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West Michigan gets serious about global race for talent

Anybody who still thinks Grand Rapids is a stodgy and unexciting city either hasn’t been there lately; is in need of a big attitude adjustment; or both.

I got a powerful dose of the new Grand Rapids last week, when I was there for the West Michigan Policy Forum’s annual conference. The town was jumping -- from ArtPrize, the mixture of art on every street corner -- to the Medical Mile, with hospitals and medical research facilities towering above as you come into town.

The Amway Grand Hotel and the Van Andel Arena are only the two most obvious ways in which a city can benefit when it boasts two billionaires whose families are deeply invested in their community.

Grand Rapids is, indeed, a place that in many ways is a monument to coherent civic leadership that works -- in sharp contrast to the contentious, my-way-or-the highway attitudes that so infest Detroit and spill over into too much of Southeast Michigan.

This “right stuff”” attitude is best exemplified by Fred Keller. An innovative sparkplug by trade, in private life, he’s the CEO of Cascade Engineering, a manufacturing engineering outfit he founded in 1973. Cascade now has something like 1,000 employees.

In the civic life of the region, Keller is a visionary who gets things done. “Talent 2025” is the best example. It’s a group of 70 regional CEOs headed by Keller who have come together three years ago to look at West Michigan’s needs. Objective: To make their area among the world’s top 20 regions for talent.

In a speech to the policy conference, Keller argued that the world has changed since the late 1950s, when the U.S. was the unchallenged leader of the world in expertise.

“We are in a race for talent around the globe,” he argues, citing some important data points to back that up:

* Michigan has, according to Gov. Rick Snyder a few months ago, 77,000 jobs that can’t be filled for lack of skills and talent. High school graduation rates remain stagnant in the 70 percent range. Many kids from poor areas don’t graduate at all.

* Only a third of Michigan’s work force has a two-year or higher college degree. Of students beginning a four-year college program, only 60 percent graduate within six years. Nearly half of all incoming college students need at least one remedial course.

Something has to be done about this, if Michigan is ever to have any shot at being competitive. Keller’s key takeaway: “Increasing educational attainment in Michigan drives the economy and most of all the quality of life in the community.”
The most interesting outcome so far of Talent 2025 is the growing realization that a group of business leaders can work together to successfully trigger acceptance by all aspects of the community -- business and labor, town and gown -- in one simple proposition: Increasing talent in a region helps everybody.

Keller uses the phrase “servant leaders” to describe what he and his colleagues are aiming at. And that’s a perfect label.

What he and his colleagues are trying to build is nothing less than a comprehensive system of investment in our stock of human capital. Looked at in entirely economic terms, investing in human skills and talent generates far greater returns than sinking that same money into plant and equipment.

And  investing in human capital generates a skilled work force that is the key component of good jobs, profitable employers, a prosperous economy and a good place to live. 

Plus, a system of investing in human capital at all levels does away with the silly divisions that now plague our talent-generation system: Early childhood/ Kindergarten through high school/ community college/ university education.

Labels like that just serve to slow progress. We should be framing our work as a state in just the way the folks in West Michigan are framing Talent 2025: To set about designing and building a comprehensive, transparent system that invests in the stock of human capital -- in order to win the worldwide race for talent.

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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