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Commentary: United we stand for talent, for equity, for Detroit

Crain’s Detroit Business

Dec. 13, 2020

By Bill Moses and Punita Dani Thurman

Now, perhaps more than ever, is the time to remember that there is a lot more that unites us than divides us. Thriving households, strong businesses, and safe neighborhoods are things we all aspire for. We share a common vision and a common fate. And even though today’s political climate may suggest otherwise, we even share common agendas.

Through the leadership of the Detroit Regional Chamber, businesses, colleges, K-12 systems, nonprofits, state leaders and foundations are pledging to adopt strategies that will position our region to achieve two goals: 1) reaching 60 percent degree or credential attainment and 2) reducing the racial equity gap by half. We aim to do both by 2030. With a unified approach, it can be done.

Our region is brimming with talented neighbors who are eager to learn and work. We also have businesses, and entire industry sectors, eager to employ people with specialized education and training. What we lack is a coordinated, multi-sector approach to prepare and connect our people to our places of work. The recently announced Detroit Regional Talent Compact marks a turning point in our region’s efforts to answer that need.

The Kresge and Skillman Foundations have long supported efforts to strengthen pathways to college and career, with particular focus on ensuring people of color and those from less resourced communities can access and succeed in postsecondary pursuits. But while philanthropic dollars are useful for supporting innovation, expanding best practices, and filling gaps, solving the problem takes a widespread commitment. And the commitment must be to the intended results, not just to the inputs.

Success cannot be measured by dollars invested or number of people who enter postsecondary education. Success must be measured by the outputs — the percentage of people who obtain a degree or certification, with attention to building a system that helps all of us to flourish. We must hold the expectation that all of us will be educated and skilled, and that prosperity will not only be destined for the affluent or the lucky few who “beat the odds.”

Consider this: roughly half of southeast Michigan residents who pursue a college education do not earn a certificate or degree within six years of graduating from high school. This finding alone is troubling. But a closer read of the data reveals stark racial disparities. Only 26 percent of enrolled Black students, who are more likely to grow up in under-resourced communities, earn a college degree within six years compared to 60 percent of white students. This represents one of the largest racial equity gaps in postsecondary attainment nationwide. These outcomes are simply unacceptable, particularly in a region that is as rich in racial diversity as ours.

We must understand that these numbers are not a failure of our students. Instead, they reflect a failure in our system and of our expectations of our system.

Currently, 47 percent of people in Southeast Michigan hold a postsecondary degree or certificate, but in today’s job market, 80 percent of jobs require some education beyond high school. That’s less than half of our working-aged population competing for the vast majority of jobs. And that means we have a twin problem: hundreds of thousands of people without the necessary skills to fill jobs that go unfilled — and hundreds of thousands of people who are unable to access the employment opportunities and experience the prosperity that often comes with greater educational attainment.

We may be preaching to the choir. Nevertheless, we need greater action to put our region on the right track. The cities have that flourished over the past two decades, Austin, Boston, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Silicon Valley, Seattle and Washington, D.C., all have a couple of things in common, most notably high educational attainment rates that attract and nurture some of the nation’s most innovative businesses. And like our metro area, they also have significant racial equity gaps in college attainment.

The Detroit Compact seeks to address both challenges. It provides a collective vision to formalize our region’s efforts to lay out a strategic blueprint for each stakeholder to increase postsecondary attainment and to ensure that our entire community benefits.

For example, as an employer Henry Ford Health System will expand apprenticeship programs for city of Detroit residents. K-12 institutions have committed to provide more equitable access to dual enrollment and early college opportunities. Higher education institutions have agreed to scale institutional debt forgiveness efforts, which are positioned to have an outsized impact on Black adult returning students. Funders including the Ballmer Group, Detroit Children’s Fund, Jamie & Denise Jacob Family Foundation, Kresge Foundation, Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation, and The Skillman Foundation have pledged $18 million to support the implementation of strategies outlined in the Compact. But we can’t succeed without an even larger coalition of partners from every sector, especially innovative businesses.

The urgency has never been greater. The Compact provides a blueprint to help us recover from the economic impacts of COVID-19. But we must act now. We can no longer lag in taking a concerted approach to our region and state’s most pressing problems. The goal of reaching 60 percent degree or credential attainment by 2030 has been adopted by states and regions across the country, with Michigan among the last to adopt it. Let’s not be last to achieve it.

If your organization would like to join the Detroit Regional Talent Compact, contact Melanie D’Evelyn of the Detroit Regional Chamber at mdevelyn@detroitchamber.com.

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