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.