watkins served as Michigan mental health director,  state superintendent of schools and CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority. He is president and CEO of TDW and Associates.

Half a century ago, people ‘finished school,’ got a job and headed up the career ladder to retire with a pension or gold watch in 30 years. Gone are the days where even a high school dropout could join the military or find a job along with an uncle or father on the factory floor and expect a respectable middle-class life.Rather than preparing for a “career ladder,” teachers are being asked to prepare students for lifelong learning, and for climbing a career rock where learning is ongoing and expectations are that one will have multiple jobs in a lifetime, crisscrossing various work fields.


The tsunami of automation and artificial intelligence technology offers the potential for even greater disruption of traditional ways of work in the next decade. The need for humans to work in a variety of physically challenging jobs – from transportation, retail food service and manufacturing – is evolving every day. Perhaps not as transparent is exactly how artificial intelligence and robotic machine learning will significantly disrupt, and likely make obsolete, a wide range of knowledge jobs that people have been lulled into believing are safe.

A study by researchers at Oxford University estimated that nearly half (47 percent) of total U.S. employment is at some risk of “computerization,” while a report from the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that up to half of the activities people are currently paid to perform could be automated simply by adopting technologies that have already been proven to work.

Perhaps most disconcerting about these changes coming at warp speed is the fact that rather than embracing the future many are petrified by it. The Pew Research Center points out that “Americans consider this scenario to be plausible; express more worry than enthusiastic about the prospect of machines performing many human jobs, and anticipate more negative than positive outcomes from this development”  

While polls suggest many Americans and Europeans fear AI will take their jobs, the Chinese are much more optimistic about the technology – sixty-five percent believe AI will create more job opportunities over the next five to 10 years.

“We know what the problems are. Education and workforce preparation is the answer. We need massive new investments in education and workforce preparation from the cradle to the grave if we want to remain relevant as a state and nation.”

Fearing for the future does not bode well for Michigan or America unless it stimulates and motivates us to find ways to have these changes be a tide we ride rather than one that swamps us. As the technology revolution washes over the globe, it is clear the individuals, communities, regions, states and nations that most effectively seize the opportunities it produces will dominate the 21st century. This will require not only the use of technology but also bringing our citizens along as adapters and users, not petrified or fearful saboteurs.

The adoption of these new technologies will represent a profound shift for millions of American workers and for our society as a whole. Leaders who promise “coal is making a comeback”, deny climate change, blame globalization and who think manufacturing will provide full employment for unskilled laborers are not serving our state or nation well. Sticking your head in the sand would be a better strategy.

These shifts are going to have the profound societal impact our leaders are not contemplating. As the McKinsey Global Institute notes: “Most people growing up in advanced economies since World War II have been able to assume they will be better off than their parents. For much of the time, that assumption has proved correct. Buoyant global economic and employment growth over the past 70 years saw all households experience rising incomes, both before and after taxes and transfers. This overwhelmingly positive income trend has ended. And hardest hit are young, less-educated workers, raising the specter of a generation growing up poorer than their parents.

Bankole Thompson, the editorial writer/ columnist for The Detroit News, heeds the clarion call for Michigan’s next Governor around the inequities that are apparent across the state, likely to get worse as automation and AI become reality. He writes that the next governor “must articulate a vision that declares that poverty is unacceptable, and work to effectively create the desired investments that will help many families carve a way out of the economic morass they find themselves in.”

Education Week pointed out in 2014 that we have crossed a threshold in America, in which “For the first time, a majority of students in K-12 schools will be children of color.” The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KidsCount Report, an annual study documenting conditions for American kids, placed Michigan at 31st and, when it comes to education, we're 40th.

The alarms have been going off for some time. Michigan, already sliding toward the bottom nationally for fourth-grade reading performance on a rigorous national exam, is projected to fall to 48th place by 2030 if the state does nothing to improve education.

The Education Trust-Midwest points out in a new report that despite investing heavily in early literacy since 2015, Michigan schools showed the largest decline in third-grade reading among 11 comparable states in the last three years.

Chad Livengood of Crain’s Detroit Business sums it up: “These abysmal test scores are an existential crisis for Michigan's economic future that affects everything from college readiness and long-term talent attraction to school ratings and property values”.

Show me the money

There are multiple plans drafted and being discussed to address these issues. But critical things are missing: a shared vision; a common agenda among the dispirited parties, and long-term investment to implement many of the plans. This is transformational shift and will not be accomplished on the short term or on the cheap.

We can give credit to Gov. Snyder for proposing a significant increase of more than $233 per student for Pre-K-12th grade student foundation allowance in his final budget. However, the governor and legislature remain stingy when it comes to funding for community colleges and universities.

What we need is a master plan that is sustainable into the foreseeable future to combat the changes and challenges we face.

The Marshall Plan begins, but does not finish, what we need to be doing to prepare students and workers for their future and not our past.

Reality has a way of catching up with us. With technology advancing, rising poverty and demographic change, we’d best get deadly serious about preparing more and more of our citizens for a changing world.

We know what the problems are. Education and workforce preparation is the answer. We need massive new investments in education and workforce preparation from the cradle to the grave if we want to remain relevant as a state and nation.  

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Tue, 03/13/2018 - 9:13am

There are a huge number of jobs in construction and skilled trades which will not be out placed or subject to AI, pay well and do not require four years plus of college. Unfortunately our secondary and earlier education systems by design bypass these opportunities. We are left with shops full of older employees and few young entering the replace the many retiring. These jobs pay well and will increasingly pay even better as this scarcity takes hold. Unfortunately many of our talented youth are being told it's a great value to go through 7-8 years of school spending $200k +++ to get a job that will pay $75 - 95K to as a PT, Pharmacist, PA or OT. As the burden of burden of providing healthcare builds the dreams will not match reality. The sense of pride in a craft isn't part of the picture given to our youth.

Kevin Grand
Tue, 03/13/2018 - 12:42pm

"What happens when your means of earning a living has changed so radically that you don’t have the skills necessary to adjust to a new world order? "

"New world order?"

Freudian slip, Mr. Watkins?

Jon Madian
Tue, 03/13/2018 - 3:43pm

Beautifully articulated balance of facts, research, and opinion!!
While I agree with every point, I'd like to add that money without dedicated vision,
i.e. fire in the belly to solve our pressing problems, can end up showing very little.

Please, how do we ignite that fire in the belly of local community leaders?!?

Mark Francis
Tue, 03/13/2018 - 3:51pm

As a life long educator, I have long been critical of how education and educators in Michigan have been treated. This seems to be an election year program, with the sole intent of "showing" the great work he has been doing.
Our school system has gone from #26 in the country when Snyder took office to # 48 in the latest ratings.
We need new leadership from someone that honors all educators, not just come up with a new program in his last year.

Bob Sornson
Tue, 03/13/2018 - 5:02pm

Do the folks who led us into this mess have the capacity to lead us out?

Barry Stern
Wed, 03/14/2018 - 8:45pm

Nice analysis, Tom. But careful in recommendations to invest boatloads more in public education, particularly if additional resources simply incent bureaucrats running our public schools and systems of higher education to do more of same.
Despite society’s sizable and growing investment our public education system has yet to “level the playing field” for most people with less wealth and income. In fact, a good case can be made that the current educational system is contributing to LESS economic mobility for low-income and working class people (lowest two income quintiles), particularly in geographical regions where the economy has suffered considerably, thus deepening class and regional divides.
The more state and federal governments double down on bureaucrat-controlled, regulation-heavy standards-based education, the worse our children do and the more discouraged our teachers become. It’s a fact that the longer U.S. children remain in public schools, the worse they do relative to peers in other developed countries. One would think after such a dismal record we would seek to reinvent our system of public education by departing abruptly from the industrial era “assembly line” school structure and instead repurpose education with a new batch of incentives to reward achievement of different aims.
Suppose we had an educational system whose purpose, for example, was to help people find and follow their passions and to learn enough of the basics in different domains that they can earn a living, lead a family, maintain and improve their health, participate in civic life, appreciate and enjoy what the world has to offer and contribute to the prosperity and happiness of others? Sure, have standards, but don’t obsess on them, since there is little evidence that improved standards improves performance, all else held constant. Besides, with knowledge doubling every 2-3 days, it is unreasonable to expect students from the teen years on to learn the same things. Yet the more they learn and accomplish in areas that are important to them, the more freedom they should earn to chart their way through school. Every kid should graduate with expertise in and passion for something.

How to create and finance such a repurposed anti-bureaucratic system of education in my view is what Michigan authorities should be talking about. Pouring more money into a failing K-12 system with standard curriculum frameworks seems pointless. Gov. Snyder’s “Marshall Plan” appears dependent on massive private investment to accomplish anything transformative. What will companies, colleges and schools do differently under this plan to ensure that entrants into technical training have the basic skills to benefit and a compelling vision of success in a career field in which are interested and have aptitude? Many look forward to learning more.

Chuck Fellows
Wed, 06/06/2018 - 7:16am

Once again the analysis ignores the most important part of our system of education, the teachers. Once again well intended individuals and organizations gather together to tell teachers, parents and students how to fix education. Same old narrative, different day.
Here's a counterpoint:
Stop dictating and start listening to the teachers. They will tell you what is necessary; they have been trying to for decades yet no one listens to them. That one action will enlighten all and provide actionable information on continuous improvement in learning. Allow children to be responsible for their learning since it is their future, not ours. Focus on learning, not education. And be patient, supportive and attentive.