Snyder team reads Bridge

Perhaps a bit lost in the post Thanksgiving haze, or pre-Christmas shopping rush, Gov. Rick Snyder unveiled last week his message and plans for upgrading the talent and opportunities in Michigan.

For a complete text of the message, click here.

I will highlight one paragraph, for obvious -- and self-serving -- reasons:

"A recent report by the Center for Michigan (Editor's note: Via Bridge Magazine.) concluded that Michigan graduated 20% too few computer and math professionals, 14% too few health care professionals, and 3% too few engineers in 2009-10. Among our shortage, there is a common message. Addressing these deficits will require Michigan to invest in the development of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and health industry talent. Otherwise, these shortfalls hold the potential to stunt Michigan’s projected economic growth."

At Bridge, we are trying to identify the challenges and opportunities that will confront Michigan in the near future. The Snyder administration sees the challenge reflected in our recent reporting: Michigan is graduating people from college with degrees that do not reflect the hiring practices of the marketplace.

A pithier, and thereby less accurate, version: No one is hiring anthropologists.

They are hiring computer programmers and geologists. So, wouldn't it be better to find a way to match college students' academic coursework with job prospects?

Snyder's approach drew some good reviews.

Larry Good of the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce, for example, stated:

"The governor hit on some ideas that I liked a lot. First, I was delighted to hear him propose modifying the unemployment insurance law to permit job sharing.  This approach, which allows much more flexibility in combining work schedule reductions with partial UI benefits, has shown great promise in the 20+ states that are using it in helping employers avoid total layoffs of workers they’d like to keep during downturns and improves the income and employment for the affected workers.

"I also liked the Pure Michigan Talent Connect initiative, with its emphasis on improving substantially the quality of e-tools that individuals and businesses can use to find reliable information to navigate complex labor and career markets.  I was pleased to see Gov. Snyder tackle the issue of talent holistically, including all from the many with basic skills challenges to those at graduate degree levels, and to hear him put a strong emphasis on the importance of learning," Good wrote.

But there are observers to higher education policy and employment economics who will argue that a degree "mismatch" is misleading, inevitable or even irrelevant. And they have evidence to bolster their case. I'm one such bit: My bachelor's in political science did not lead to a job "practicing" political science, for example.

I've been told by people more versed in the field than I that employers may tell you what skills or credentials they want, but their words are meaningless. They don't know what they want goes this analysis. So how do you guide/direct colleges and students to the appropriate results if employers don't know what those are?

The Snyder administration, with its proposals last week, clearly is buying into the concept that something can be done to improve matching, however:

"State support of post-secondary education should be concentrated in areas that enhance our economic development strategy and provide our students an opportunity to stay and thrive in Michigan. We need to stop overproducing in areas where there is little or no occupational demand and encourage students and educational institutions to invest in programs where the market is demanding a greater investment in talent."

This sure looks like a variant of a mistake the previous administration made.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm and her team spent years trying to pick winners and losers in the economic development sweepstakes. They had plenty of good intentions, but no special skill at such work -- if any such special skill can exist. They were pilloried for the perceived lack of results -- including by Rick Snyder and his political allies.

Now Snyder and his team appear to be letting their good intentions draw them into a game of "guess the marketplace." They will cajole/incent/direct Michigan universities to cajole/incent/direct students into majors deemed most "marketable" right now. Does the Snyder team have any special knowledge or skill in directing such guesses? I have my doubts, mainly because I think their policy direction -- and Granholm's before it -- was propelled by psychology more than economics.

That psychology is the all-American urge to "do something" -- or at least be perceived as doing something -- about an issue.

I suspect there were people in the Granholm administration who knew they couldn't out-guess the marketplace. But they had to "do something" or face the political consequences.

The same process may be playing out in the inner councils of the Snyder administration. The numbers and trends look bad. Michigan needs a different direction. The governor, therefore, must "do something."

That's an effect/asset/price of a representative democracy. Rarely can a public official tell worried voters to look elsewhere for assistance or direction. Snyder is not going to stand at a press conference and say, "It's not the business of state government to create jobs." (By the way: It really isn't the business of state government to "create jobs.")

Please read Snyder's message yourself, though. To my eye, there's nothing inherently bad or wrong about the intentions behind it or proposals contained in it. And there are smart people, such as Larry Good, who are offering kudos.

Whether it will move the needle on Michigan's economy is, I think, another story.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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