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Brookings Institute Brings National Economists to Macomb Community College for Talk on Why Many Struggle in a Strong Economy

“When you look at the jobs that are open today and certainly open tomorrow, roughly 70% of them are going to require a four-year degree or something equivalent to a four-year degree,” said Sandy K. Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber during a panel discussion examining the economy’s national, regional, and local impacts, as well as the concerns it raises among American workers today.

The discussion, “If The Economy Is Doing So Well, Then Why Are So Many Struggling?” is the first event in the Brookings Institute’s Ezra Zilkha Policy 2020 Event Series, hosted at Macomb Community College’s Albert L. Lorenzo Cultural Center in Clinton Township, Mich. on Feb. 26.

Janet Yellen, former federal reserve system chair; Molly Kinder, David M. Rubenstein fellow at Brookings Institute; and John Paul Rea, deputy county executive for Macomb County, joined Baruah in exploring an apparent link between the nation’s thriving economy and a lack of security felt among an estimated 40% of Americans and their families.

“If you’re getting the basic vital signs on the economy, it feels really good,” said David Wessel, director at the Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy at the Brookings Institute. Wessel served as moderator for the event largely attended by Macomb County residents.

The U.S. unemployment rate is the lowest it has been in 50 years (3.6%) and interest rates drop while trade deals rise. In a one-on-one conversation with Wessel, Yellen noted statistics she said reveal why Americans are struggling and discontent with the economy.

“The median American male has seen no increase in real wages in 50 years. And the median American male who does not have a college education has seen his wages decline over 50 years,” said Yellen.

Yellen also pointed to technological advancement across industries and a skills gap that persists among the U.S. workforce that is directly tied to low wages and dimensioned intergenerational mobility.

“Technological changes have rewarded and demanded more skilled. People with more education and skill have benefitted from the technology, they’re getting ahead,” said Yellen.

Molly Kinder, who spent time interviewing workers in various U.S. states, later echoed Yellen’s examination of technological evolution in the workplace negatively impacting less-skilled workers.

“The folks I interviewed know that those jobs are changing,” Kinder recalled. “They know technology is coming, and in fact, they are deeply pessimistic of what it looked like in the long-term for humans in those workplaces.”

And despite being the third-most populated county in Michigan that has experienced growth in diversity and inclusion and education attainment, Macomb County currently has 35,000 jobs unfilled, according to Deputy County Executive John Paul Rea. He revealed the positions are mostly involved in the production of electric and autonomous vehicles.

“I think we’re faced with the daunting reality that the traditional way we view education is changing. We need to be skills-ready in industries that are changing at a much more frantic pace,” Rea reasoned.

Rea noted that his county is forging partnerships at all levels, including with the Chamber’s Detroit Drives Degrees program, to aid in creating educational pathways aimed at answering workforce needs.

“We’re going to have to go to a much [nimbler], much more aggressive educational attainment ethos goal or process in this society because that’s what we’re lacking right now,” said Baruah.