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Ora Hirsch Pescovitz and Richard Rassel: Taking on the talent gap

February 10, 2019

Crain’s Detroit Business

By: Ora Hirsch Pescovitz and Richard Rassel

In a few days Governor Gretchen Whitmer will deliver her first State of the State address. A major step in preparing for the state’s economic future is to ensure more residents complete postsecondary degrees and certifications.

In the heated competition with other states to attract private business investment, Michigan must elevate its profile as a talent pipeline to a range of industries in need of exceptionally qualified employees.

Yet before Michigan can boast a plentiful well-educated and highly trained workforce, there’s a pressing need to increase individuals with postsecondary degrees and high-skill job credentials. Degrees and credentials are prerequisites for advancement in a U.S. economy where 65 percent of jobs will require postsecondary credentials by next year.

By 2020, Michigan employers expect to need 176,000 more college grads to fill openings, and 126,000 skilled workers with a two-year degree or certificate, according to the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce. Of the current “Hot 50” high-demand, high-wage jobs in the state, 36 require at least a four-year degree.

The stark reality, however, is 72 percent of metro Detroit’s high school graduates enroll in a college or university within a year after graduation whereas only 27 percent of them earn a bachelor’s degree within six years.

There’s work to be done.

Detroit Drives Degrees is a collaborative initiative undertaken by regional leaders in higher education, K-12, business, philanthropy and the nonprofit sector. Led by the Detroit Regional Chamber Foundation, Detroit Drives Degrees seeks to increase postsecondary degrees or certificates to 60 percent of the population by 2030.

To improve job preparedness and the appeal of the regional workforce to regional, national and global employers, this plan calls for increasing access to education for high school students and adults; improving student success and removing barriers to degrees, and retaining and attracting talent to the region.

Currently, Michigan ranks 36th in the nation in college attainment with 28.3 percent of the population holding a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the U.S. Census Community Survey. Michigan falls below the national average of 31.3 percent.

But with Michigan having the fifth-highest share of population with some postsecondary education but no degree or credential, there is a timely opportunity to make significant progress toward the 60-percent target. Detroit Drives Degrees and its partners are actively seeking to re-engage the 690,000 adults in metro Detroit who enrolled in college but did not finish.

The appeal is straightforward: More education translates strongly into higher wages and stronger state economies. Indeed, the top 15 states ranked by higher education attainment are also states with the highest GDP per capita.

Postsecondary education isn’t strictly about economics. Odds are five times greater for the poorest Detroit residents, for instance, to advance economically from poverty with a postsecondary education, according to the Pew Charitable Trust.

Together, more credentials and college degrees will deepen and broaden the region’s talent pool, a necessary road to take as Gov. Whitmer formulates the next phase of the state’s economic development strategy.

Ora Hirsch Pescovitz, president of Oakland University, and Richard Rassel, chair/director of global relations at Butzel Long, are co-chairs of Detroit Drives Degrees leadership council.

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