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Closing the Skills Gap Requires More Than Talk

Crain’s Content Studio

Michigan communities have been trying to fix school systems and boost talent pipelines for years without having all the proper parts and tools they need. But this sort of “MacGyvering” won’t be enough to fill the nearly 600,000 job openings coming to the state by 2026.

On Thursday, May 30 the Michigan Department of Talent and Economic Development hosted
Closing the Gap: How Businesses Can Use Tuition-Free Community College to Meet Skills Requirements at the 2019 Mackinac Policy Conference.

The session explored how businesses and academia can benefit from tuition-free community college education for graduating high school seniors and adults and how these groups might put middle and high school students on paths that lead to essential jobs. It featured panelists Melanie D’Evelyn, director of education and talent initiatives for Detroit Regional Chamber; Lynette Dowler, president of the DTE Energy Foundation; and Russell A. Kavalhuna, president of Henry Ford College.

“We need to substantially increase the number of people in specific skills or our economy cannot grow…We will be caught in a downward spiral,” said moderator Doug Ross, senior advisor for Michigan Prosperity for the State of Michigan. “We can’t do it just by focusing on graduates. We don’t have enough graduates to meet the need.”

To get 20 to 25% of the workforce to earn an in-demand industry certification or an associate degree that responds to labor demands, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer proposed two pieces of legislation: the Michigan Opportunity Scholarship for graduating high school seniors and Michigan Reconnect for adults 25 and older.

However, Ross said the legislation, which has bipartisan and business support, is just one piece of the puzzle to bolster the state’s diminishing talent pipeline. Ongoing conversations, partnerships, and the removal of more barriers are crucial.

Partnerships include Detroit Regional Chamber’s Detroit Drives Degrees initiative, which focuses on advance access to higher education opportunities, improving student success, retaining the 36 percent of college graduates that leave Michigan, and attracting new talent. The Chamber works with member companies that already provide tuition assistance and schools, such as Henry Ford College, Wayne State University, and Oakland University, that offer a debt-forgiveness program to remove barriers to continued education.

Henry Ford College partners with DTE Energy to help students become certified within a year and obtain “nearly guaranteed” jobs.

“Partnerships mean sharing with them what we need as a company and understanding them as a community college,” Dowler said. Her organization also trains prisoners for their entry to the workforce.

Key Takeaways:

  • Michigan has more than 80,000 unfilled skilled trade jobs. That skilled trade job gap is forecast to grow exponentially.
  • Most professional trades do not require a four-year degree.
  • Barriers to getting people to earn certification or degrees include lack of income, childcare, transportation, and confidence.
  • Providing childcare isn’t always financially feasible for colleges without employer assistance, said Kavalhuna.

This article was written by Crain’s Content Studio for the 2019 Mackinac Policy Conference.