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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Raising the talent level of Michigan workers

Michigan’s unemployment rate for September was 5.0 percent. That was better than the national rate (5.1 percent) for the first time in 15 years.

Speaking of dramatic progress, our jobless rate was nearly seven percent last year and more than double that – 10.3 percent – just four years ago.

That’s the good news.

But at the same time...

  • The average weekly paycheck for workers decreased in more than half of Michigan counties since the year 2000.
  • Five out of seven projected fastest-growing occupations in Michigan over the next few year offer pay so low that workers might qualify for food stamps.
  • A quarter of Michigan workers are barely above the poverty line and – in a world of unreliable mass transit -- just one car breakdown away from unemployment.
  • In the city of Detroit, where the unemployment rate for 2010 (the most recent year available) was 24.8 percent, there are still too many residents who suffer from being functionally illiterate.

For the most part, we’ve survived the Great Recession. But there’s a long, long way to go to a widely prosperous economy. That – and the realization that we all need to become more entrepreneurial – is sinking in all around our state. Consider three new and significant workforce development startups:
In West Michigan, Talent 2025 was started in 2010 by 70 employers, with more than 70,000 workers who recognized that worker skills and talent were the keys to the region’s prosperity. The organization works to “dramatically improve the quality and quantity of the region’s talent to meet increasingly more complex and diverse workforce needs.”

Just last week came news of the new Detroit Workforce Development Board, bringing together 21 CEO’s from southeast Michigan, along with foundation, education and labor leaders. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan also announced the appointment of Jeff Donofrio as workforce development director. Donofrio, a veteran of Ford Motor Co.’s government affairs staff, has also run the offices of Congressmen Sander Levin and John Dingell.

At the state level, the Michigan Talent Investment Agency was created in March to fill the gap between workers with the right skills and employers “in need of highly skilled workers for the jobs of today and tomorrow.” It is designed to link together state efforts in job preparedness, career-based education, worker training, employment assistance and unemployment insurance.

Time was when a young person could graduate from high school – or maybe even drop out – and go down the road for a good-paying job bolting on right fenders at Ford, Oldsmobile or Pontiac. No more. Fiat-Chrysler’s Dundee Engine Plant, for example, requires new hires to have at least an associate’s degree from community colleges.

The fundamental fact of today’s economy is that virtually every future job that earns enough to support a family requires some post-high school credential. Stephanie Comai, director of the Talent Investment Agency, says her greatest ambition is “for every kid who graduates from high school to have a concrete career-and-skills plan.”

Consistent with Comai’s hopes, the state has just published “Michigan’s HOT 50,” a listing of tomorrow’s high-demand, high-wage careers that demand education and training after high school. The list starts with Accountants and Auditors ($29.67 median hourly wage), proceeds through Licensed Practical and Vocational Nurses ($21.27) and ends with Veterinarians, who pull down a median wage of $43.71.

But while education beyond high school is clearly needed, there’s also pretty good evidence that families who think their kids must have a four-year college degree to survive need to think again. Both big Michigan utility companies have openings for linemen that pay upwards of $100,000 a year. I don’t know many starting lawyers who make that much.

Probably because of the now-extinct pipeline for low-skilled young people into the auto industry, Michigan is notable nationally for lacking clear and far-reaching policies to improve the workings of the labor and skills markets. Recognizing the enormous benefits resulting from encouraging investment in human capital is without doubt one of the most important policy priorities for the next decade for all of our leaders.

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