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Channeling Our Inner Mike Rowe

By Sandy Baruah

The skilled trades are critical to Michigan’s economic future

Sandy Baruah leans against a vehicle in downtown Detroit.Four-year college degrees are important. It is an indisputable fact that our universities continue to serve as a world-class gateway to the workforce and a better life, and play an integral role in economic growth. That is not going to change, and it should not. But what needs to change is the conversation about career pathways and the definition of a good job.

As Michigan focuses on this important issue, it must do so with proper context. The dialogue over post-secondary education does not have to be the adversarial “either-or” narrative of the past decades. Collectively choosing between a university and a skilled trade is a false choice and one that is misleading students and parents across the state while jeopardizing the ability to field a competitive workforce. We need a “both/and” not “either/or” strategy.

What everyone should be able to agree on is that our state needs more post-secondary education. There is a place for all avenues of post-high school training and education, and they do not have to come at each other’s expense. Michigan can grow the number of graduates with a bachelor’s degree just like it can increase enrollment in technical career training programs. Our employers need more of all kinds of highly skilled people. What they don’t need – and that Michigan has too much of – is people lacking skills.

Increasing overall educational attainment remains one of the Detroit Regional Chamber’s top priorities. It serves as the foundation for graduates to earn a good living, contribute to our community and help our businesses compete. Through scholarship programs such as the Detroit Scholarship Fund, which provides a tuition-free path to an associate degree, and the Detroit Compact, which increases access to four-year degrees, the Chamber is working to provide opportunities for students in Detroit to get training beyond high school.

However, access is only part of the equation. As TV’s self-described perpetual apprentice Mike Rowe made clear at the Mackinac Policy Conference, the American workforce is in desperate need of a massive public relations campaign to redefine skilled trades for what they are: honorable, good-paying careers that are in high demand. The conversation in our living rooms, guidance counselors’ offices and in all public forums needs to fundamentally change.

As Rowe highlighted, the skilled trades have been misrepresented as an inferior alternative and the option for people with no skills and no hope of college or high wages. That could not be further from the truth. The skilled trades of today require a high-tech skillset in fields such as advanced manufacturing, health care and information technology. Apprenticeships offer cost-effective access to exciting careers and on-the-job training employers are willing to pay handsomely for. Technical certifications and skilled trade training also are not a dead-end. They provide a spark for students to pursue additional career training, oftentimes including a four-year degree.

Under the leadership of Gov. Snyder, our charge is to echo Mike Rowe and share the message with students that they can work hard AND smart, not hard OR smart. Considering that the automotive industry is experiencing unprecedented technological change and innovation, the stakes could not be higher for this region and state. Detroit and Michigan make things and make them better than anywhere else in the world. It is up to us to ensure it stays that way – after all, somebody’s gotta do it.

Sandy Baruah is president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber.