Schools, colleges aren’t preparing students for careers in Michigan

Paul Hillegonds, who these days is a vice president at DTE Energy, is one of Michigan’s most plugged-in and thoughtful people.

Whenever something valuable and useful is going on in our state, Paul, a former speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives, is likely to be right in the thick of it. Which is why I was startled last week when he got up at the Governor’s Education Summit and told a story about his son, a junior majoring in economics at the University of Michigan.

Paul had asked his son about his career path after graduation. When the young man said he didn’t really know, Paul arranged for him to talk with a private career counselor for some useful advice.

If someone as knowledgeable and well-connected as Paul Hillegonds needs a counselor to get career help for his son, something is really off the track with Michigan’s labor market.

In his opening address to the conference, Gov. Rick Snyder said our system linking student education from schools and colleges with in-demand careers is essentially broken. “For our most precious asset,” he said, “we’ve built a system that doesn’t work anymore.

“You’re doing a great job giving them knowledge, but then you’re letting them go out (without exposure to career choices).”

That’s sadly been the case for years. Simply put, there’s yawning disconnect in the labor market between the supply side – schools, community colleges, universities – and the demand side, represented by employers clamoring for skilled workers.

In many ways, educators in Michigan remind me of Henry Ford’s famous description of a supply-driven industry: “You can have a car in any color you want, just as long as it’s black.” That worked just fine, till competitors started offering different colors.

A report, “Economic Life in Michigan,” published by Bridge Magazine in 2011, concluded that neither high schools (where career counseling has evaporated in an era of budget cuts) nor colleges try much to help students take a hard look at how to navigate the realities of the working world before graduation.

What should schools do?

There’s a far more fundamental argument going on in the background, however, an argument about the very purpose of education. It pits those who push for a largely vocational view of the process and others who say broad exposure to the arts and humanities provide valuable skills in thinking and creativity.

Both sides miss the reality that today’s labor market in Michigan does very little to resolve the mismatch between what kids study in high school or college -- and the kinds of skills and drive they will need to launch themselves on a path to a successful career.

I talked about this with Larry Good, chairman of the Ann Arbor-based Corporation for a Skilled Work Force, one of the leading shops in the field. He suggests we think about the labor market as a whole, rather than chopping it up into separate supply-and-demand silos.

Work-force agencies need to focus on how people gain needed skills and how they can use them to get credentials and jobs. For example, as community colleges develop training programs, they need to follow up to make sure people who attend actually do get jobs -- and find out why.

And employers deeply concerned that one out of three Michigan adults have very low basic skills should be doing all they can to increase enrollments in post-secondary training programs.

Good argues for a complete re-focus in the field, organizing around learners, not institutions. He suggests high schools and community colleges should collaborate to provide skills and share the base funding when a learner gets a job.

Another important development now gaining acceptance: Industry-validated, rigorous competency-based credentials as a supplement to regular degrees from high schools or community colleges.

Good points out that credentialing “represents a more agile and surgical way for employers to know whether job candidates have the required skills for a given position and for workers/job candidates to be able to demonstrate their capacities.”

Internships represent another increasingly popular approach. But the system needs to move to one of much closer collaboration between industry and classroom, so that schools help business identify and solve issues, while employers articulate demand trends, help shape curricula and offer work experiences.

Doing that should then cause business and industry to more readily accept the credentials schools offer as the basis for hiring.

But as long as schools, community colleges and the business community occupy separate silos none of this is going to happen.

Which means there is a perfect opportunity for a far-sighted business group such as Business Leaders for Michigan to snuggle up to the Michigan school and community college communities.

Gov. Rick Snyder should consider getting all these groups into a one room and not letting them out until they’ve worked out how to fix the education-labor market disconnect. Up to now, we’ve heard mostly happy talk about all this. More is needed. By talking tough and demanding urgent change, the governor, who knows from experience what it takes in the real world, could make a big difference.

Editor’s note: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center also publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments via email.

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Lou Glazer
Tue, 04/30/2013 - 9:33am
Wow! Do you really believe the purpose of schools and colleges are preparing students for careers in Michigan? My guess is that is not what you or your friends want from education for your kids and grandkids. My affluent friends –– those who are able to purchase/choose the best education –– want to provide their kids and grandkids with a real opportunity to pursue their dreams anyplace on the planet. And that what they want from k-16 education is to prepare them for all aspects of adult life, not just a job. Seems to me that is what we should want for all Michigan kids. And the evidence suggests that the kind of broad, rather than job specific, education that the affluent provide their kids is what leads to both better career success (higher lifetime income and time working) and a workforce that better meets the long term needs of employers and the economy. Not to mention more innovation and entrepreneurship.
Tue, 04/30/2013 - 11:19am
Lou, could not agree more. Many of the best jobs today were never even though of 10 years ago. The goal of an education system is to train students to be critical thinkers, something sorely lacking in education. Training them vocationally only works if that vocation is needed. If it becomes obsolete, then so does the worker.
Charles Richards
Tue, 04/30/2013 - 2:32pm
Mr. Glazer says that his affluent friends " want to provide their kids and grandkids with a real opportunity to pursue their dreams anyplace on the planet." And he goes on to say, " Seems to me that is what we should want for all Michigan kids." And surely he is right about that. It is only decent to want the very best for everyone. But what if we cannot provide the best for everyone? What if some Michigan kids do not have the character and talent to achieve that level of success? What should we do with them? Surely, they deserve to receive the training required to secure a decent place in the world. Everyone should be educated up to their potential. They will not be grateful, if instead of training them for an honorable vocation, we used their time in school to expose them to the glories of ancient Greece. Germany has had considerable success by tailoring education to talent.
Mike R
Tue, 04/30/2013 - 12:21pm
For an interesting point of view on this topic, please go to Michigan Radio, Jack Lessenberry's commentary from April 23 at He says essentially the same things the two of you are saying. While I agree with you and Jack, I believe this is precisely where moderate influences can "bridge" the gap. It doesn't have to be one way or the other; I believe we need to teach people to think while also allowing them to choose a different path to employment. I think that is what Mr. Power is saying: that we need to get all sides in the same room to stop talking past each other and find a way to serve all constituencies.
Chuck Fellows
Tue, 04/30/2013 - 1:41pm
There is a disconnect between life, as in working to earn a living, a career, and education and it is a disconnect placed there by design. Schools as we know them existed in their original form to separate the young from the workplace in order to insure that the adults have work to support their families. At least that was the design when the industrial revolution drew families to urban centers. School and career are maintained as two separate worlds, unless you desire to become an academic, then you will fit right in. Charles Dickens provided the alternative in his tales about 18th century London, "A Christmas Carol" come to mind, with the children (cheap and expendable labor) toiling in factories form age 7 forward to provide sustenance for family survival. There was a time not to long ago when one reached the age of 13, if male you went to work and if female started looking for a mate. The connection between the reality of living in a society (something larger than a tribe) and education was broken long ago. Want to make both education and career relevant? Restore the connection. Use our knowledge of cognitive development and learning to continually improve both environments. Reintroduce the concept of competency demonstration and mastery into schools and the workplace instead of ranking, rating scores and standardization. Join the two worlds as you follow the lead the children, who naturally desire to learn. provide. After all, it is their journey, not ours.
Charles Richards
Tue, 04/30/2013 - 2:00pm
Mr. Power points out that there is a an argument about the very purpose of education and goes on to say, "It pits those who push for a largely vocational view of the process and others who say broad exposure to the arts and humanities provide valuable skills in thinking and creativity." It is no doubt the case that exposure to the humanities helps - for those who are capable - provide skills in critical thinking and creativity. But what is the point of having such skills if you are unable to earn a decent living? The first, fundamental priority is providng people with the ability to support themselves and their family. If an individual has the capacity to also absorb the civilizing influence of the arts and humanities, well and good. Being creative and a perceptive observer of the world are to be highly valued, but aren't of much comfort if you are unemployed. And Mr. Good is absolutely right when he says, "He suggests high schools and community colleges should collaborate to provide skills and share the base funding when a learner gets a job." .
Tue, 04/30/2013 - 11:45pm
Public colleges and universities have no incentives to do anything differently. They prey on the ignorance and dreams of young people and then kick them to the curb after four years and thousands of dollars in debt . These institutions have collection, fundraising and student recruitment offices that are on the prowl 24/7 but career placement offices that are asleep at the wheel. College placement services have far fewer resources and incentives to find jobs for their graduates because there's no real money to be made. Higher public education needs to be turned on its head. These institutions should be paid to place students as well as educate them. There should still be required classes to ensure four year graduates are critical thinkers exposed to a variety liberal arts, but job one should be finding them careers in their fields. Forget the talk, tie public education taxpayer subsidies to job trends in the real world with a commitment from business and let the competition begin. Maybe we have too many institutions that are too big to fail and need to be downsized and re-directed.
John Q. Public
Wed, 05/01/2013 - 9:33pm
Mr. Fellows alludes to the works of Dickens. A practice of that era was the selling of "situations," and it may well be that it is worthy of resurrecting. I'll bet giving Plante Moran or Yeo & Yeo $25,000 to hire and train my progeny as an accountant or auditor while employing them as a trainee would be money much better spent than on an accounting degree from, say, MSU. They'd get the money instead of some academic institution bent on political indoctrination, and could train the apprentice their own way. The apprentice would start earning immediately instead of putting off a pay check for five years. If the master likes your progress, he can raise your pay and keep a valuable employee. If not, continue the low apprentice's wages with the knowledge that he's being paid with his own money.
Fri, 05/03/2013 - 4:53pm
Remember, the Federal government and the Democratic party is in charge of our public schools. They are turning out graduates that they want, not what industry wants.
Glenn Mroz
Sun, 05/05/2013 - 8:12am
Phil As the quote goes, 'the future is already here, its just unevenly distributed'. I'd suggest you visit a few campus career centers and perhaps some campus career fairs starting with Michigan Tech. I invite you to our campus September 24, 2013 from noon to 6 for the career fair, to visit with career center staff and our corporate relations peope, and for a social with recruiters aferwards. I'll buy. Last fall there were about 800 recruiters from 288 companies. In the spring, there were 600 from 203 companies. It would be an opportunity to talk about what's working and you'll find that the business community and universities are indeed symbiotic and the silos so often mentioned are frequently fueled by anecdotes rather than data. g
Concerned Parent
Sun, 05/05/2013 - 12:37pm
As a parent of teens, I'm concerned about education. While K-12 does an adequate job in most core subject areas, they miss the mark in career/guidance counseling and courses in careers (such as business). The counseling my kids get is "where do you want to go to college and what do you want to major in?" The counselor refused to help my kids consider other options because that's not what they want to do. When I asked how she intended to help my kids pay for their unnecessarily expensive college choices, all I heard were crickets. She missed important questions- who is paying for college, will you qualify for loans, what is a plan you can afford? Business courses and the like are often taught by those who've never signed a paycheck or have never been in an upper or middle management position. As my spouse and I have both held significant management positions and owned our own company, we've found serious problems with how business is being taught. We typically must unteach our kids the "theories" they've been taught and replace it with what happens in the real world. It's great to have taken business courses. Try being responsible for people getting a paycheck. K-12 and college should both teach a broad knowledge and practical skills. Dreams are great. But dreams don't pay the groceries. Paychecks do. If my children wish to dream and stretch, I'll be honest about whether I'll assist in funding that venture. I'll ask for their long range goals and what's their plan to succeed. Paying upwards of $25,000/year for a room and board just so a kid can have the "college" experience is wrong and unfair to kids. I want my kids to be able to overcome life's challenges, to know happiness is within their power, to have a realistic understanding of the world and a fearlessness to change the world if they desire. Unfortunately, most k-12 and college institutions miss the mark. It's not because of lack of trying but rather how political and self centered education has become. Just look at the annual budget process and the politicizing of our kids. If one has a contrary view to the education establishment, one is labeled as hating education and kids. It's sad that the programs that are supposed to teach critical thinking and innovation are the most resistant to differing opinions. I don't have all the answers but I know most of us parents want to work together with all viewpoints to find those answers. Instead, it seems all anyone wants from us is to demand more money for a system that doesn't value our input. Go to a school board meeting or talk to a superintendent with an opposing view. See what happens. Unfortunate. Let's get teachers and parents together for an honest discussion. Leave out the superintendent, university presidents and all management. Let's find solutions best for our kids.