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Hitting the chalkboard on Mackinac Island

From The Detroit News

By Ingrid Jacques

May 23, 2013

Next week, education and business will merge on Mackinac Island, as both educators and businessmen acknowledge the vital link between the two.

A look at the agenda of this year’s Mackinac Policy Conference, put on by the Detroit Regional Chamber, makes it clear that the business community gets that if education doesn’t work in Michigan, the economy won’t work either. When the two intersect, that’s what will energize the state’s economy.

“It makes Michigan a more stable and attractive place,” says Sandy Baruah, CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber.

The conference is a great place to move this conversation forward. More than 1,500 of Michigan’s top businessmen, politicians, education leaders, CEOs and entrepreneurs will converge for three days with one mission in mind: making Michigan a better state.

Education is not a new topic on the island and has been stressed in the past. But it’s more clearly a focus of this year’s lineup. For example, it’s one of three highlighted conference “pillars,” along with recognizing cultural change and turning Michigan into a global marketplace.

And education is pivotal to the other pillars.

Headlining speakers include former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of Washington, D.C., schools. Bush is the first keynote speaker Wednesday, and he’s likely to talk about education. He’s made it one of his missions, starting the Florida-based Foundation for Excellence in Education that works to ensure children around the country are getting prepared for success in the modern economy.

Rhee is a national leader in education. Following her time in D.C., she started StudentsFirst, a political advocacy organization for education reform — and the group works with state lawmakers around the country, including Michigan.

The conference will also offer another session Thursday, featuring several Michigan businessmen and their take on how to tighten the state’s skills gap and prepare students for work in the 21st century.

And Gov. Rick Snyder will speak several times at the conference. Since he took office, Snyder has advocated making changes to the state’s K-12 and higher education systems — stressing accountability and reform in return for the billions of funds poured into education each year. Under his watch, Michigan has made some huge strides in the realm of education, such as changing the state’s antiquated teacher tenure laws and lifting the cap on university-authorized charter schools.

Education is ‘ongoing theme’

Baruah says education is an “ongoing theme” at the conference, focusing on everything from preschool to higher ed. This year, he says it’s the chamber’s goal to offer a three-dimensional view of education, from the state to the employer perspective.

“Education is an important political and societal issue in our state,” Baruah says. “We view it very much as part of the pathway to prosperity, especially in Detroit.”

He argues the education standards in the state and country are posing an ever higher bar — but it is a bar that’s necessary if Michigan’s future labor force is to complete with workers from around the world.

“We’ve made progress but we have a long way to go,” he says.

Doug Rothwell, president and CEO Business Leaders for Michigan, has certainly made education a focus for his organization. Just this year, Business Leaders has come out with several education-related reports and tools, including an in-depth state public university performance tracker and a study highlighting the weight education will hold for Michigan’s future workforce.

Rothwell, who will attend the conference, says Michigan must focus on short-term skills shortages as well as creating a more highly-educated workforce that will be essential to the state’s continuing development.

Regarding the skills gap in the state, Rothwell says more attention must be placed on awareness of what jobs are out there and available, and high school students should have better access to that information as they plan their futures. At least 60,000 jobs are going unfilled in Michigan because businesses can’t find employees who can do the work.

Joseph Welch, president and CEO of ITC Holdings Corp., and chair of the of 2013 Mackinac Policy Conference, says he is having an increasingly difficult time finding employees with the skills required to work at his company. He says there is much misconception of the trades, many of which are high-paying, highly-skilled jobs. Wearing a suit is not the only way to good career. Donning fire retardant clothes can work just as well, Welch says.

“Businesses in Michigan and the nation are very concerned,” says Welch, whose Novi-based business is the country’s largest independent electricity transmission company.

The state is working to offer guidance to current and future job seekers, and sites like Pure Michigan Talent Connect, encouraged by Snyder and run in part by the Michigan Economic Development Corp., are a step in the right direction.

Keeping pace with new economy

When it comes to a more educated populace, Rothwell is troubled by the state’s pattern of investing less in higher education, in addition to challenges in the Legislature to weaken Michigan’s Merit Curriculum graduation standards. Rothwell is especially worried about the push by some Republican lawmakers to take out the two-year foreign language requirement — which is recommended or mandatory for admission into nearly all of Michigan’s 15 public universities.

He also is a strong advocate for keeping the nationally-developed Common Core state standards in Michigan — something else some lawmakers are challenging.

On a positive note, Rothwell believes Snyder’s approach to giving students flexibility in how they take classes and finish high school is a good idea. “Give kids as many options as possible,” he says.

The conference will also stress ways Michigan can keep and attract college graduates. The state struggles with keeping its own graduates, and it ranks near the bottom in the country as far as attracting college grads from other states.

“You need the jobs first,” Rothwell says. But it’s a complicated relationship, since businesses want to locate in areas with a strong employee base.

Rothwell notes many young people leave the state each year in search of popular marketing and technology jobs, overlooking that Michigan’s automotive and manufacturing sectors have evolved and offer high-tech positions, as well as in-demand marketing and design jobs. Educating job seekers about options here could help.

The state needs “to be making it clear where the jobs are,” Baruah says.

Welch is participating in a panel discussion Thursday looking at ensuring employees have the skills they need in addition to ensuring talented young people pursue their careers in the state.

He has personally been surprised at the lack of basic training — and even knowledge — employees have. Welch has started an educational trust to send some of his employees back to school for additional job training. “We have to fill in on what the school system should be doing,” he says. “I’m dismayed with the math skills.”

Welch says technology is quickly changing a variety of trades, introducing a whole new level of complication to fields like welding and plumbing. That means more training and education is going to be necessary for employees to succeed. “But the educational process hasn’t changed,” he notes. “The model hasn’t moved forward.” That’s leaving U.S. students far behind those in many other countries.

To help propel the country forward, Welch is a proponent of getting businesses to support education programs that work and form partnerships with schools and colleges.

“We can’t continue to do what we’re doing,” Welch says.